For most of the season the topic of conversation in regards to the New England Patriots has centered on the performance of the offensive line. While that unit has at times deserved scrutiny, the return of Sebastian Vollmer has seemed to have stabilized the group. Overlooked has been what may be the real Achilles heel for this squad as they battle the Denver Broncos on Sunday: the team’s third down defense.
Last week the Chiefs converted on an astounding 12 out of 20 third down attempts. Add in a fourth down conversion, and Kansas City was able to stay on the field 65% of the time on third down against the Pats. To put that in perspective the New York Giants, with an atrocious pass defense that led to the exit of Tom Coughlin, had the NFL’s worst third down defense in 2015 – and opponents converted on only 47% of their third down opportunities. Logan Ryan in particular had a rough day, with opposing players catching eight out of ten passes thrown his way, plus committing a penalty that resulted in a first down and led to a touchdown on the next play.
To be fair we are comparing the small sample size of one game (against a playoff caliber team) versus a defense’s entire season, but every New England fan watching last week’s game had to be very frustrated watching KC convert over and over, after the Patriot defense won first and second down to set up third and long. Considering the opponent, some of that should not have been totally unexpected also. The Patriots’ defensive game plan was to contain Alex Smith and force him to beat the Pats through while limiting his runs. Smith averaged 5.9 yards per carry and quietly rushed for 498 yards and 30 first downs in 2015. Rather than bringing an aggressive pass rush, Matt Patricia’s group focused on gap integrity and setting the edge to contain Smith.
In addition the secondary was in zone coverage more often than usual; that should change Sunday. Peyton Manning simply cannot get the ball downfield with any velocity at this point in his career. Pittsburgh made a critical defense with their game plan last week, positioning their defenders as if Manning could still throw the football like he did five or ten years ago. Although Bill Belichick stated that he would never underestimate Manning, I am sure that he saw the same thing I did. Belichick game plans to take away an opponent’s strength and dares them to beat his team with a weaker asset – in this case, that is Manning having to throw the ball deep or outside the numbers.
The good news for the Patriots is that Denver’s offense struggled mightily against a Steeler defense that is not nearly as proficient as New England’s. The Broncos were a woeful 2-12 on third down last week, and also failed to convert on two fourth downs. Some of that can be attributed to Pittsburgh’s defense being much better against the run (3.8 yards per carry, 6th in 2015; 91 yards per game, 6th) than they are in pass defense (7.5 yards per pass attempt, 18th; 64.3% completion rate, 22nd; 272 yards per game, 30th). Gary Kubiak wanted to run the ball (33 rushing attempts in the game) even if that was playing to Pittsburgh’s strength. The Denver head coach counted on his team’s defense being able to contain Pittsburgh without Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams. It was a smart game plan, figuring that the Steelers’ best chance to pull off an upset was if Manning threw a couple of wounded ducks that ended up as pick-sixes. Facing Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman this week, he won’t have that luxury.
In regards to the previous meeting between the Patriots and Broncos this season, I believe the most important factor that many (especially in Denver) are overlooking is that Jamie Collins did not play, and Dont’a Hightower left early with an injury. The game took a huge change when Hightower went out; once that happened the Broncos were suddenly able to run the ball. The absence of Jerod Mayo is relatively minor; he was on the field for just 36.1% of the defense’s snaps, and many of those came when Collins and Hightower missed time earlier this season. As for Denver fans that counter that the Broncos were equally distressed by having to start Brock Osweiler at quarterback, that argument does not hold water. The reality is that based on how he was performing, the removal of Manning was an improvement, not a downgrade.
