The closest thing the football world has to a Bill Belichick hack is on the phone with advice for the Chiefs. The two head coaches with the best records against Belichick had the same offensive coordinator, and Kevin Gilbride is happy to share what he can.
Belichick is, in many ways, the nightmare of his peers. Smart, relentless, cocky, and exceedingly successful with enough stories about the lengths he’ll go to make you nervous. Not counting interims, NFL teams changed coaches 85 times between Belichick’s first Super Bowl championship and his most recent. But Gilbride, perhaps better than anyone else, was able to think a move ahead of The Hoodie.
Gilbride’s teams went 11-7 against Belichick, including his only two Super Bowl losses, and describes a clear but difficult way to beat the sport’s most successful coach — a rough outline of what the Chiefs are facing in Saturday’s AFC Divisional playoff game.
“You always hear, ‘Bill Belichick takes away what you do best,’ but, well, every defensive coordinator does that,” Gilbride says. “He’s not the only one. The difference is, he’s willing to go to more extreme measures. His looks will be even more unorthodox than what you might get somewhere else, and you have to know that going in, and you have to have a plan of attack based on your strengths, that allows you to attack him where he’s vulnerable because of that adjustment.”
The most famous example of this is probably Super Bowl XXV, when Belichick was Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator with the Giants. They faced the Bills and their no-huddle K-Gun offense, so Belichick used a lot of sets with just two down linemen. The practice isn’t as rare now, but back then it was revolutionary, the Giants giving the Bills underneath routes and room to run but taking away the big plays.
The execution wasn’t perfect, but combined with a consistent run game, the Giants kept the Bills off the field and limited the league’s best offense to just 19 points.
The key, then, is anticipating the ways that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may try to attack the Chiefs, and flipping the advantage.
Gilbride says it’s best to come up with three or four ways the Patriots might exaggerate themselves to stop particular aspects of what you do. The Patriots are very game-plan specific, meaning your film review of their past games is typically more useful for scouting personnel than scheme, and that self-scouting and accurately assessing what your own team does well is even more important than usual.
The Chiefs do not have a reputation for misleading about injuries — at least, not by NFL standards — but this may explain some of the vagueness around Jeremy Maclin’s injury. If nothing else, it gives the Patriots some uncertainty, while the Chiefs presumably have a strong idea of whether Maclin will play and how effective he might be.
Nearly half of the Chiefs’ passing targets this year have gone to either Maclin or Travis Kelce, so this is a key point.
“The Chiefs need to figure out: Who is it that would scare (the Patriots)?” Gilbride says. “I would suspect (the Patriots) are going to beat the living tar out of Kelce.”
Some possible clues can be found. The Chiefs blew out the Patriots 41-14 at Arrowhead last year, a win that was more about the relentless pressure they put on Tom Brady than anything the Chiefs did on offense.
That will again be a critical part of the Chiefs’ plan, but so will a way to move the ball against a defense that’s shown to be vulnerable.
Last year, the Chiefs gashed the Patriots on the ground, running for 207 yards. That was when Jamaal Charles was healthy, but Knile Davis was actually the Chiefs’ leading rusher, going for 107 yards. The Chiefs’ longest play from scrimmage was a 48-yard run with a ghost jet sweep look that gave New England’s front seven a moment of uncertainty, allowing Davis to go straight ahead and hit a hole on the left side immediately.
The Chiefs were aggressive and certain in that game. On one play, the Patriots put eight defenders in the tackle box, presumably keying on Charles, who still went around the left side for a 17-yard gain. On another play, Alex Smith threw into a tight window — the kind he rarely does, especially before this season — to Dwayne Bowe on a slant over the middle. It was a somewhat risky decision, but the throw was accurate enough that it hit Bowe in stride, setting up a touchdown.
Those plays are fairly representative of how the Chiefs attacked the Patriots — largely with speed, both in the physical sense with Davis and Charles, and in the execution of their reads and plays.
To Gilbride’s point about Kelce, he caught eight passes on nine targets for 93 yards and a touchdown. In the last three years, Tony Gonzalez and Miami’s Jordan Cameron are the only tight ends to have more receptions against the Patriots. It might be instructive that after Cameron went for nine catches and 121 yards against the Patriots in 2013, he managed just four catches and 40 yards combined in two games against them this season.
Particularly with Maclin out or slowed, focusing on Kelce is the most logical way to stop the Chiefs.
“So you better already have thought through what it is,” Gilbride says. “You may not know what the expression of the final defensive scheme will be, but you know what the idea is going to be. You know what it is they’re going to commit to eliminating, and you pick on three or four ways they might do it, and have those answers firmly planted in your brain so you can immediately go to it.”
That means having separate and layered counterattacks ready for double teams on Kelce, jamming him at the line of scrimmage, making a safety’s primary responsibility help on Kelce, or perhaps flood zone coverage to his area. Each of those strategies would become even more difficult to counter in the red zone.
“You have to have other options,” Gilbride says. “Their sophistication is in the subtlety. It’s not obvious. It’s complex. It’s the way they are so committed, and well thought out in how to take advantage of their personnel, and really beat up the strengths you have.”
Much of that will rely on the ability of Albert Wilson and Chris Conley to take advantage of single coverage, and of the Chiefs’ line to continue its improved work in the run game. From the Patriots’ side, the problem with too much focus on Kelce is it opens other options for a system and coaching staff that prioritizes diversity.
The Chiefs are the deserved underdogs in this game, but they do have a few particular ways to exploit the Patriots. New England’s defense has been slammed with injuries. They ranked 17th in traditional passing defense, and advanced metrics back up the idea that this is a relative weakness.
In addition, the Patriots have been vulnerable to big days by opposing pass catchers — six have gone for more than 100 yards, and two more for 94 and 95 yards. Three of the Patriots’ four losses included a 100-yard receiver. The exception was the Eagles game, in which the Patriots gave up three touchdowns on defense and special teams.
The key, then, is for the Chiefs to find a way to take advantage of the Patriots’ expected focus on Kelce. Easier said than done, but as Gilbride proved, it can be done with the right game plan, smart adjustments and enough execution.