Saturday, January 16, 2016

Chiefs More Beat Up On Offense Than Patriots, White Poised For Huge Game

First off, let's dispel the notion that either the Kansas City Chiefs or the New England Patriots are juggernauts heading into their Divisional round playoff game in Foxborough on Saturday.

The Patriots are limping into the post-season, losing four of their final six games as the injury bug hit them hard and reduced their offense to a trick play-laden entity that hoped that at least one of their snaps resulted in more than just a couple of yards, while the Chiefs entered the tournament winners of 10 straight, but against eight teams that didn't qualify for the playoffs and seven that were sub .500...

...losing to eventual playoff teams Denver, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Minnesota by an average of 10 points per defeat while also losing to the lowly Bears.
Look for White to have a huge day against Kansas City

Of course, this means nothing when it comes to what will transpire on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, but it does give us some context as to how these two teams have arrived at this point in time - but what is truly amazing is how many Chiefs' fans are dining off of Kansas City's blowout of the Patriots last season as a launching point for their confidence this time around...

...especially in light of the Chiefs resounding victory over the Houston Texans this past Saturday in the Wild Card round of the 2015 Playoffs - a 30-0 stomping that apparently has grown men running around shirtless and beating their chests much the same as they did after last season's week 4 pulverizing of the Patriots.

But none of that has anything to do with anything.

The Patriots have had a tough week of preparation for their showdown with Kansas City, what with the off-field distraction of defensive end Chandler Jones seeking medical attention on Sunday morning while suffering from what has been described as a synthetic marijuana-induced psychotic episode, while speculation is still running wild concerning the availability of All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski for Saturday evening.

Some local entities are reporting that the man-child checked into a Boston hospital on Thursday to have treatment on his right knee, including a cortisone injection, and is a game-time decision, while others are refuting those reports, stating that he had treatments - but no injections - and will be good to go for Saturday night.

The Patriots themselves compounded the speculation by amending their own injury report on Gronkowski by adding a back malady to the list.

That said, it was an even worse week for the Boston media - and the national media as well for believing anything coming out of the Boston rags - as the initial report on both stories were red herrings and amended with complete reversals, which turned them into savory targets for the duped National media, with one outlet speculating that the Patriots were responsible for the conflicting reports on Gronkowski in order to gain a competitive advantage over the Chiefs by giving them a false sense of security...

...while ESPN's Chris Carter further solidified his reputation as a holier-than-thou know it all in claiming that Jones was actually under the influence of standard-brand weed laced with PCP, citing his own usage of pot and cocaine early in his career and by being clued-in to "what's going on in the street."

Regardless of the Patriots' off-the-field ugliness and Kansas City's swollen egos, there is one very important thing that is being overlooked:

The Game.

Unfortunately, both teams have injury situations which could alter their fortunes. In addition to Jones' poor decision making and Gronkowski's knee-back situation, the Patriots expect to be getting back receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, offensive tackles Sebastian Vollmer and LaAdrian Waddle, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung to give them the most complete team that they have fielded in months.

The picture is not quite as rosy for Kansas City, as top offensive threat Jeremy Maclin is suffering from a high-ankle sprain and is considered a game-time decision as to his availability, which also goes for outside linebacker and leading sack-master Justin Houston, who is dealing with a bum knee. The loss of either one could have a serious trickle-down effect on the Chiefs.

But while the fate of those two are unknown, Kansas City has received distressing news regarding their offensive line as starting center Mitch Morse and starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif have been already scratched from the lineup, dealing a serious blow to the already dim fortunes of their running attack, as running back Spencer Ware is nursing a bad ankle, leaving Charcandrick West as their lone healthy runner.

That is, their lone healthy runner besides quarterback Alex Smith, who is good for an average of five carries per game at six yards a pop, but much of that due to running for his life. Those two represent well over half of the Chiefs' ground yardage this season, with the bulk of the rest of Kansas City's sixth-ranked rushing attack coming via the injured Ware and Jamaal Charles, who has spent most of his season on the IR.

They will be facing a Patriots' rush defense that is ranked ninth in the NFL

While the Patriots' offensive line gets a lot of grief from the local press in regards to giving up 36 sacks while trying to protect a largely immobile pocket passer, the Chiefs have been far worse, giving up 45 sacks while trying to protect one of the more ambulatory quarterbacks in the league - and with Morse and Duvernay-Tardif on the skids, how much more heat will Smith get, particularly right up the middle?

A lot depends on the trio of Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jaball Sheard, as they will be tasked not only with getting after Smith, but also for setting the edge so that Smith can't escape from the interior rush - and with the likelihood that the Chiefs will be forced to keep West in the backfield to pick up rouge pass rushers, the Patriots' linebackers should have the run of the joint in coming after Smith on designed "Hug" blitzes...

