Stopping Johnson A Chief Concern For Patriots

The Patriots barely got by the mistake-prone New Orleans Saints at home last week even though they held a two score lead late in the second half. If the Patriots play like that against a Kansas City team ,which is much more efficient in the red zone, bad things will happen. In order to win on the road this week, they're going to have to step up their pass coverage while keeping an eye on Larry Johnson.

Bill Belichick would cringe at such forward thinking, but it is a safe assumption that the ramifications of Sunday’s Patriots-Chiefs game will not be fully realized until several weeks after the game itself is played.

At 6-4 and in control of the lowly AFC East, New England heads into Arrowhead Stadium with its playoff destiny in its hands. The Chiefs (6-4), meanwhile, are caught amongst a logjam of six and seven-win teams in the conference that will be vying for the two Wild Card spots over final month of the season. When it comes to playoff aspirations, winning this game means much more to Kansas City than it does to the Patriots.

Then again, the Patriots are finally beginning to find themselves on defense and come into the game having won two straight games for the first time all season. Momentum has eluded the Patriots all season, but a win Sunday would build more confidence in an injury-ravaged team.

As was the case in wins against the Dolphins and Saints, stopping the run will be the key for the Patriots. With Priest Holmes out for the rest of the season, Larry Johnson is getting his chance to prove he can handle the workload of a primary running back. So far, he hasn’t disappointed. His 211 rushing yards against Houston last week were a career high and he has averaged 5.3 yards per carry, on par with the top backs in the league. Johnson’s eight touchdowns also make him the team’s primary scoring threat in the red zone.

The Patriots have held their last two opponents under 100 rushing yards, but Johnson figures to present more of a challenge than Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams or Antowain Smith. Inside linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi will have a busy day trying to contain Johnson’s running lanes between the tackles.

“We have to make sure to have four or five guys around the ball at all times because he’s tough to stop one-on-one in the open field,” said Vrabel. “He breaks a lot of tackles that lead to long runs so we have to make sure we wrap up and tackle well against him.”

The Chiefs’ running game has averaged 140 yards per game (4th in the NFL), so they are not going to be stopped altogether. The Patriots can minimize big plays with good defensive line penetration and sound tackling in the secondary. Safeties Eugene Wilson and Michael Stone, who has been a solid fill-in thus far, will only be able to provide limited help in the tackle box because of Kansas City’s dangerous passing attack.

Trent Green has been significantly less effective this season, but every quarterback has had success throwing the ball against the Patriots secondary. That trend is likely to continue this week, especially since tight end Tony Gonzalez will require so much attention between the hash marks. The Chiefs could also challenge undersized defensive backs Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and Hank Poteat by lining Gonzalez up in the slot.

Eddie Kennison (45 catches) poses the most threat on the outside. His 14.4 yards per catch average and four touchdowns make him worthy of double coverage, especially considering KC’s next best receiver, Dante Hall, has just 22 receptions this year. However, as has been the story all season, it will be a question of when and not if Kennison and Hall will burn the secondary for big plays should the pass rush continue to be stagnant.

The Patriots have just 14 sacks in this season -- one of the most alarming statistics of the season considering the talent the team touts in the front seven. This pressure outage has made matters even worse for an already porous secondary, which has yielded 263 passing yards per game, 31st in the league.

The Chiefs have allowed 23 sacks on Green this season, so there is hope that the Patriots won’t need to rely solely on the coverage of their defensive backs to neutralize the passing game.

New England will almost certainly yield high yardage totals, but pressuring Green could keep the Chiefs from closing out drives with touchdowns. Kansas City is 19th in the league in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns 51 percent of the time. However, Green has an NFL-best 67 percent completion rate inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Unlike the Chiefs, the Patriots offense is not going to be able to rely too heavily on rushing the football. New England would like nothing more than to be able to control the clock and shorten the game, but Kansas City has been stingy against the run this season. Opponents have averaged just 89.6 yards on the ground against the Chiefs.

Corey Dillon is listed as questionable on the injury report (ankle), but he won’t return until he is back to 100 percent. Backup Heath Evans has been serviceable at running back in Dillon’s absence, averaging 79 rushing yards in the past two games. At the very least, the Patriots can keep Kansas City honest by giving Evans some carries early in the game. Patrick Pass may also see an increase in touches this week as his hamstring strain improves.

Once again, Tom Brady will be responsible for keeping the offense moving and putting points on the board. Against the 29th ranked pass defense in the league (241 yards per game), Brady will be airing it out frequently. The Pats franchise quarterback took quite a few lumps last week against the Saints as he was sacked three times and knocked down often after completions. But the Chiefs’ pass rush is nearly as bad as New England’s, notching just 17 sacks this season.

If Brady is afforded enough time, Deion Branch could have one of his biggest games as a Patriot. Cornerback Patrick Surtain is listed as questionable on KC’s injury report, which could mean plenty of one-on-one matchups for Branch against mediocre defensive backs.

The injury bug has hit the offense over the past few weeks, especially along the offensive line and at wide receiver. Brandon Gorin and Russ Hochstein should see fill-in duty again this week on the offensive line, while receivers David Givens (knee), Troy Brown (foot), Tim Dwight (rib) and Bethel Johnson (pelvis) are all questionable.

The Patriots may be at an all-time low in terms of depth, as numerous fill-in players have been forced into starting roles. It is an epidemic they have overcome in the past on the way to championships, but the team would rather look forward to the light at the end of the tunnel instead of taking solace in the past.

“We are still fighting, (but) I don’t want to compare this to anything,” said Brady. “We are so far away compared to a Super Bowl team. When we start getting some guys back, we'll see what kind of team we have. But in the meantime ... we have to try to keep battling.”

What to look for: Who does Brady throw the ball to? The Patriots could be in for a shootout against a good Kansas City offense. With four wide receivers on the injury report, Brady may not have the luxury of spreading the ball around as much as normal. Andre’ Davis got a few long balls thrown his way last week, a 60-yard touchdown catch being the only completion. Davis may see more looks this week, as well as tight end Christian Fauria, who has seen more playing time in Daniel Graham’s absence. Ben Watson, who has 10 catches in his last three games, should also continue producing.

Notes: The team was without Belichick for most of its preparation this week as the head coach took a leave of absence to mourn the death of his father, Steve Belichick, the former coach at Navy. Assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia took over the coaching duties. … Brady has averaged 362 passing yards and a 113.8 rating in his last two games against the Chiefs. … Kansas City’s defense is 7th in the NFL on third down (34.7 percent) and has committed just 55 penalties, the least in the NFL. … Brady leads the league with 24 passes of 25 yards or longer. … With 55 receptions, Branch needs just three more this season to set a career high. … The Patriots’ turnover differential is -7. Kansas City’s is +5. … The Patriots have been outscored 96-27 in the second quarter. … The Chiefs have forced 29 fumbles so far this year. … Kevin Faulk, out since Week 4 with a broken foot, was upgraded from doubtful to questionable on this week’s injury report.

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