Patrick Mahomes is the betting favorite to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. He is surrounded by the league’s fastest man, leading returning rusher and either the best or second-best tight end. His coach is widely viewed as a transcendent innovator.
And now the league’s greatest defensive mind is coming for his throat.
The Chiefs are starring in the most interesting matchup of the season so far, at the Patriots on the league’s marquee television platform on Sunday night. This is the most difficult assignment in the NFL — Foxborough at night, New England coach Bill Belichick armed with extra prep time.
“He is the best at it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
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He was talking about Belichick’s ability to imagine, create, install, coach and execute a game plan from scratch every week, based purely upon an opponent’s inherent and usually subtle weaknesses that he is often the first to detect. One week’s plan has precious little to do with the last, and studying past tendencies or strategies is often a waste of time because Belichick deals only in the now.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t guess.
“This is so much fun,” said Ron Jaworski, the former quarterback and famed film analyst now working with NFL Films. “It’s crazy. I love it. This is football in today’s modern era.”
Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson may be instructive here. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards in a 36-33 loss at New England last year. The performance as a rookie featured several big gains on broken plays, where Watson evaded tacklers or otherwise created more time than the Patriots could defend. The Texans also had success with motions and fakes, the sort of “dressing up” that is a prominent feature of Reid’s offenses.
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Then, in the 2018 season opener vs. New England, Watson completed just 17 of 34 passes for 176 yards. Watson has completed at least 60 percent of his passes for at least 310 yards in every other game this season.
The Patriots seemed to take a different tact with him the second time, rarely blitzing — just seven times on 42 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus — in exchange for more coverage and gap discipline. Basically, the Patriots wanted to keep Watson in the pocket, and force him to make throws to his second or third read through smaller windows.
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This is more typical of Belichick’s adjustments. He is famous for a few extreme examples, none more than an innovative and entirely new scheme against the Bills’ K-Gun offense as defensive coordinator for the Giants in Super Bowl XXV.
The Giants used only two defensive linemen, filling in the gaps with extra linebackers. They invited the Bills to run — Belichick ticked off his players by telling them he wanted Thurman Thomas to go for 100 yards — while bumping and pushing their receivers.
The Bills had won the AFC Championship Game 51-3, but Jim Kelly did not manage a single touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. The Giants won 20-19, when Scott Norwood’s field goal went wide right. Belichick’s game plan was so successful he rode his players’ shoulders off the field, and the binder he used to prepare for the game is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Even so, most of his adjustments are more subtle. Shade a cornerback to the outside, instead of the inside. Position a safety two yards deeper, or closer to the sideline, to defend against a particular route. Belichick has not blitzed often, or exotically, this year.
Jaworski thinks he might make an exception on Sunday.
“If I’m Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator, I’m going to mix it up,” Jaworski said. “I’m going to disguise things. Patrick is still a young quarterback. He’s played above his years, no question about that, but there are plays he’s left on the field by darting from the pocket, moving away from the intended receiver. They’ve been masked by great success, but there are plays left on the field because of mistakes. And that’s not surprising. He’s still a young quarterback.
“So I think Bill will try to take that first read away. Make him a little skittish in the pocket, and have to go somewhere else. Move his eye, and try to force him to make mistakes. Bill’s not a heavy blitz guy, but I think you’ll see some exotic blitzes to try to get Patrick off his spot, particularly early. Get him playing fast early.”
Toward that end, the Broncos may have given the Patriots a rough draft of the manuscript. They had Mahomes consistently confused and rushed in the first half, disguising blitzes to beat his protection calls and mixing coverages to keep him unsure where to throw.
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Mahomes had much more success after halftime, of course. He is learning so fast, and in the second half he won the mental test before the snap and the creative one after.
The difference against New England would be a smaller margin for error. Catching up to and overtaking Case Keenum’s offense is a smaller challenge than doing the same with Tom Brady’s.
If Belichick can confuse Mahomes early, like Jaworski said, get him playing fast, by the time he settles in and starts completing left-handed passes and converting second-and-30s, it could be too late.
It’s a theory, anyway. None have worked so far, but none of their authors have been as qualified as Belichick, none of the challenges as steep as this one.