...or they could choose to double up on Smith's most dangerous receiving target, tight end Travis Kelse, which is standard operating procedure for any NFL team facing a good tight end - and the Patriots have been very good at shutting them down this season.

On the year, the Patriots defense has given up 51 passes to tight ends for 573 yards, which averages out to just over three catches and 35 yards per game, which is hardly a major impact for the opposition. New England is also very good at keeping the opposing passer in the pocket, as quarterbacks has tucked the ball and run just 37 times, and have kept true boot option quarterbacks under wraps.

Where things have gotten out of hand for the New England defense has been when running backs sneak out of the backfield and into the flat where they seemingly pick up first downs every time. Of the 84 passes caught by opposing backs in the screen game, an astounding 53 have gone for first downs - not quite every time, but enough to consider it an issue.

A lot of that success for other teams comes from those teams clearing the flat by either sending their pass catchers on go routes and intermediate crossers to occupy the second level defenders, or by simply allowing the Patriots to bull rush to draw them into the quarterback, who then simply dumps the ball off to his back, who is wide open and has blockers.

The Chiefs have an issue with the former, as they may not have their top threat in the pattern, but as far as the latter is concerned, the short screen game could both take advantage of the aggressiveness of the Patriots' pass rush and also mask the loss of their two starting interior linemen - so the pass rushers, particularly the outside rushers, must be disciplined enough to not get suckered in by designed screens

The Patriots run a lot of screen plays as well - in fact, during the dour stretch to end the season, the screen game and wheel routes were about all that was working for the Patriots' offense, as previously seldom used passing back James White became a featured target for Brady that will served the Patriots well, but New England can't just rely on White out of the backfield...

...which brings us to newly acquired running back Steven Jackson, who is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. His size is intriguing at 6' 2" and 240 pounds and still runs in the low 4.5's at age 32 - so when he is in the game on early downs, don't be surprised to see a few balls tossed his way in the pattern. And they should be using him as a receiver, not only to provide balance on early downs, but also because his skill set makes him the equivalent of a move-type tight end.

And balance being the key word, as that's why Jackson was signed in the first place.

New England is top heavy when speaking of pass-to-run ratio, the aerial game ranked 5th in the NFL despite all the time missed by the Patriots' top pass catching weapons, while the ground game reduced to an afterthought at 30th in the league in both yardage and yards per attempt, and is only exasperated by the fact that they lost both of their real rushing threats to injury during the season...

...good news for the Chiefs, who are ranked 9th against the pass and 8th against the run, and have not surrendered a 300 yard passing game since back-to-back losses to the Packers and Bengals in the first quarter of the season and have held 11 out of 16 opponents under 100 yards rushing.

Obviously, defense is the Chiefs' calling card, and they live off of turnovers.

No, not the delicious. flaky, fruit-filled dessert - rather - their 22 interceptions of opposing quarterbacks and 13 forced fumbles, which are presumably just as tasty to the fans of the feathered and have also made all of the difference for the teams' offense, which ranks an anemic 27th in total yardage on the year, but 9th in scoring - and their 48 total sacks on the season rank just behind the Broncos and Patriots for the NFL lead.

The fact that Kansas City continues to win despite an offense that ranks in the bottom third of the league is a testament to both the quality of their defense and also to Smith's ability to convert those turnovers to points. Turnovers play a key role in that, as evidenced by the fact that Kansas City's average starting point on their offensive possessions is their own 34 yard line, ranking them first in the NFL in that category.

Rookie Marcus Peters has eight of the teams' 22 interceptions and has taken 2 of them back for scores, earning a Pro Bowl bid, second-team All Pro honors and named a finalist for the 2015 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. It goes to figure that Peters will cover the top receiver each team has to offer, but who is it going to be this week?

Edelman, who will be wearing custom fit orthotics in his cleats to help support his surgically repaired foot? Or will it be Rob Gronkowski who, according to multiple reports, is not close to 100% and will try to play through pain in his knee? In fact, are the Patriots so banged up on offense still that the Chiefs go zone and release their pass rush full tilt until the Patriots prove they can move the ball through the air?

If one thing is certain with the Chiefs, it is that they are going to have to account for a full load of Patriots' weapons, regardless of their level of health, and the numbers tell us that someone is going to be open no matter what the Chiefs do - and that someone will probably be running back James White, who is poised to have a gargantuan game curling out of the backfield.

In the end, both offenses are hurting, but the Chiefs are the team that has a smaller margin for error on both sides of the ball, and the Patriots can attack offensively with far more options than the Chiefs possess, and if they can hold onto the ball and achieve any sort of balance, they should come away with a berth in their 10th AFC Championship game of the Belichick era.

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