Kansas City Chiefs Offensive 3rd Downs vs New England Patriots
Drive #1 – with score Patriots 7, Chiefs 0
17 plays, 64 yards in 8:31
3rd and 7 at KC 33 (8:14 – 1st)
Alex Smith pass to short middle to Jeremy Maclin to KC 44 for 11 yards (Logan Ryan)
3rd and 3 at NE 49 (6:15 – 1st)
Alex Smith pass to short middle to Travis Kelce to NE 44 for 5 yards (Rob Ninkovich)
3rd and 13 at NE 47 (4:52 – 1st)
Alex Smith scrambles off left tackle to NE 32 for 15 yards (Jabaal Sheard)
3rd and 4 at NE 26 (3:27 – 1st)
Charcandrick West off left end to NE 20 for 6 yards (Justin Coleman)
3rd and 6 at NE 16 (2:03 – 1st)
Alex Smith pass incomplete, thrown away from outside the pocket to short left [Jamie Collins]
Stop forces KC to settle for a field goal
Drive #2 – with score Patriots 7, Chiefs 3
7 plays, 25 yards in 3:22
3rd and 2 at NE 48 (13:39 – 2nd)
Charcandrick West up the middle to NE 45 for 3 yards (Alan Branch)
3rd and 7 at NE 42 (11:40 – 2nd)
Alex Smith pass incomplete to short middle to Travis Kelce
Penalty on KC, Illegal Use of Hands; declined
Stop forces KC to punt
Drive #3 – with score Patriots 7, Chiefs 3
3 plays, minus-1 yard, 1:38
3rd and 12 at NE 38 (9:51 – 2nd)
Alex Smith pass to short right to Travis Kelce to NE 37 for 1 yard (Patrick Chung; Dont’a Hightower)
Stop forces KC to punt
Drive #4 – with score Patriots 14, Chiefs 3
11 plays, 52 yards in 3:11
3rd and 7 at NE 46 (2:00 – 2nd)
Alex Smith pass to deep right to Jason Avant to NE 20 for 26 yards (Devin McCourty)
3rd and Goal at NE 9 (0:21 – 2nd)
Penalty on KC – Alex Smith, Delay of Game, 5 yards, enforced at NE 9
3rd and Goal at NE 14 (0:21 – 2nd)
Alex Smith pass incomplete to short left to Chris Conley
Stop forces KC to settle for field goal
Drive #5 – with score Patriots 14, Chiefs 6
8 plays, 44 yards in 4:29
3rd and 10 at KC 25 (14:13 – 3rd)
Alex Smith pass to short right to Jeremy Maclin, ran out of bounds at KC 37 for 12 yards
Drive ended when the Patriots recovered a fumble.
Drive #6 – with score Patriots 21, Chiefs 6
12 plays, 80 yards in 6:12
3rd and 7 at KC 23 (7:39 – 3rd)
Alex Smith pass to deep left to Jason Avant to KC 49 for 26 yards (Logan Ryan)
3rd and 3 at NE 29 (4:51 – 3rd)
Alex Smith scrambles off right end, ran out of bounds at NE 22 for 7 yards
3rd and 3 at NE 15 (2:50 – 3rd)
Alex Smith pass incomplete to short left to Chris Conley (Justin Coleman)
4th and 3 at NE 15 (2:45 – 3rd)
Alex Smith pass short to left to Jason Avant to NE 11 for 4 yards (Logan Ryan)
Penalty on NE (Akiem Hicks), Illegal Use of Hands, 5 yards, enforced at NE 15
Result of drive: touchdown
Drive #7 – with score Patriots 24, Chiefs 13
3 plays, minus-8 yards in 2:20
3rd and 10 at KC 20 (13:24 – 4th)
Alex Smith sacked at KC 17 for -3 yards (Chandler Jones)
Stop forces KC to punt
Drive #8 – with score Patriots 27, Chiefs 13
8 plays, 29 yards in 2:52
3rd and 1 at KC 29 (9:16 – 4th)
Alex Smith pass to short right to Albert Wilson to KC 37 for 8 yards (Malcolm Butler)
3rd and 10 at KC 49 (7:45 – 4th)
Alex Smith pass incomplete to deep left to Chris Conley (Devin McCourty)
4th and 10 at KC 49 (7:28 – 4th)
Alex Smith pass to deep right intended for Albert Wilson: intercepted by Duron Harmon at NE 23.
The Replay Official reviewed the pass completion ruling, and the play was reversed.
Alex Smith pass incomplete to deep right to Albert Wilson (Duron Harmon)
Stop forces ball to be turned over on downs.
Drive #9 – with score Patriots 27, Chiefs 13
16 plays, 80 yards in 5:16
3rd and 8 at KC 22 (5:52 – 4th)
Alex Smith pass to short left to Chris Conley to KC 38 for 16 yards (Justin Coleman)
3rd and 8 at KC 40 (4:51 – 4th)
Alex Smith pass incomplete to short left to Knile Davis
4th and 8 at KC 40 (4:42 – 4th)
Alex Smith pass to short middle to Jason Avant to NE 47 for 13 yards (Logan Ryan)
3rd and Goal at NE 3 (1:22 – 4th)
Alex Smith pass incomplete to short right to Jason Avant.
Penalty on NE (Logan Ryan), Defensive Pass Interference, 2 yards, enforced at NE 3
Drive results in a touchdown.