KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was one of the hottest questions during AFC Championship week: Which New England Patriots cornerback would cover Kansas City Chiefs superstar receiver Tyreek Hill?
Would it be Stephon Gilmore, the All-Pro veteran who’s dominated since September? Or would it be J.C. Jackson, the feisty, physical undrafted rookie who’s looked like a potential star in the making?
The answer: neither.
In the biggest game of the season, against one of the best wide receivers the NFL has to offer, the Patriots surprised everyone by having third-year pro Jonathan Jones and seventh-round rookie Keion Crossen cover Hill in shifts with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.
And it worked. Hill caught one 42-yard bomb midway through the second quarter but otherwise was held off the stat sheet, finishing with one catch on three targets in New England’s epic 37-31 overtime victory Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
That was a far cry from Hill’s previous performances against the Patriots: a seven-catch, 133-yard, one-touchdown performance in the 2017 season opener and a seven-catch, 142-yard, three-score effort in Week 6 of this season.
“I think we had a good game plan all across the board,” Jones said after the game. “… (Hill is) a big part of their offense, so that was kind of our game plan. We knew we had to stop him. We couldn’t allow him to run around and make consecutive big plays like that like he’d done all year. I think we were able to come out, execute the game plan, and it definitely helped us.”
What made the Patriots’ coverage strategy so unexpected was that Jones and Crossen both have been near the bottom of the team’s cornerback depth chart for the majority of the season.
Jones, who took the lion’s share of snaps against Hill, has been the team’s slot corner in the past, but he’d been bumped to dime duty behind Jason McCourty following the midseason emergence of Jackson. Crossen is a special teams standout and played just 39 defensive snaps during the regular season.
Both corners share one important trait, though: They might be the Patriots’ two fastest players — a vital attribute to have against Hill, one of the NFL’s premier speedsters.
“It always helps just knowing that you can play aggressive,” said Crossen, who was in coverage along with Devin McCourty on Hill’s lone reception. “Whatever you need to do, Dev made me right. The one play was a great play, a great scheme by the (Chiefs) coach, and on to the next play.”
He added: “(Hill is) a great player. He’s going to catch a ball. But it’s about limiting those catches that he makes, those big plays. And I think Dev, JMac, Du (safety Duron Harmon), they had my back, man. We played as a team. It was a great win.”
Hill’s three targets represented his lowest mark since 2016. For context, he was targeted 13 times in the Chiefs’ divisional-round win over the Indianapolis Colts, catching eight passes. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw his way just twice after halftime, one of which nearly resulted in a Jones interception.
“J. Jones did a tremendous job of being physical with him, and Dev did a good job of just shadowing over the top of him, just making sure that he didn’t get any big plays,” Harmon said. “That was a big part of our game plan, and those two guys performed at an elite level (Sunday). They were a big reason why we won the game today.”
With Jones and Crossen and Devin McCourty handling Hill, the Patriots initially stuck Gilmore on wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Jackson on All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. Responsibilities shifted during the second half, with Gilmore taking over coverage responsibilities on Kelce.
Watkins had a productive night with four catches on eight targets for 114 yards, but Kelce was held to three catches on five targets for 23 yards, though he did beat Jackson for a touchdown.
“We knew those guys were going to be on (Hill) the whole time,” Gilmore said. “We had to be physical with him. I was going to be matched up on an island the whole time. Anything it takes for this team to win, that’s what it takes.”
Thumbnail photo via Mark Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images