KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A lot has been said and much more will be written about how the Patriots were able to hold Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to a combined four catches for 65 yards in the Patriots' 37-31 victory on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
There will be a lot of discussion about coverage, and how Jonathan Jones (mostly) did a great job with safety help over the top against Hill, and how J.C. Jackson and then Stephon Gilmore (late) held Kelce in check.
All of that will be true. They covered very well for the most part, and that was a big key for the Patriots.
But it wasn't the biggest reason why the Patriots threw a shutout in the first half and allowed just seven points through three quarters — a head start the Patriots would need every bit of as the Chiefs scored 24 points in the fourth.
The Patriots made Patrick Mahomes look mortal for three quarters because they used two things that have been his kryptonite in his spectacular sophomore campaign: man coverage and, more importantly, pressure.
Mahomes had never seen anything close to what the Patriots unleashed at Arrowhead Stadium.
"They blitzed about every down. Played man coverage," said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. "They were able to get home there a little bit on some of their gains. We made a few adjustments at halftime and came back and pressured them earlier. That’s my responsibility. I’ll take that."
We talked entering this game about Mahomes' two "weaknesses." There were the issues he showed against man coverage, especially against the Colts.
"(The Patriots) challenged us," said Mahomes. "They came up and played man. Not a lot of teams have this year. They put people in our face to see how we responded. The first half, we struggled. We couldn’t make anything happen."
And then there was the pressure. As we said at the time:
In the four games where Mahomes faced the most pressure, the Chiefs were just 2-2 with one overtime win (Ravens).
Well, you can make it 2-3 with an OT win and loss, because they Patriots just applied the most amount of pressure Mahomes has seen in his young career.
"I think it was probably the pressure," said Reid, when asked about Mahomes' early struggles. "He had a nice first third down play and did a great job with that. Then they were able to get home a little bit, so we changed a couple of things up to get it right."
The Patriots pressured Mahomes on 55 percent of his 40 dropbacks (that includes penalties — officially he had 35). The previous high he faced was 40 percent in an overtime win against the Ravens. Anytime Mahomes has been pressure on at least 35 percent of snaps, the Chiefs are just 2-3.
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What the Patriots did on Sunday night as in stark contrast to the regular-season meeting between the two teams, when the Patriots were only able to generate pressure on 18 percent of snaps. Yes, New England won, but the Patriots' coaches obviously thought that wouldn't be a wise approach again. Additionally, Bill Belichick and Brian Flores probably loved being able to change up tactics since the Chiefs were likely to expect the same amount of pressure.
Boy, were they wrong.
In the first half — while the Patriots were pitching a 14-0 shutout — the Patriots blitzed on nine of his 12 dropbacks, an amazing 75 percent clip.
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Why pressure? It doesn't matter if you're an aging pocket quarterback like Tom Brady, or the next-big-thing like Mahomes: quarterbacks do not like to feel rushed delivering the ball. It can throw off their mechanics just enough, or — and this was likely a key against Mahomes — it speeds up the quarterback's decision-making process. They don't see the open player. They don't get a feel for how the defense is covering. It just makes them uncomfortable, even a mobile player like Mahomes.
Like we said previously:
The No. 1 way to have success holding Mahomes in check is to get pressure on him. When he was pressured this season, Mahomes completed just 88 of 185 passes (47.6 percent) and threw nine touchdowns against eight interceptions (70.4 rating — 16th in the league), according to ProFootballFocus.com.
With a clean pocket, Mahomes led the league with a 134.2 rating (74.7 completion percentage, 41 TDs, 4 INTs).
Another key for us in that story: getting pressure with just four, so you could keep as many players in coverage — like a safety over the top of Hill and a deep safety in the middle of the field — and still make Mahomes uncomfortable.
Again, mission accomplished. The Patriots rushed with three or four players on 67.5 percent of the snaps. Reid said he thought the Patriots blitzed on every down. They didn't, but that's a testament to the different pressure approaches they showed, from the amoeba to zone exchanges to twists and stunts up front. It felt like blitzes to Reid and the Chiefs, which is the name of the game.
The biggest weapon was Kyle Van Noy. The Swiss Army Knife of the front seven was all over Mahomes, especially in the first half when he generated 3.5 of his season-high 6.5 total quarterback pressures, including a sack on third down, and another that saved points before halftime.
Van Noy and Trey Flowers combined for half the Patriots' 22 pressures.
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Van Noy's pressure output in this game was more than his total in the previous three games combined.
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This amount of pressure may have been a surprise to the Chiefs and those watching who hadn't seen the Patriots this season, but since the bye week, this is who they have been. Forty percent pressure has been about the norm for them. So Sunday's performance was definitely a pleasant and — considering the Patriots needed overtime to prevail — needed surprise.