By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Anybody who watched the first half of Monday night’s game between the Chiefs and Ravens knows that Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are currently at the helm of a very dangerous operation in Kansas City. Through three weeks (and three wins), opponents have been warned.
Yet while the 3-0 Chiefs certainly look to be a championship-level squad once again, they do have an Achilles heel that could prove problematic in the quest for back-to-back titles, and it certainly should become an issue for the home team on Sunday afternoon.
That thinly veiled weakness can be found in the Chiefs’ run defense — or lack thereof. If you want to run on the Chiefs, you can. It’s really just a matter of not falling too far behind in the game, to the point where abandoning the run becomes the natural progression.
In Week 1, the Chiefs allowed 118 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just 22 carries from Houston. David Johnson had his best game in a couple of years, and quarterback Deshaun Watson ran for 27 yards and a touchdown on six attempts.
In Week 2, the Chargers ran for 183 yards and a touchdown on 44 carries, with Austin Ekeler (93 yards, 16 carries) and Joshua Kelley (64 yards, 23 carries) doing the bulk of the damage. Rookie QB Justin Herbert rushed for 18 yards and a touchdown on four attempts.
And last week, the Ravens rushed for 158 yards on just 21 carries, with quarterback Lamar Jackson going for 83 yards on nine attempts. Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram combined for 60 more yards on 11 carries.
Add it all up, and Steve Spagnuolo’s defense is allowing the sixth-most rushing yards per game and the fifth-most rushing yards per attempt. Considering they’ve held big leads in two of their three games, that mark of 153 rushing yards allowed per game really stands out as a problem.
For the Patriots, it should be seen as an opportunity. Through three games, New England has rushed for 534 yards and seven touchdowns, leading the league in both categories. They average 5.1 yards per rush, which ranks fifth in the NFL but first among teams with at least 100 rushing attempts.
It’s been a collaborative effort on the ground for the Patriots, too. After a 117-yard showing on Sunday, Sony Michel leads the team with 173 yards on just 26 attempts this season. Cam Newton is second, with 149 yards on 35 attempts, followed by Rex Burkhead (83 yards on 19 carries) and undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor (70 yards on 16 carries).
Losing David Andrews to a broken thumb did not slow down the rushing attack, either, as the Patriots went for 250 yards on the ground last week in a convincing win over the Raiders.
And the fact that the Chiefs have been particularly susceptible to rushes by quarterbacks — allowing 128 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 attempts — must have Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick frothing at the mouth in terms of devising ways to unleash Newton on Sunday.
Newton currently ranks 30th in rushing yards with 149. He is tied for first in rushing touchdowns with four. That’s rather remarkable considering he’s … not a running back. And though his rushing attempts have dropped each week, he’s shown with consistency that he’s capable of gaining big chunks of yardage both from designed runs and by capitalizing on opportunities when the defense forgets about his threat as a runner. His 21-yard burst vs. Las Vegas was a reminder of that.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 28, 2020
As for where the Chiefs have shown vulnerabilities, here’s a look at some of the longer runs they’ve allowed this year.
On the third play of the game on Monday, the Chiefs looked woefully unprepared for a simple read option keeper by Jackson, who followed two blockers and then exploded for an easy 30 yards. Watch tight end Mark Andrews block safety Daniel Sorensen for a solid 500 yards on the outside, too:
Newton may not have that top-end speed that Jackson has, but that’s still looking like an easy way to move the football.
There was noting tricky about this 11-yard run by Mark Ingram, who had a massive hole open up for him:
In terms of QB runs that aren’t by design, here’s a case of the Chiefs playing man, with middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens choosing to decleat the running back over the middle instead of paying attention to Jackson’s threat as a runner. The QB took off for 18 easy yards.
Here’s another easy one that looks like it was stolen right out of Newton’s playbook in Carolina:
Cornerback Rashad Fenton following his receiver to the inside of the field on a slant on that play gave Jackson an entire field to work with.
We can look at one more from the Ravens game, a 24-yard run up the gut by Edwards. Granted, Baltimore is a heavy team, but Kansas City still looks awfully light on this play:
One might think that the Chiefs will come prepared, expecting Newton to run some of these plays. Logic would indeed dictate that. Yet if the Chiefs were either unable or unprepared to contain Jackson, they figure to be candidates to do it again against Newton.
The Chiefs certainly were not prepared for Herbert, as nobody — including the Chargers — knew he’d be starting until just before kickoff. Nevertheless, in the fourth quarter, Tanoh Kpassagnon badly overcommitted to the pitch man on an option run, allowing Herbert to tuck the ball and cut it upfield for an 11-yard gain. Chris Jones getting bullied around a bit on the edge didn’t help.
That game was more about the running backs than the quarterback, yet the damage was done more slowly and methodically. Ekeler’s longest run was for 13 yards …
… while Kelley’s longest was just seven yards.
The Chargers did show, though, that if a team is committed to the run, it can control the ball and remain in the game, even against a team that boasts such an explosive, quick-strike offense. (The Chargers had the ball for more than 39 minutes but went three-and-out in their only possession of overtime.)
Against Houston, the Chiefs’ worst work against the quarterback came in the fourth quarter of a blowout, so perhaps the D wasn’t at its best for Watson’s 13-yard scramble. But the defense did still want to keep the Texans out of the end zone at the end of that drive. This was decidedly not the way to do it.
Not entirely sure what Frank Clark’s strategy was there, but it appeared to be, “When in doubt, just hit somebody.”
Way back when that was still a competitive game, David Johnson ran for 37 yards on four carries on Houston’s second drive, capped off with a 19-yard touchdown run:
The Chiefs had to respect Watson’s potential to keep the ball and run to the defensive right. Linebacker Damien Wilson overcommitted up the middle and took himself out of the play. From there, it took just a simple cut and some solid speed for Johnson to beat a man in the open field and then win a footrace to the pylon.
This problem for the Chiefs is nothing new. Last year, even as champs, the team allowed the eighth-most rushing yards per game and the fourth-most rushing yards per attempt.
The 2019 Chiefs went 2-3 when they allowed 180 or more rushing yards. They went 13-1 in all other games.
This year, the Patriots topped 200 yards twice — in both of their wins. The Chiefs have yet to give up 200 yet this year, but the ingredients are in place for Sunday afternoon to change that.
So it’s really that simple for the Patriots this week. The road to victory — if it exists — is clearly marked on the ground. It’s just a matter of discipline, execution, and a willingness to stay the path even if the scoreboard suggests veering from the plan.