Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's ESPN's "Monday Night Football" matchup between the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium (8:30 p.m. ET):
Mike: Let's lead off with the Monday night atmosphere, Tedy. It's ESPN, and everyone's watching.
Tedy: As a player, "Monday Night Football" can be great because of that atmosphere. At the same time, a Monday night road game is tough because you're waiting around all day. You have the late start and you know that sometimes you won't be home until the sun comes up. That can put a toll on your body later in the week. So the wait it just brutal on the road, and more bearable when you're home; that's why when that schedule comes out in the spring you're hoping that any Monday games are at home.
Mike: Let's get into the Chiefs, a team that has impressed me the last two weeks in road games against Denver (24-17 loss in which they controlled significant parts of the game) and Miami (34-15 win). They looked like a different team than the one that opened the season with a 26-10 home loss to Tennessee.
Tedy: The first thing to acknowledge is the status of running back Jamaal Charles. Is he going to go with the ankle injury? He's listed as probable, so he is likely to play. It's obvious they're more dangerous with him, as he's their No. 1 weapon. When head coach Andy Reid has a weapon like that, he's going to find ways to get him the ball. He'll run between the tackles. He has the speed to take it outside. And there are different ways they get him the ball in space, using misdirection, like the simple swing screen they ran in the season opener against Tennessee (13:41 of the first quarter). On plays like that, they're trying to get the defense to take that one false step, and it gives offensive linemen time to get in position on blocks. Those are the little elements of play-design that you have to take into account when going up against an Andy Reid-coached offense. You have to be patient. As a linebacker, or a defensive player in general, you have to read and diagnose the play before you react. You can't bite on the first look, and have to understand that with Andy Reid, there's always another play off certain action he gives you.
Mike: The Patriots are familiar with this from the times they faced his Eagles teams, like Super Bowl XXXIX, but the personnel is obviously different now.
Tedy: It comes back to Charles. If you jump on that initial look, the first half-second of a play, then you can put yourself out of position. So the thought has to be in your mind, "Going up against a player like this, what are the other possibilities I have to defend?" The Patriots have a lot of talented players on defense, and their patience is a big thing this week. That's true with Charles' backup running back, Knile Davis, as well. His 21-yard second-quarter touchdown run last week against Miami (6:46 remaining) came off a fake toss action to the left before he got the handoff inside. Again, that's Reid trying to get the defensive player to take that half-step to one side so the offensive line can get angles going back to the other side.
Mike: And that's a good Miami defensive front, as we saw in the season-opener. That was a very effective play by the Chiefs, with receiver A.J. Jenkins motioning into the backfield to set up the fake toss. Creative. The Patriots have been better against the run the last two weeks, but whether it's Charles or Davis on Monday night, this is arguably their toughest challenge of the season.
Tedy: That includes quarterback Alex Smith, too, as he's a threat to run. So this is a team, with Smith and Reid's scheme, they have ways to threaten a team that doesn't look like good news for the Patriots. At the same time, as good of a coach as Reid is, sometimes you still scratch your head with him. You'll see the running game disappear at times and Charles won't have as many carries as he should. In the season-opener, he only had seven rushing attempts for 19 yards as Reid abandoned the running game way too early. You don't always know what you're going to get with him, and that includes some questionable decision-making, like calling for a shot down the field right before halftime in the season opener. The Chiefs were backed up at their own 2, there were 37 seconds left, and the Titans intercepted it and turned it into a field goal. Then, down 20-3, he called a fake punt in the third quarter with 1:28 left. There's still a lot of time at that point. So I'd say he's not afraid to take chances.
Mike: What do you see from Smith?
Tedy: He is a good quarterback. I'd say he has average arm strength. He's not the type of quarterback who you fear will take you down the field, more of a close-to-the-vest signal-caller. So if you want to say it, yes, he's conservative. There are a lot of slant routes, passes to the flat, angle routes from the backfield. An angle route is when the running back gives you a look as if he's going to the flat and then angles to the middle of the field. So you see a lot of throws shorter than 20 yards, and the longer the throw, the less accurate he becomes. It ties to the mentality that he doesn't want to make a mistake and it's not in his style to go deep on a consistent basis.
