Banged-up Chiefs a long shot vs. Pats
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" matchup against the visiting Kansas City Chiefs.
Mike: After the Patriots beat the New York Jets on Oct. 9, I remember saying something along the lines of "There aren't too many things that make Bill Belichick happier than beating the Jets." That thought has been reinforced this week. A lot of smiling from Belichick.
Tedy: There were times when I was playing that we won and it still seemed like you lost, because Coach Belichick is so good at suppressing success and moving on. But he's always in a better mood when you come back from the Meadowlands and you beat the Jets, or you beat them at home. That's how serious that rivalry is in the locker room. Yes, they're moving on, "one game at a time," they all say that. But you can tell when watching Bill Belichick, he's a little happier after a Jets win, and the players can sense it too.
Mike: As we transition to Monday night's game, one of the big storylines won't be coming to the forefront: Quarterback Matt Cassel, the former Patriot, injured his throwing hand and is out. That's disappointing because you know how much he was looking forward to competing against his former team. So that moves us to the next former Patriot to discuss, Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. He was the Patriots' vice president of player personnel from 2000 to 2008.
Tedy: In some cases, you might have the head of the personnel department and he stays upstairs. You never see them. That wasn't Scott Pioli. He was always around and he always wanted to talk to most of the guys. He made great decisions when he was here and I think that is tied to his instincts. He wanted to get a feel of a lot of the players, to try to get to know them, to see what type of character they had. I think he always wanted to know the mood of the team, the character of the team, and as he was looking for additions he'd be thinking, "How does this player fit with our locker room community?" He really valued football players with high intelligence. Smart, tough players, character guys. You felt he really tried to get to know you.
Mike: From a big-picture perspective, the Patriots look to be in good shape at 6-3 and the remaining games -- vs. Kansas City, at Philadelphia, vs. Indianapolis, at Washington, at Denver, vs. Miami, vs. Buffalo -- seem relatively easy. They could be facing a lot of backup quarterbacks, which ties in to the overall theme of quarterback injuries around the NFL. Some big ones have altered the picture.
Tedy: Matt Schaub's foot injury in Houston is significant. The Texans were playing good football and to lose your starting quarterback, that's a big blow. From a Patriots perspective, that's a big worry you no longer have to account for if you were to meet up in the playoffs. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger has a fractured bone in the thumb on his throwing hand. That will be something to watch in terms of how much it affects his performance.
Patriots defense vs. Chiefs offense
Mike: When you are at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, and on shows like "NFL Live" and "SportsCenter," there is something called the Bio Blast, in which you're talking about a certain player. Give us a Bio Blast on Chiefs quarterback Tyler Palko, who is expected to make his first career start.
Tedy: Matt Cassel is not expected to play this week, so it's Palko, a second-year player out of the University of Pittsburgh -- 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, 28 years old. He throws left-handed. At Pittsburgh, he beat out Joe Flacco, which sent Flacco to the University of Delaware, where he became a star and later a first-round draft choice of the Ravens. Palko stayed at Pittsburgh and Dave Wannstedt came in as the new coach, and with that came a different offensive philosophy that didn't seem to gel with Palko, and Palko went undrafted. He spent some time in New Orleans and Arizona, on practice squads, then the UFL and the CFL. He came back into the league, had a cup of coffee with the Steelers in '09, and now has had a couple of years with the Chiefs. He's the son of a coach. His arm strength is average. He does have athletic ability and mobility, but might lock on his first read at times. Overall, this is an unproven player.
Mike: I actually met Tyler Palko and his family back in the late 1990s on a light-hearted assignment for now-defunct Sport Magazine in which we were searching for the next great quarterback to come out of Western Pennsylvania. As we know, with the likes of Montana, Unitas, Marino, Kelly, Namath, that area has a great tradition when it comes to producing quarterbacks. You mentioned Palko being the son of a coach, and when you consider the tradition-rich, football-crazed environment in which he grew up, maybe this type of moment won't be too big for him. It will be fun to watch.
Tedy: This is a great opportunity for him and I think the thing you can look at is him trying to get the ball to his receivers to make plays. Dwayne Bowe is a big target. Then there's rookie Jonathan Baldwin, the first-round pick from Pittsburgh. Last week against Denver, he made a sensational catch with safety Brian Dawkins on him, in which he reached around his back and caught the ball with Dawkins trying to faceguard him. It was one of the best catches of last week, but an illegal formation negated the catch. Baldwin is a huge threat, a big target for Palko. Basically, when you have a quarterback situation like this, and the quarterback isn't afraid to take a chance, sometimes you just throw it up to your playmakers and see if they can come down it.
Mike: For the Patriots in the secondary, this is a banged-up group that probably will be without cornerback Devin McCourty, who injured his shoulder in the win over the Jets. So you're talking about Bowe, Baldwin, Steve Breaston & Co. against a depleted secondary. What do you see from the Patriots' secondary?
Tedy: I think they did a good job last week executing the game plan. This could come down similarly to what we saw earlier in the year with Brandon Marshall in the Dolphins game, and Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd in the Chargers game, where you have a lot of jump-ball situations. Even if you're in the right position, you still have to make a play on the ball. That's something the secondary has struggled with at times against bigger receivers.
