It shouldn't be a secret to anyone that the Chiefs are a good defensive team.
After all, the Chiefs are currently second in the NFL in points allowed per game, giving opposing offenses only 17.1 points a contest. And (as has been well-documented) this isn't a case of the 2013s, where the defense is feasting on mediocre offenses on its way to a gaudy ranking. Far from it.
Through nine games, the Chiefs have faced two top-five offenses (the Patriots and the Broncos), as well as two offenses that rank in the upper third of the league (the Dolphins and the Seahawks). The scoring average of those four teams in those games? 18.25 points, which would be good for sixth in the league when compared to the total scores given up by other teams.
That's phenomenal. You can say this and that about the Patriots "not being themselves" when the Chiefs played them, but a big reason for that becoming a common statement by talking heads was BECAUSE of the beating the Chiefs put on them, not the other way around.
Long story short, the Chiefs defense has been phenomenal. But one overlooked aspect of this defense is timing. As I mentioned in my "Road Trip" column, the Chiefs defense has been monstrous in the fourth quarter of games, allowing a league low 2.8 points per game in the fourth quarter this season.. For a frame of reference, the Cardinals (the next best team) are allowing 3.4 points per game in the fourth, a substantial difference. No one else is within a point.
Even that doesn't really sum up just HOW good the Chiefs defense has been in the fourth quarter, though. I'll give a series of stats, each more unbelievable than the next.
-The Chiefs have held opponents to zero points five times this season.
-The Chiefs haven't given up a point in the fourth quarter quarter since the Chargers game. For those of you who hate math and refuse to count, that's four games. Again, it's been four games since the Chiefs have allowed a single point in the fourth quarter. And yes, that's the second most believable stat I'm going to present to you.
-The most points scored on the Chiefs in the fourth quarter this season? Seven. Which happened one time.This should lead you to realize...
-The Chiefs have allowed ONE touchdown this season in the fourth quarter. Know when that was? Guess. Yep, it was against the Patriots. It occurred once the Chiefs were up 41-7 already. Which leads to this next stat, which will be large due to how completely, utterly, insanely ridiculous it is.
-The Chiefs have not given up a single meaningful touchdown in the fourth quarter this season.
We're 10 games in, people. That crap is incredible. I have no idea what the historical precedent for that is, but it's gotta be SOMETHING. And it's not as though the Chiefs have been in a bunch of blowouts one way or the other. They've played nailbiters against the Broncos, Chargers, Bills, 49ers, and Seahawks. Throughout every one of those games, the defense didn't surrender a touchdown. Unreal.
Now maybe you're saying to yourself it's something besides the defense. Maybe ol' Alex Smith and the offense are dominating time of possession and bleeding the clock out, making the defense's job easy. Right?
Per the exceptional in-depth stats site teamrankings.com, I found the Chiefs are actually one of the WORST teams in the NFL in fourth quarter time of possession, having the ball only 45.22% of the time. That puts them at 26th in the league in that particular stat.
In other words, it's not because the defense has been aided by the offense and is only having to stand firm a few times. It's not because the Chiefs are facing patsies. And it's not because the Chiefs have been participating in blowouts where teams aren't motivated to score.
It's because the defense has been absolutely suffocating teams in the fourth quarter.
How, though? What makes a good defense turn ridiculous late in games? I believe the answer to that question can be found by studying the roster that's been built and examining the film of the defense's latest fourth quarter triumph against the Seahawks.
First, the roster.
The Chiefs feature a frightening pass rush. This has been true since last season, with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston being known to make a quarterback's day miserable and Dontari Poe being ... well, Dontari Poe. However, this season there's been another fly thrown in the ointment of an opposing offense. And he just got PAID.
Allen Bailey, up until this year, was consistently facing one-on-one matchups with guards on passing downs and getting stalemated. That's been radically different this season. Through the entirety of 2013, Bailey has consistently shown the ability to beat individual offensive linemen. He's even flashed the ability to beat the occasional double team as teams have started focusing more on him. His vastly improved pass rushing resulted in him getting a brand new contract.
Bailey developing into a guy who beats individual linemen has placed teams in an absolutely impossible situation. Both Justin Houston and Tamba Hali will beat individual blockers the majority of the time. Dontari Poe is always a threat to either quickly beat individual o-lineman with his patented swim or club (both are deadly), or he often just walks them backward. And now, Allen Bailey is assisting in crushing the pocket.
The end result is that offenses absolutely need to keep at least one extra blocker on the line or in the backfield, or even both. Which can leave three receivers trying to find open space against seven Chiefs defenders in the open field. And even THEN, the Chiefs will at times get to the quarterback within 3-4 seconds.