Mike: ESPN's Stats & Information had this nugget from last week's Chiefs game against Miami -- Smith's average pass traveled 2.9 yards downfield. That was the shortest by any quarterback in a game in the last three seasons.
Tedy: Defensively, against this type of West Coast offense, you want to be physical at the line of scrimmage and re-route receivers to throw off the timing. Once Alex Smith sees routes disrupted and timing affected, he pulls the ball down and that's when you have to consider that he's an athletic quarterback who can run. They do call runs for him, but I don't think that's a major point of emphasis for a defense. This isn't like Randall Cunningham back there. At the same time, he does have a knack for getting the first down and initiating his slide.
Mike: One of the words Bill Belichick used to describe the Chiefs' offense this week was "explosive."
Tedy: I was curious about that, because I don't necessarily think "explosive" when I watch them. When I think "explosive," it's usually more going deep, taking consistent shots down the field, and threatening down the middle with an athletic tight end. So if I were to characterize this offense, I might say it's explosive after the catch. But almost everything is a 5-to-10-yard pass, you have misdirection runs, sweeps going to the outside, and it's all about making tackles for the defense. A lot of these pass plays are catch-and-runs and if no one is close, they'll take it up the field for 10-to-15 yards. To me, explosive is more what you think of with a team like the Bengals with receiver A.J. Green. I'm not thinking that with the Chiefs, and Alex Smith and receiver Dwayne Bowe. Sure, Charles is one of the most explosive players in the league, but a lot of their explosiveness is getting open by scheme -- you think one thing, and they hit you with something else. So I guess I view "explosive" a little differently than my old coach.
Mike: The Patriots are obviously preparing for Charles, who was limited in his return to practice Thursday, but Davis has proved to be a capable replacement regardless. He was a third-round pick out of Arkansas in 2013. He's 5-foot-10 and 227 pounds -- a little bit of a bigger back.
Tedy: I like him; he runs hard. At the same time, he's a ball-security target for a defense. He fumbled twice against Miami. Not only did he fumble, he did it at a time when they were running the ball late with the lead and you know the defense is coming after it -- like cornerback Brent Grimes did in pulling the football away from him. When you put that on tape, defenses take note. That's another reason that the Chiefs are probably anxious to get Charles back.
Mike: We've talked a lot about Smith and the running backs. Let's highlight some others.
Tedy: Second-year tight end Travis Kelce, who is a physical presence at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, seems like he's making a name for himself now. You see him making some nice plays on crossing routes, and he's effective after the catch with good athletic ability. The other tight end, Anthony Fasano, is more of a grinder who gives you everything he has. He may not be the most gifted athletically, but he'll still show up on "SportsCenter's" top-10 plays with a catch like he made in Week 2 against Denver (9:43 remaining, fourth quarter). At receiver, it's Bowe, Donnie Avery and De'Anthony Thomas, among others. I don't think the passing game is about defending one specific player, it's more about defending concepts in that West Coast offense -- routes based on timing, slant routes and things like that.
Mike: You've mentioned in the past something about the game-opening script when talking about Reid. We saw the Patriots get hurt by the "script" on the opening drive in Week 2 against the Vikings and offensive coordinator Norv Turner. What do you mean by that?
Tedy: Reid is a coach who will have a script for the start of the game that includes multiple offensive sets and motions to deal with. Last week, for example, you saw a lot of bunch formations, multiple wide receivers, and the quarterback in the shotgun -- with a double-reverse look and then hitting you with direct runs. It's their way of testing your adjustment level as a defense based on their game-plan formations. They'll see how you react to it and as the game goes on they will handpick what they want to do based on what worked -- bootlegs, screens, quarterback runs, shotgun sweeps with multiple pullers. Think about the old-school Packers with Paul Hornung -- two offensive linemen off the edge, with either Davis, Charles or Smith running.
Mike: The Chiefs have been hit hard by free-agent losses (Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah) and injuries (Jeff Allen) along the offensive line. Their right guard, rookie Zach Fulton of Tennessee (sixth round), has struggled at times. Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick last year, is at left tackle and has also had some trouble.
