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First-quarter review: Run D struggles

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Picked-up pieces from first-quarter review of the New England Patriots’ 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs:

1. There is a long list of Patriots-based problem areas to address, but before we begin, let’s start with this: Credit to the Chiefs. What they put together was like an offensive version of a ferocious blitz. They took it to the Patriots and played with great energy, mixing personnel groupings and formations masterfully and in rhythm, while feeding off the frenzied crowd. And even then, they left some plays on the field.

2. Bill Belichick said the Patriots were hurt by some weakside runs. The first time this showed up was at 13:04 on Jamaal Charles’ 11-yard run and it was a good example of how the Patriots were displaced out of their gaps while in the nickel defense (against Kansas City’s 3 WR groupings). That seemed to be part of the Chiefs’ plan – get the Patriots in a lighter six-man box and run on them. On this play, the offensive line slid to one side, and the Patriots’ front of defensive linemen Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones, along with linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, mostly slid with them laterally. Charles ultimately cut back to the weakside and took advantage of the displacement of the defense. This was a play that highlighted how gap discipline and fundamentals can be better executed by New England by pressing offensive linemen and controlling them. Instead, the Chiefs dictated the way the game was played.

3. Running against the nickel showed up again with 5:49 remaining on third-and-2. The Chiefs had no problem pitching left there (3-yard run Knile Davis), feeling confident they could manipulate the Patriots’ front-6 in the run game. They did consistently.

4. In the end, I wonder if the Patriots regretted staying in nickel against the Chiefs instead of playing the 4-3 base against everything thrown at them. There is obviously a trickle-down effect of doing that -- it would limit coverage options -- but it was almost as if they were facing a barrage of groupings and formations and perhaps less would have been more for them (we’ll later highlight a play in the second quarter that sparked this thought).

5. The Chiefs ran on the base defense too, as evidenced by the 17-yard Charles’ jaunt to open the second drive (8:13 remaining). Chandler Jones set a soft edge and might have been slightly held, as his failure to disengage highlighted a game's worth of issues for him in that area.

6. My sense of the Patriots’ offensive game-plan was to feature draws and screens to try to use the Chiefs’ aggressiveness against them. Hence the heavy usage of Tom Brady in the shotgun early (17 of 23 first-half snaps), and having rookie running back James White active for the first time this year. The first offensive play was a screen (4 yards, Shane Vereen), but the next two plays -- throws down the field to covered receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell -- highlighted how there were not often open windows in which to throw. From a play-calling perspective, a bit of a curious way to start the game and ultimately the screen/draw-based plan never truly came to life because of second- and third-down issues in the second quarter.

7. One positive from the quarter outside of special teams captain Matthew Slater’s punt coverage: Good range from safety Devin McCourty (3:52) to break up a potential scoring pass to Frankie Hammond Jr.

8. Can’t put all of the struggles in the running game on the offensive line or play-calling, as on the final play of the quarter, tight end Rob Gronkowski missed a block on outside linebacker Justin Houston after coming in motion left to right as Shane Vereen was brought down for no gain. The play capped off a first quarter in which the Chiefs played with greater energy and executed at a much higher level.