The Patriots continue to have offensive playmakers cycle in and out of the lineup as they get set to host the defending champion Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Despite expressing optimism earlier this week, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle) is officially inactive for New England. Smith-Schuster is coming off his best game as a Patriot with a season-high 90 receiving yards in last Thursday night's win over the Steelers. However, the veteran wideout won't face his former Chiefs squad due to a nagging ankle injury. Starting left tackle Trent Brown is also inactive, testing the Pats offensive depth.
The Patriots game-day inactives are RB Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle), OT Trent Brown (ankle/hand/illness), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle), CB Shaun Wade, DE Sam Roberts, and WR Kayshon Boutte. Boutte was removed from the final injury report but remains inactive after being a limited participant in practice this week due to a shoulder injury. The Chiefs inactives are CB Joshua Williams, RB Isiah Pacheco, DE B.J. Thompson, OT Donovan Smith, DT Neil Farrell, DT Matt Dickerson, DE Malik Herring.
The good news for the Patriots offense is rookie Demario Douglas and veteran DeVante Parker are returning to the lineup on Sunday. Douglas, the team's leading receiver, missed the last two games due to a concussion suffered in the loss to the Giants. As for Parker, the veteran wideout sat out the win over the Steelers last week due to a knee injury but will play following a one-game absence. After appearing on the injury report mid-week, Tyquan Thornton will play through a hamstring injury.
With Douglas and Parker returning, Parker will likely assume his starting role as the Patriots top "X" receiver, where second-year QB Bailey Zappe is willing to push the ball downfield. However, Zappe hasn't been efficient on those deeper throws along the sideline, completing only 3-of-10 deep passes outside the numbers this season. New England needs Parker to be a more viable contested catch threat to keep pace with the Chiefs.
As for the other receiver positions, Douglas will likely step back into a role as the Patriots primary Z/slot receiver, where offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien will move him around the formation to hunt matchups. Douglas ranks fourth among wide receivers with 7.4 yards after the catch per reception, so one would expect the Patriots to feed the explosive rookie on Sunday. Thornton will likely be the Pats third receiver on Sunday.
The Patriots are expected to start Zappe at quarterback for the third consecutive game, but he'll do so without his top receiver from last week's win and his starting left tackle. New England's offensive line without left tackle Trent Brown is projected to be LT Conor McDermott, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Mike Onwenu. McDermott has been rotating in at left tackle in recent games as an ankle injury has limited Brown. Last week, McDermott played 40% of the offensive snaps while allowing three quarterback hurries.
The Patriots offensive line had one of its better performances against the Steelers. This week, the Pats will need to deal with a Chiefs pass rush that includes All-Pro DT Chris Jones, EDGE George Karlaftis, who leads KC with 57 quarterback pressures, and Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnulou's blitz-heavy scheme (fourth-highest blitz rate, 38.8%). Although the numbers suggest the Chiefs have a modest pass rush, they have two one-on-one winners, while Spags is fantastic at scheming unblocked rushers to the quarterback.
New England will need to be prepared with good blitz awareness by Zappe, quick adjustments for the receivers, and an offensive line on the same page to solve Kansas City's pressure schemes. In his three starts this season, Zappe's numbers against the blitz are better than his stats when not blitzed. The Pats second-year QB has gone 12-of-18 for 6.9 yards per pass attempt in 25 drop-backs against the blitz compared to 10-of-21 for 3.3 yards per attempt when defenses don't blitz. By the numbers, it might be better for Zappe if the Chiefs blitz a lot.
At running back, the Patriots will feature Ezekiel Elliott for the second straight week. Elliott played 52 of a possible 57 snaps in last week's win, accumulating a season-high 140 total scrimmage yards and a touchdown. Without Stevenson, the Pats elevated second-year RB Kevin Harris from the practice squad, and veteran RB JaMycal Hasty is active for the first time since joining the team in mid-November. Hasty could play a similar role to Ty Montgomery, who was waived by the team earlier this week.
Defensively, Patriots DL Christian Barmore (shoulder/illness) is officially active after missing the final practice of the week. Pats linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley (knee) is also good to go after being limited on Friday. New England will have its full contingent of defenders on the active roster to battle with Chiefs superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes on Sunday.
The blueprint against the Chiefs offense is to play early-down man coverage against their run-pass option schemes with split-safety coverages on shot-play downs and third downs. The Pats have favored man coverage in past matchups with Kansas City due to Mahomes's off-script magic and TE Travis Kelce's elite route-running against zone coverages. Still, expect plenty of cover-two zones, maybe even drop-eight coverage, while mixing in two-man coverages to keep the top on the defense with man coverage underneath the deep safeties.
Kansas City's offense is having a down year by their standards, ranking 11th in scoring at 22.5 points per game, which is nearly a full touchdown less than last season. The Patriots defense has been competing all season, making this an interesting litmus test for the defense.
The Patriots host the Chiefs with kickoff at 1 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.