Tedy: I wouldn't say this is an outstanding offensive line. I don't see any individual players who would be classified as great, but they do look like they work well together. Under Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, the offense seems like it has its rhythm, and the offensive line is part of that. For the Patriots, the importance of tackling can't be stressed enough this week. In the secondary, this could be the type of game where you sit back, squat and watch the quarterback because you know there will be curls, 10-to-12-yard in-routes, slant routes, and maybe you can make a play on those, similar to how Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib did in Week 2 when he had an interception return for a touchdown called back because of an offside penalty. I could see Darrelle Revis making a big play in this game based on his knowledge of pass-route combinations and instincts, maybe breaking on an Alex Smith throw and taking it to the house.
Mike: Looking at the Chiefs defensively, one thing that stands out is that they are the only team in the NFL to not have forced a turnover. It looked like they had one in Week 2 against Denver on an Emmanuel Sanders fumble, but the officials ruled otherwise.
Tedy: They aren't as good as last year on defense; when you lose a player like linebacker Derrick Johnson to a season-ending injury, as well as defensive lineman Mike DeVito, that hurts this early in the season. But they still show explosiveness with their front. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali is a great player. The other outside linebacker, Justin Houston, can get after the passer. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe might be the biggest problem for the Patriots, and defensive linemen Vance Walker and Allen Bailey are also showing up on film in terms of getting penetration. So I could see this defensive front giving the Patriots some problems with interior penetration.
Mike: The offensive line has been a huge issue for the Patriots. I'm curious to see if there will be any personnel changes after right guard Jordan Devey was benched in the fourth quarter last Sunday and rookie center Bryan Stork came on, bumping Dan Connolly to right guard.
Tedy: This is the type of situation where Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is really going to have to earn his money to find ways to keep that defensive line off balance. The two guards and the center spot are big issues right now. Do you spread this defense out and put Tom Brady in the shotgun and dink and dunk to keep him protected? If you do, you could use tear screens and double screens that almost serve as an extension of the running game. Or do you try to pound it and make it easier for the offensive line to block in the run game, which is what most offensive linemen would rather do. I'm curious to see what he comes up with because at offensive tackle, you can make up for some deficiencies in pass protection by bringing the tight end over there, or having a running back help out. But when the pressure is point-blank coming right down the middle -- those are some of the same problems that Green Bay is having. Philadelphia could have that too with their center, Jason Kelce, now injured. As exciting as it is to see quarterbacks like Peyton Manning throw 50-plus touchdown passes and Tom Brady and Drew Brees throw for 4,000-5,000 yards, the main reason they could do so is because they were protected. That's the essence of football. Right now the Patriots don't have that inside and it's a major problem.
Mike: The Chiefs' Dontari Poe, a first-round pick in 2012, almost reminds me of Vince Wilfork in the sense that he's extremely athletic for a player his size (6-3, 346).
Tedy: A good example of what Poe is all about came against the Titans in Week 1 -- it's the first quarter (11:09 remaining) and he gets pushed off the ball on a running play but makes up for it with his shed. He was strong enough to realize he was out of position and shed, in addition to showing enough athleticism to shed the block and get back in position to make the play (2-yard gain). He was the Chiefs' top pick when Romeo Crennel was the head coach and Scott Pioli was the general manager. RAC saw good things in him and that selection is paying off. Another thing to watch for from the Chiefs is that they have subtle movements to throw off blocking schemes, and it's unclear if it's planned or just savvy play. In the first quarter against the Dolphins last week (6:30 remaining), Vance Walker lines up on the nose, with a left shade on the center. Then, after he hears quarterback Ryan Tannehill's cadence, he switches his alignment to a shade on the right side of the center and there is just enough indecision on the offensive line to allow great penetration when Allen Bailey loops in from his right defensive position under Walker's surge. Both end up in the backfield for a tackle for a loss. Those subtle movements are something the Patriots are going to have to deal with. Sometimes a team will wait to stunt for a passing play, but the Chiefs do it in running situations too.
Mike: Maybe that could create some opportunities in the running game for the Patriots?
Tedy: Yes, the Chiefs can get caught out of position at times. That happened against Miami last week (2:35 remaining in the third quarter) when Tamba Hali ran a TE game -- the T is for tackle and the E is for end. That is when the tackle goes first into the B gap and then the end will loop under that tackle. That causes some confusion for offensive lines, but at the same time, can burn a defense with a soft edge like it did when running back Lamar Miller raced 24 yards to that side as both Hali and Bailey got pinned inside.
