Patriots hoping to improve second-down defense against Chiefs

Bill Belichick is calling plays for the New England defense, which could have its hands full with the Chiefs on Sunday.
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Patriots coach Bill Belichick had much to lament about his team’s loss to the Texans last week. But one thing that stuck out was how his defense struggled to defend the pass on second down.

It again will be a focal point this week as New England (10-2) crafts a game plan it hopes can slow down reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs‘ multifaceted offense.

The Patriots narrowly held off the Chiefs (8-4) in two meetings last season, earning a 43-40 victory during the regular season and a 37-31 overtime win in the AFC championship game.

Kansas City coach Andy Reid said he expects an even tougher matchup this time around opposite a defense that entered the week ranked second in the NFL against the pass, allowing just 163.5 yards per game.

“They’ve got a pretty good defensive coordinator (Belichick) right now,” Reid joked. “You talk about the best in the business. He’s done a heck of a job. I’m sure he’s enjoying it. You get our age, man, it’s one of the fun things you get to do.”

That wasn’t the case in New England’s two losses this season as the Patriots struggled to contain quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson on second down.

In their 37-20 loss to the Ravens last month, Jackson threw the ball nine times on second down, completing first-down passes on four of those attempts.

Watson had similar success in Houston’s 28-22 win over New England last week, throwing the ball 15 times on second down and converting first downs six times, including a 13-yard touchdown.

“Honestly, it wasn’t that great against Kansas City last year, either, in the playoff game,” Belichick said. “So, that’s something we have to do a better job of coaching and executing.”

That won’t be easy against a Chiefs offense that is tied for ninth in the NFL in averaging 5.9 yards per play on second down. By comparison, Baltimore is fourth in the NFL, averaging 6.5 yards on second down. The Texans are eighth (6.0 yards per play).

Overall, the Chiefs have converted a first down on 34.2% of their second downs, which ranks 10th in the league. Baltimore leads the league with a 44.2% conversion rate. Houston is sixth at 36.1%.

Patriots safety Devin McCourty said one of the reasons the Chiefs are so dangerous is the way they use different formations and movement prior to the snap to disguise where they’re going with the ball.

“A lot of the offense is a lot of misdirection and guys going different ways,” he said. “I think defensively your eyes are very important. You gotta be looking at what you’re supposed to be looking at.”

Reid expects this latest version of the New England defense to display new wrinkles on every down with Belichick calling the plays.

“You can see them doing some different things, putting in things that he likes,” Reid said. “It’s the same with every play caller. You see certain things that they favor over maybe a different guy.”

Whatever Belichick puts in, he’ll be doing it using personnel Reid is familiar with.

One of those players is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, whom Reid has faced multiple times going back to the five years Gilmore spent in Buffalo.

“I’ve watched him mature over the years,” Reid said.

What he’s witnessed is Gilmore develop into one of the league’s best cornerbacks. He is typically used by the Patriots to cover opponents’ top receiving threats.

This week that will almost certainly include him matching up against Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, who leads the Chiefs with 68 catches for 923 yards and four touchdowns.

Gilmore had success covering Kelce in the Patriots’ two meetings with Kansas City last season and when he was opposite another quality tight end in Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz earlier this season.

Reid believes it could be an important matchup again Sunday.

“With any man situation, it’s man to man. So you’ve got to win, right?” Reid said. “However you do that, that’s the objective.”