Tedy: They use all three. McCluster is the scat back, an undersized guy. As for the offensive line, there have been struggles in that area. Matt Cassel was sacked four times last week against the Broncos, and absorbed a total of 12 quarterback hits. So when you sum it up, it's a struggling offensive line and a running back group that splits things up and is averaging 124 yards per game (10th in the NFL). With Palko at quarterback, I think you want to look at them trying to get him to the edge with bootlegs, waggles, rollouts. Those are different type of calls that you'd have with a Matt Cassel.
Mike: As a player, is it hard to resist the temptation to relax when knowing you're facing a backup quarterback?
Tedy It can be, but what you want to do defensively, early on, is send the message that there is no hope. Get a couple early three-and-outs. Maybe an early interception. Sometimes, if you give those backup quarterbacks a little bit of life early, it can snowball into something where they're more confident to take some chances.
Mike: Overall, it should be noted this is a Chiefs team that has lost some of its best players to injuries. Tight end Tony Moeaki and running back Jamaal Charles, two of their top weapons, are on season-ending injured reserve. On defense, they lost safety Eric Berry and linebacker Brandon Siler for the year. Every team deals with them, but this looks like a case where Scott Pioli is still building up the depth and it's been a bigger drop-off than he'd like without those players.
Tedy: The Patriots' defense has been banged up as well, but I think you saw some things come together last week against the Jets. That has to be a huge confidence boost. If you're a player, and you see receiver Julian Edelman in the defensive huddle, that's when you know you're thin. To still win, it leads to more trust in the system, in the coaches, in the techniques you're playing.
Patriots offense vs. Chiefs defense
Mike: This is a 3-4 defense coordinated by Romeo Crennel and one thing that stands out is that they have 13 interceptions on the season. That's one of the highest totals in the NFL in terms of percentage of passes intercepted. What are your thoughts on Crennel, whom you played for?
Tedy: We won a lot of championships with RAC here in New England. Just a very fundamentally sound coordinator and to see what he comes up with against Tom Brady and the Patriots will be interesting. He was like a father figure to players -- he had that aura about him. It was such a contrast from Coach Belichick. You'd go from Coach Belichick and then into the defensive meeting room, and RAC would be talking about hunting stories or a theme of never giving up. He was more parental in his raising of defensive players. He knew the scheme and had the knowledge, but it was a different approach than Coach Belichick.
Mike: The Chiefs actually rank last in the NFL in sacks per pass play, which is surprising when considering they have outside linebacker Tamba Hali. He had 14.5 sacks last year, and has six this year.
Tedy: Hali is a great pass-rusher. The Patriots are going to focus on him and make sure he doesn't ruin the game. If Sebastian Vollmer or Matt Light can't block him one-on-one, look for them to use tight ends and running backs, with a chip, to help. They also have Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker, and he's a big-play guy. I think a lot of people were down on him in recent years, but you see him in spurts making interceptions, sacking the quarterback, making plays in the backfield. He has good speed and size (6-3, 242). He's a linebacker I enjoy watching on film.
Mike: At cornerback, you're also high on Brandon Flowers, a fourth-year player out of Virginia Tech.
Tedy: When you're talking about elite corners in the league, you start with Darrelle Revis, and there are others who are in the discussion like Nnamdi Asomugha, but you don't often hear Flowers' name. I think he's the best cornerback in the NFL that no one knows about. He's made big plays. I remember him taking a pick-six back on Carson Palmer a couple of weeks ago against the Raiders. He has the ability to make big plays. He's a quality player.
Mike: Rookie outside linebacker Justin Houston will be a player some Patriots followers might be interested in watching closely. The Patriots have had some struggles in drafting and developing a pass-rusher, and he was a prospect discussed this year. He went to the Chiefs in the third round and has played in all nine games with three starts.
Tedy: Overall, one thing I'd say is that the Chiefs are closer to a desperation type situation, so be aware of the possibility of fakes on special teams, or a surprise onside kick. You could see a reverse on a return. At 4-5, they are still in the race for the AFC West crown, but they know they'll need to come up with something to steal a possession in a tough spot on the road.
Mike: I thought the Patriots tightened up on special teams against the Jets, but this will be another good challenge. Javier Arenas is a solid punt returner (14.1 average) and Dexter McCluster can make things happen on kickoffs. Let's get to our predictions. I think the Chiefs come to play under the "Monday Night Football" spotlight, but in the end, envision them being outmanned. The Chiefs are averaging 15.6 points per game this season and it's going to be hard for them to keep pace with Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense. I don't think it will be a blowout, but the Patriots should be in command by the fourth quarter. Patriots 30, Chiefs 17.
Tedy: This next stretch of games is where the New England Patriots start to gain some momentum. The Chiefs are well-coached, but are beat up and outmanned. Tyler Palko won't be able to take advantage of the defensive weaknesses that the Patriots have. This game might get out of hand. Tom Brady has a big night. Patriots 38, Chiefs 13
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.
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