The other answer for an offense is to pull a Peyton Manning, meaning get rid of the ball QUICKLY. This is what good offenses did a great deal last year against the Chiefs (before the pass rush started to fall apart due to injury), and it's an effective way to deal with pressure if the secondary can't hold up its end. Last season, poor play in the secondary (often by then-Chiefs-safeties Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps) allowed quarterbacks to quickly find open areas on the field.
Not so this season. Despite struggling with injuries and dealing with the benching of Marcus Cooper, the Chiefs secondary has been drastically improved since 2013 despite the absence of Eric Berry for multiple games and the departure of Brandon Flowers. There are multiple reasons for this, but the main improvement has come in three forms.
1. Husain Abdullah, Ron Parker, and Kurt Coleman have filled in the safety roles exponentially better than Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps did last year. It's not even close. Going from "terrible" to "solid" at two spots in the secondary is a massive difference. Last year, there were constantly open zones that could be attacked. This year, those zones have vanished.
2. The nickel cornerback play has been much, much better this season. From Chris Owens to Phillip Gaines, the play here has been far above average. Brandon Flowers is a very good cornerback, but he struggled last season playing nickel. Gaines has been exceptional, so even when Owens went down relatively early the defense didn't miss a beat.
3. Sean Smith is having a Pro Bowl caliber season. If you have all-22 film, take a look at his snaps sometime. He's playing incredibly physical. What's more, with solid safety help this year he's not getting burned for every little mistake (which is what happened any time he wasn't completely successful pressing last season).
So to sum up, you've got a ferocious pass rush (the Chiefs are third in the NFL with 30 sacks) combined with solid secondary play. Basically, it's the dream for defending the pass late in games.
Look no further than the Seattle game to see this in action. Remember the scenario. The Seahawks are out of timeouts and pinned back on their own 4-yard-line, but they've got 2:47 left to work with. This game was far from over. However, with no timeouts, the Seahawks didn't have a real option to run the ball. It's a classic example of a team forced to be one-dimensional, and it's a test the Chiefs defense failed in several times last year.
Not the case this year.
The first play, Russell Wilson didn't even have a chance. I'll show you two screenshots. Look at the clock on each.
In a single second (well, slightly over one second, but we're sticking with the clock, because it's more impressive that way), Dontari Poe just completely wrecked any chance this play had at success.
Poe didn't really do anything fancy on the play. He just ran right around a completely overmatched guard, who seemed to think he was going inside.
The only reason this play didn't end in a safety was Josh Mauga playing a little too far off Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson being a miracle worker. This is an obvious example of the pass rush problems the Chiefs present in late-game-gotta-throw situations. Every single snap there's a risk Poe will go full Poe.
The next snap you see the Chiefs defense again make things extremely uncomfortable for an offense that has no choice but to pass. Here's a screenshot roughly two seconds after the snap.
That circled man is Tamba Hali, who is just ... he just is, man. Despite facing a double team AND being held, Hali is breaking free and has an open run at Russell Wilson, which means Wilson needs to get rid of the football.
Russell's scrambling option (which he'd used repeatedly throughout the day) is largely eliminated, as Houston stayed back and played contain on the play, just waiting to tackle Wilson in bounds. Poe is starting to beat his man as well. Again, there's no option but to throw.
Except here's what Wilson is looking at.
Look at the red circles, handily showing you where the Chiefs are. There is no one open.
"But MN, look at the guy with the blue arrow! He's about to come open!"
Look closer. You see Ron Parker (circled, with an arrow pointing at him, because I'm super helpful like that)? Parker is already breaking on that receiver, though this screenshot doesn't show it very well. In other words, if Wilson tried to throw an anticipatory throw to that receiver, Parker would have ample time to break on the ball and possibly get a pick.
Look at the rest of the field. No one has appreciable separation. The shallow receiver on a quick out (Berry's guy) appears to have a little separation, but Berry closes it quickly and a throw to him would result in a short gain that keeps the ball in bounds. Not a great option. Wilson ends up throwing the ball away, the least of a bunch of bad options.
That play demonstrates wonderfully how a solid pass rush combined with excellent coverage leaves a passing offense with no GOOD options.
Now, Wilson was able to complete the third down conversion with better-than-it-had-been protection, good movement in the pocket, and Gaines slipping in coverage. In other words, it was hard-earned and required a mistake, but successful.
Of course, the reality is you need MULTIPLE successful plays to drive down the field. And the very next play it was back to "What the crap are we supposed to DO?" status for the Seahawks. Wilson makes a throw to his tight end across the middle, which Berry knocks down (rather violently, throwing the tight end to the ground afterward). When you review the play looking only at Berry and the tight end, you wonder why Wilson would make the throw, as Berry is in very tight coverage.
