Sam Mellinger

Finding where the Chiefs lost without using the words ‘clock’ or ‘management’

The Chiefs let Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (right) get too much open space.
The Chiefs let Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (right) get too much open space. deulitt@kcstar.com

The other day, and mostly just to make a point while talking about the overreaction to the Chiefs’ rotten clock management, I wrote that there were at least a dozen more important reasons they lost the game. On the podcast, I think I said six.

A reader called me on it, I’ve thought about it, and I stopped after nine:

1. The Patriots are a better football team than the Chiefs.

2. The Chiefs did not jam New England’s receivers, or otherwise disrupt their routes.

3. The Chiefs got no pass rush.

4. The Chiefs did not convert repeated opportunities for turnovers.

5. Knile Davis’ fumble.

6. The Chiefs got zero points on a drive that started at the New England 36.

7. The Chiefs gave up seven points on a Patriots drive that started on their own 2.

8. Injuries to Justin Houston, the Chiefs’ best player, and Jeremy Maclin, probably their best offensive player.

9. The Patriots cheated with balls that were illegally deflated.

OK, the last one I’m joking about, in part just to link to Dan Wetzel’s story here, in hopes that if you still believe that stupid investigation had any credibility, you take a few minutes to change your mind.

Anyway, of all the reasons I list — and I know there are others — the most important is No. 1. After that, I would argue that Nos. 2 and 3 are next, though No. 4 is also enormous.

Nos. 1 and 4 are fairly self-explanatory, so I wanted to look a little harder at the issue of the Chiefs getting no pass rush and the Chiefs not disrupting the Patriots’ routes.

This game was always going to be decided, in large part, by the Chiefs’ ability to get to Tom Brady. When teams sack Brady or knock him down, they beat him. When they don’t, they don’t. The Chiefs hounded Brady in September 2014, and blew out the Patriots, and sent the Boston media on a weird storyline about whether Brady should be benched. The Chiefs allowed New England to essentially play 7-on-7 last weekend and they will be watching the AFC Championship Game from their homes.

Part of the Chiefs’ inability to get to Brady can be attributed to Houston’s injury, but not the whole thing, and probably not even most of it. Using Pro Football Focus’ numbers, Brady wasn’t pressured on 36 of his 43 drop backs. He completed 71.4 percent of those passes, including both touchdowns. The Chiefs never sacked Brady, but when he was pressured, he completed just three of seven passes. His passer rating dropped from 110.7 to 67.6. Pointing at any one thing in a football game is an oversimplification, but this is less of an oversimplification than most.

According to the Boston Herald, Brady was 21-of-27 passing for 177 yards and both touchdowns when releasing the ball within 2.0 seconds. He was 7 for 15 when taking longer.

On some of those quick passes, there’s nothing the defense can do, of course. But defense, particularly he way the Chiefs play it, is about aggression, not passiveness. They’ve had practice with this against the Broncos, and know the best — maybe the only — way to beat a team that runs so many quick hits is to jam the receivers or otherwise disrupt the routes and the timing.

To see how much this was an issue in this particular game, I went back and looked at New England’s longest plays from scrimmage. They had seven plays that went for 15 or more yards. The diagnosis is a mixture of missed assignments, lack of aggression, and the Patriots being very good at football.

In descending order of gain:

Second quarter, 8:06 left, a 42-yard pass down the right sideline to Keshawn Martin

This was on first and 15 from the Patriots’ 9, and a prime opportunity for the Chiefs to sack or otherwise knock Brady down. Instead, he dropped back comfortably, and even had time to bounce on his toes a few times, waiting for the play to develop. The Chiefs only sent four pass rushers, so the coverage needed to be good. Without knowing everyone’s assignments, it looked like Marcus Peters just got a little lost. Martin was not jammed at the line and ran a go route down the right sideline. Peters either thought Martin was breaking the route off or was expecting more safety help over the top. Either way, Brady released the ball 2.9 seconds after the snap. That’s long enough to get to him.

First quarter, 12:04 left, 32 yards to Rob Gronkowski over the middle

This was a third-and-13 play on the Pats’ first drive, and probably the Chiefs’ best chance to sack Brady. It was an obvious passing situation, and the Chiefs brought six. Dee Ford and Hussain Abdullah each rushed the right edge, and it looked like the tackle and running back were confused on blocking assignments. That left Ford free, and he had a clear shot at Brady exactly 2 seconds after the snap. But Brady, who is 38 years old and supposedly dealing with an ankle injury, sidestepped the rush and found Gronkowski, who sat down in front of Ron Parker. The throw came 3.5 seconds after the snap with one pass rusher unblocked. With the way the Chiefs play defense, this was inexcusable.

Third quarter, 1:40 left, 29 yards to James White

Again, we don’t know the assignments, but this looked like Husain Abdullah’s mistake. Brady got the ball out far too quickly for a pass rush — 1.4 seconds — with a lob to White out of the backfield. Abdullah was just a tick late getting over but lost the play by taking a bad angle, which left room down the sideline for White to turn it into a big gain.

Third quarter, 10:31 left, 18 yards to Gronkowski

Tyvon Branch was lined up on Gronkowski, and to his credit tried to jam the tight end, but Gronk is an alien. He broke free and the timing was perfect. Brady threw it 1.75 seconds after the snap, with no disruption or hands up at the line of scrimmage.

First quarter, 13:26 left, 16 yards to Amendola

One more time, we don’t know the assignments, but this looked like miscommunication on the defense. The Chiefs doubled Gronk on the right side, which is good, but left Amendola uncovered on the left side, which is not as good. Ron Parker blitzed from that side and Eric Berry was too far back to pick it up. The throw came out at 1.8 seconds, again with no disruption or clogging of passing lanes.

Third quarter, 8:29 left, 16 yards to Gronkowski

This was where Gronk burned Berry on a fake hitch and caught an easy touchdown, the throw coming 1.9 seconds after the snap. The highlight looks bad for Berry, but two points: Gronk is a science experiment, and Berry was being aggressive.

Fourth quarter, 12:26 left, 15 yards to Martin

No jam at the line of scrimmage, just a pretty simple out route with just a hint of a rub. The ball comes out at 2.1 seconds, and again, very clean pocket, no disruption at all.

So, even without the context of this being done by a sports writer sitting in a very comfortable chair with his dog covering his feet, I’m not sure this says anything definitive.

But I do think there is a commonality among the Pats’ biggest plays — particularly the biggest two — of the coverage not helping create time for the pass rushers, and the pass rushers not taking advantage when they do. The surprising part of this is that press coverage is the best way to disrupt timing, and it’s an important strength of the Chiefs’, yet it didn’t show up here.

Then again, the Patriots’ ability to negate all of that is what makes them better than the Chiefs, which is why that’s the No. 1 reason for the outcome.

Clock management is probably somewhere around 15.

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