The Patriots conclude the first quarter of their season on Monday Night Football against the Chiefs in Arrowhead, in what should be a good test for a Patriots team that seems to be going in two different directions on either side of the ball.
Last season the Chiefs were one of the teams that scared me. Their controlled short passing game is just the kind that has given the Patriots defense fits in recent years, but the Pats defense is starting to look reborn after a strong start against three admittedly less-than-formidable offenses.
Offensively the talk all week has been focused on the offensive line, leading many to wonder if there will be some changes upfront for the Pats. Once New England gets their blocking solidified, we should expect to see a much-improved squad. But there’s no guarantee that the blocking is easily fixed, they’ll have to prove it on the field and all eyes will be on them in the hostile environment known as Arrowhead.
The one constant through the first three games on offense has been Julian Edelman and he should once again be the go-to target to keep the chains moving. With star Chiefs safety Eric Berry nursing a high ankle sprain, the Pats should be tempted to attack the deep part of the field, something they’ve been less-than-effective with early in the season.
Their best deep threat Aaron Dobson was back on the bench last week after seeing his first action in Week 2. If ever there was a time to push the Dobson deep plan, this could be the week.
But the bigger question is whether or not Tom Brady will have the time. Even the most perfect gameplans are easily destroyed when the pass rush gets to Tom Brady and the Chiefs have two of the best edge rushers in the game in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. They will test Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, the Patriots bookend tackles. Solder especially had one of the worst outings of his career against the Raiders and he will need to bounce back in a big way or Brady could be on his ass a lot.
Dontari Poe is a big space-eating defensive tackle who should test the Patriots interior line as well, whoever they roll out there.
With Sealver Siliga unlikely to play, Vince Wilfork and the edges of the defense will have their work cut out for them. Electric running back Jamaal Charles is expected to play, while fellow Chiefs running back Kniles Davis brings a physical element.
The Chiefs like to hit the edges of the defense hard, so there will be pressure on Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower to keep containment.
The Pats run defense has been much better since the travesty that was Week 1 against the Dolphins, but this should be their toughest test since then. Joe Vellano held up far better against double teams vs. the Raiders than Chris Jones did, so Vellano could start next to Wilfork.
Donnie Avery and Dwayne Bowe should provide a good test for the Patriots pass defense but tight end Travis Kelce might be the most dangerous of them all. Patrick Chung has been effective in coverage thus far against tight ends and seems like the favorite to draw coverage on Kelce. If he’s ineffective, Jamie Collins could be called to action.
Five Points of Emphasis
1. Block! - If you’ve read just about any intelligent analysis about the Patriots this week, you know that the offensive line is their biggest team issue right now. What’s frustrating is that the guys who have done it in the past - especially Solder and Vollmer - are not doing it now. They need to be the leaders. Regardless of what kind of personnel changes are made, the offensive line must communicate better and simply play at a higher level — a level they are capable of. They have a great opportunity to right the ship in a tough place to play. That can make a statement.
2. Bombs Away - The Patriots have needed a vertical element to their passing game for going on five seasons. There’s no question the offense is built around Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski and they will move the ball with those two as the primary receivers. But for the offense to truly hit the next level, they need attack the perimeter of the defense. The chance is there this week, but only if the offensive line gives Brady the time to get off accurate throws. It’s all connected, but a couple shots down the field is just what this team needs.
3. First Down Execution - Part of the problems this year have been slow starts especially at the start of the game and the start of the second half. The play calling was over-thought and put the Patriots in yardage holes early. They need to start better in every sense of the word. On first down and early in each half, they need to set themselves up for success later in the game and on the set of downs.
4. Physicality on Defense - The Dolphins often overwhelmed the Chiefs in Week 3 with pure physicality and the Patriots have the personnel to do the same. Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones have had superb starts to their third seasons in the NFL and they’ll have to show that to a national audience on Monday night. The defense has shown that they are not the same old Patriots defense we became accustomed to from 2010-2013, and they must continue to build on the success that they have had against a legitimate NFL offense and probably the best quarterback they’ve seen yet this season.
5. Win: As always, what matters most is getting the win. We’re closing out the first quarter of the season, so the time for experimentation and wondering what the Patriots are good and bad at is coming to a close. This game will tell us a lot about the kind of team the 2014 Pats are, especially after a week where a win felt more like a loss. The entire NFL world will be watching to see if there really are any cracks in the Patriots empire. A convincing win on the road in Kansas City would answer that with a resounding “No”.