I mean, Berry is all over the guy. So what gives? Why would Wilson make that throw?
Well, really, he didn't have much of a choice.
Allen Bailey did a good job pushing the offensive lineman back toward Wilson quickly, rapidly crushing the pocket. Houston and Poe (who was being double teamed) were forcing their o-linemen back more slowly, but they WERE moving back. In other words, the situation wasn't necessarily a comfortable one for Wilson.
The problem Wilson encountered is that there simply weren't good options to throw to. The Chiefs secondary had the receivers (who were all, for some reason, running routes that were long in developing) covered. The read that Wilson chose was basically his only relatively quick option, and quick was all he could do.
So the pass rush (even one that doesn't result in a hit, hurry, or sack) forces a quick throw, and good coverage prevents that throw from being completed. Symbiotic, no? When the pass rush forces quick throws, it limits options for the QB and protects the secondary from breakdowns that inevitably occur.
I've talked about the next play. Dontari Poe just went full Dontari Poe. Russell Wilson didn't have much of a chance, as Poe ran him down in roughly two seconds. It was insane. And plays like that are just part of facing the Chiefs. As a quarterback, you never know when Poe is gonna Poe.
The next play Wilson tries to account for a pass rush that is destroying their comeback attempt by getting rid of the ball FAST. He attempts a very tough throw up the seam.
Again, you can see that Wilson doesn't have any appealing options. Two of his receivers are inhabiting red circles, just blanketed in coverage. He's got one receiver who is open (blue circle at the top of the screen), but that's a throwaway route the defense is HOPING Wilson takes to bleed 20-25 seconds off the clock without much reward. Not a good option.
So he tries to fit the ball into a tight space. The Chiefs inside linebacker has dropped into a zone, as well as Abdullah. Between the two is a very, very small window. Wilson tries to squeeze it in and Abdullah makes a nice play to knock the ball down.
One thing this screenshot doesn't show is how quickly the deep safety (Eric Berry) breaks on the receiver once the ball is in the air. Here's a screenshot of right after Abdullah knocks down the ball.
Berry, seeing the ball has been knocked down, is skidding to a halt. You can see the distance between he and the receiver (who, naturally, was running right toward him) has closed to almost nothing.
In other words, even had Wilson managed to complete a miraculous throw through zone coverage, his receiver was going to get absolutely blown up. If you think for one second Berry wasn't going to hammer that receiver with the game on the line, you're crazy. Maybe the guy hangs on, maybe not. But the play ends up dead in the water at the 35-yard-line.
So even the "best" option available to Wilson on that play was, at best, a near-first-down that would leave the clock running. This is the Chiefs defense against the pass. It removes appealing options and forces you to try poor ones.
And, naturally, the very last play the Seahawks ran was perhaps the most perfect example of "option removal" by the Chiefs. A little over one second after the ball is snapped, Tamba Hali is doing this courtesy of his patented hand-slap.
Poor Russell Wilson. He played really, really hard. The Seahawks CAN'T double team Hali because (if you'll notice) he's rushing from the left, right next to Dontari Poe. They can't risk Poe pulling another club on a single o-lineman, so they have to double him. Lynch is on the other side, which leaves Hali all alone against an utterly overmatched right tackle.
Of course, Wilson (being Wilson) buys time with his feet (I respect the guy, he can play) and scrambles left. Unlike many other quarterbacks, Wilson CAN make good throws when running left or right. But he's left with the same problem he'd faced throughout the game when he dropped back to pass.
There's just nowhere to go with the ball that's a good option.
The options on the right side of the field (from Wilson's perspective) are almost out of the picture regardless of the coverage. Even a QB as capable as Wilson of throwing on the run is going to have to throw a duck to get it all the way across the field while he's running the opposite direction.
That said, the large circled area shows his options on that side. Three receivers, four defenders. No good options, particularly given the situation.
Of course, the option on the side of the field he CAN make a good throw aren't appealing either. Sean Smith, as he's been the vast majority of snaps this season, is all over the receiver. There's no separation there. Abdullah is in zone covering any type of shorter throw Wilson could make to try and throw the receiver open schoolyard style. And Coleman is back deep covering an over-the-top schoolyard loft.
Wilson, in the end, is forced to make an off-balance throw into coverage because he simply has no other choice. And that sentence is the essence of what the Chiefs pass defense is doing to quarterbacks this year. He had no good choices, and the pass fell to the ground.
The Chiefs haven't allowed a meaningful touchdown in the fourth quarter all season. And they're doing it by forcing quarterbacks to choose between "bad" and "worse."