How would the Bill Belichick and the Patriots deal with Tyreek Hill?
That was the big strategic question heading into the AFC Championship Game. With star corner Stephon Gilmore, emerging rookie J.C. Jackson and veteran Jason McCourty at his disposal, Belichick had plenty of options. Asking a little-used undrafted free agent was not considered one of them.
Well, that’s what Belichick and his coaching staff settled on, and, like many of the strategic twists he has thrown at high-powered offenses throughout his career, it worked. Hill was limited to one catch for 42 yards after putting up 142 yards and three touchdowns earlier this year against the Patriots.
The X’s and O’s behind Belichick’s plan — at least on the back end — weren’t terribly complicated. The Pats secondary would play man coverage across the board with free safety Devin McCourty doubling Hill whenever he went deep. The real ingenuity lies in how Belichick opted to match-up with the Chiefs’ stable of receiving weapons.
Gilmore took Sammy Watkins, Jackson shadowed Travis Kelce, Jason McCourty covered Chris Conley, and taking Hill, the most dangerous receiver on the Chiefs roster and perhaps the entire NFL? That would be undrafted free agent Jonathan Jones, who had played only 19 defensive snaps since Week 12.
Why Jones? Well, he ran a 4.33 40-yard-dash. And while he may lack size to play outside, that wouldn’t really be an issue against the diminutive Hill, who did most of his damage in that first game by running away from slower corners after lining up in the slot.
That wasn’t going to happen against a corner with 4.33 speed trailing Hill with a safety offering help over the top.
Hill’s lone reception came on a shrewdly-designed counter to the deep crossing routes he destroyed the Pats with back in October.
But when the Chiefs went back to that play later in the game, Jones had enough speed to recover and make a play on the ball.
Putting your fastest corner on Hill may seem like a rather obvious solution, but how many other coaches would put an undrafted free agent on the NFL’s most explosive receiving weapon in the AFC title game? The answer is zero.
It wasn’t just asking a no-name reserve to cover Hill that would have scared other coaches away from using such a game plan. Belichick asked his entire secondary to do something no other defense dared to do against this Chiefs offense.
“They challenged us,” Patrick Mahomes said after the game. “They came up and played man. Not a lot of teams have this year. They put people in our face to see how we responded. The first half, we struggled. We couldn’t make anything happen.”
And that’s why Belichick is in a class of his own. He isn’t afraid of going with an unorthodox game plan, even if it exposes him to criticism. We saw that last February when he left Malcolm Butler on the bench for all of Super Bowl LII. That plan did not work, and Belichick was widely panned. He would have faced similar backlash had the plan to cover Hill with a no-name corner backfired. But it didn’t, and Belichick was hailed as a genius.
We mock Belichick when he praises players who aren’t considered very good, but that willingness to see the best in players is what makes him so good. Every NFL player has something they do well — they would not have made it to the highest level of the sport if that wasn’t the case. Belichick keys in on that strength and figures out a way to best utilize it. Jones may not be a lockdown cover corner — which is how someone with 4.33 speed goes undrafted — but his speed and quickness made him a perfect match for Hill’s skillset.
Too many coaches focus on what a player can’t do, instead of focusing on his strengths and how he can help the team. Not Belichick. And his approach is mimicked throughout the Patriots organization, which is why it has been so proficient at turning unheralded players into useful assets.
Jones was the Patriots’ latest out-of-nowhere star, but we may never hear from him again. Or maybe the Patriots will use him in a similar fashion to slow down Brandin Cooks, the Rams’ own version of Tyreek Hill. Or maybe New England will devise another plan that nobody is expecting on Super Bowl Sunday. You never know what you’re going to get from Belichick, and that’s one of the many reasons he’s the greatest coach in NFL history.
And that’s why he’s the GOAT.