The Kansas City Chiefs are dominating on defense. Despite losing Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito for the season in Week 1 and Brandon Flowers to free agency before the season began, the Chiefs are sporting a top unit. Unlike last year, Kansas City has faced elite quarterbacks and offenses almost weekly and yet have continued to thrive.
Led by defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, the Chiefs are leading the NFL in passing yardage allowed per game at 195.7 and rank second in sacks/game at 3.42. Just as impressive, Kansas City is holding opponents to a 32.9 percent conversion rate on third down, only bested by the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions.
So why is this defense so much better than the end of last year? The pass rush.
Last year, Sutton employed exotic blitzes to confuse offenses. Early in the season it worked, but with mounting injuries and the secondary being exposed as the year wore on, teams began to score almost at will. In 2014, the biggest difference wears No. 97. As MNChiefsFan pointed out in a brilliant piece, Bailey has become borderline unblockable this season. The almost-bust put on 15 pounds in the offseason and has turned into a lethal weapon in the passing game, winning one-on-one matchups consistently.
In the spring, I detailed the Chiefs' playoff defeat in painstaking detail. Among a few others, one of my biggest finds was Bailey could not beat any guard in a phonebooth. The Colts were double-teaming Dontari Poe and kicking their tackles wide, forcing Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to take wide routes. Andrew Luck knew he could step up and into the pocket should pressure come from the edge. The result was the second-largest comeback in playoff history.
This year, Bailey is still a one-on-one mismatch, except now it's the other way around. Bailey has destroyed guards on the interior, forcing the man doubling Poe to help out occasionally. This in turn helps Poe get free and forces the quarterback to back up instead of last year, when he could comfortably move inside the pocket. When he backs up, he steps into the freeway of Hali and Houston.
Of course, the other part of this success is good coverage. The Chiefs' secondary has been terrific even without All-Pro Eric Berry this season, due in large part to Husain Abdullah and Ron Parker. Abdullah and Parker have cut off deep throws over the top and forced teams to throw into tight windows. The result has been more time for the rush to get home and quick three-and-outs.
Last year the pass rush was trickery for much of the season. Now Kansas City rarely blitzes because it does not have to. The Chiefs are crushing the quarterback with brute force.
Let's take a look at a few sacks on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams and see exactly how things break down.
Our first play comes in the opening quarter. I'll start out by showing the coverage at the moment Davis was put under pressure:
Look at the picture and tell me where he is going. Perhaps the underneath route is open, but that is going to be the last read. Everything down the field is completely blanketed, allowing the pass rush time to get home.
Now we look at the front presented by Kansas City. Houston is wide right with Bailey over the right guard. Poe is over the left guard and Hali is wide left. Between Poe and Bailey are Husain Abdullah and Josh Mauga, showing a double A-gap blitz. The reason for showing this blitz is simple. It causes confusion on who blocks who.
First, we see Mauga and Abdullah bail into coverage. Poe draws his customary double-team and Hali is beating Jake Long to the inside. Houston has destroyed Joe Barksdale and is coming in fast off the edge, while Bailey is getting leverage on the right guard. This is great push all the way around.
The end result is Hali's penetreation forcing Davis out of the left side of the pocket. Unfortunately for Davis, Houston is gaining quickly and about to plant him. This was the first sack of many on the afternoon for Houston and the Chiefs.
We move to the third quarter, and things are really clicking for Kansas City's defense. The unit has shut out the Rams since the first drive of the game and now has St. Louis pinned deep. Here is Bailey's first sack:
Again, perfect coverage. Every Rams receiver is completely covered except for Benjamin Cunningham, who is running across the formation. Cunningham would have a minimal gain and again, is the last read in the progression. Against the Chiefs, most teams won't have enough time to find the last read.
This play shows the depth of Kansas City's front line. The line is Bailey, Vance Walker and Jaye Howard from left to right on the line, with Josh Martin wide left, Mauga and James-Michael Johnson on the inside, and Houston wide right. In case you didn't realize, that means Poe and Hali are on the bench.
Off the snap, Martin and Johnson drop into coverage. Walker crashes left (from our perspective) with Bailey looping toward the middle on a stunt. Meanwhile, Mauga is blitzing up the gut, occupying the center. Houston draws the double team from the right guard and right tackle. Walker does a great job on his crash, taking on both the left tackle and left guard. What's the result? Good times for Bailey, who the running back must block.
Look at what is left of this pocket. Bailey was never touched by Cunningham, who appeared to forget his assignment. Bailey gets an easy sack because of everybody else doing their job and working together.
Finally, this play comes later on the same drive. This time, we see Houston and Poe at their best. However, let's take a look at where the coverage stands.
The out route at the 27-yard line is available, but nothing deep down the field. Everything else is covered well, although it must be said that a good pocket would have allowed a completion here. This is a good example of a great pass rush covering up for a coverage mistake.
This is a basic rush, with only the front four coming on the rush. Hali is wide left with Walker over the left guard, and Poe is above the right guard with Houston wide of the right tackle. In the next frame, we will see why you simply don't attempt to block Poe with one man.
Look at Poe destroying the guard with a power rip move. Poe is already by his man before Davis is hitting his final step. Meanwhile, Walker is eating a double team, Hali is driving into the pocket with a strength play and Houston is cutting across the right tackle's face. This is perfect execution by all four men.
The entire right side of the pocket has completely collapsed. Davis has no choice but to throw the ball away or try to scramble left after Hali slipped to the ground. Houston is screaming into the pocket with Poe right behind him in hot pursuit.
The final result? Houston's second sack.
Welcome to Sack City.