Mike: Hali is one of my favorite players to watch in the NFL. He's a dynamic pass-rusher similar to Miami's Cameron Wake, and we saw Wake's impact in Week 1.
Tedy: He has everything in his game. Speed to power. He can go back inside. He plays the run well. I think he sets the edge well and will instinctively stop himself from getting too far up field when he recognizes it's a run. He's not the type of player who will blindly run past you to try to get to the quarterback. In terms of blocking him one-on-one, don't plan on doing it with a running back. Just ask Denver running back Montee Ball how that worked out (4:07 remaining, third quarter) when Hali steamrolled him for a sack. As we've seen the first few weeks with opponents against the Patriots, if you win the line of scrimmage, everyone else looks so much better defensively. The coverage is better when someone is in Brady's lap, when there's less time for a quarterback to find a receiver and receivers have less time to get open. That's the Chiefs' main threat.
Mike: Hali is challenging enough to deal with, but then there is Justin Houston on the other edge.
Tedy: It's not just on the edge with Houston. They also line him up over the guard, which tells me they are a matchup-based defense. If they see a problem at left guard, right guard or center, they'll find a way to exploit it. I'm sure they see some of the struggles the Patriots are having on the interior, so that's something to look for -- more of Houston sliding down to test that interior.
Mike: Here's something else to consider: Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has a bit more familiarity with the Patriots' personnel than maybe one would expect from a non-division opponent from his time as a Jets assistant coach (2000-2012).
Tedy: You think about Sutton's background and the head coaches he's worked under with the Jets -- Al Groh, Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan. It doesn't get any broader than that and watching the Chiefs' first three games, you see many different elements to this defense. Against Miami, it was more of a 4-3 front, which might have been a result of a spread Dolphins offense. Against the Broncos, it was more of a 3-4 front. So they're multiple and you see them standing at the line of scrimmage at times, dropping players out. I don't think there is anything consistent that you can look at over the first three weeks and say "this defines them, scheme-wise." They find a way to get into the backfield, and sometimes it's simply because of the play of the defensive line.
Mike: Let's wrap it up with a few final thoughts and our predictions. The Chiefs look more vulnerable at inside linebacker and the secondary, but it's all a matter of the Patriots' protection holding up to try to hurt them there.
Tedy: I've seen safety Eric Berry, who missed last week's game, have some problems with tight ends like Julius Thomas and Antonio Gates. So this may be the perfect time for Rob Gronkowski to get healthy, because there are a lot of matchups that he can win consistently. This secondary highly depends on pressuring the quarterback. If the Patriots can hold off the penetration, I think Stevan Ridley and the run game can save the day. The Dolphins had success against the Chiefs with the run.
Mike: On special teams, Chiefs kicker Carlo Santos looks a little shaky. He missed a 37-yarder against Denver in Week 2 after a 10-minute drive. That hurt.
Tedy: But the Chiefs have come close to making some big plays in the return game, with a couple returns called back because of penalties. You figure their special teams coach, Dave Toub, is in the meeting room saying, "Look what we have going if we can just eliminate those penalties." I've been in those meetings and when you see those block-in-the-back penalties, it can drive you up a wall. When you're playing on those return units, you're told that if you see the number or name on the back of an opponent, stop, turn, and block somebody else. The returner is going to have to make someone miss, it might be that player, and you can go help by blocking someone else. The worst thing you can do is block the player whose number and name you see in their back. It's fundamental football -- Kickoff and Punt Return Blocking 101.
Mike: You're always teaching, Tedy. Great stuff. The Patriots' concerns in pass protection don't look like a good matchup against the Chiefs, who rank fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play. We've watched Tom Brady take a beating in two of the first three games, and now you have Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dontari Poe to deal with. While I'd normally think the Patriots could exploit the Chiefs' linebackers and secondary, it's more challenging to invest in them at this point based on the struggles at the line of scrimmage. Throw in the Arrowhead Stadium environment, which will further tax the offensive line, and I'll go Chiefs 24, Patriots 20.
Tedy: I was ready to pick against the Patriots this week, but the more I think about it, I see the Patriots' defense making big plays by taking the ball away. Brady will get the ball out quickly, and defense, special teams, and Gronkowski's emergence is enough to get it done. Same score, Reiss, different team winning. Patriots 24, Chiefs 20.