Of all the issues percolating while the Chiefs have their mandatory minicamp, one of the most fascinating for me is the issue of safety. No, I don't mean safety as in "be safe" (although really, De'Anthony Thomas, drink more water. It's hot out there, man. Heat exhaustion is no joke). I mean safety as in, you know SAFETY. As in the last line of defense.
On the Chiefs team, safety is of paramount concern this offseason. Two safeties that saw over 1,700 snaps combined last season (Quintin Demps and fan whipping boy Kendrick Lewis) are gone, signed to new teams. I'm not here to bury either of those two. Demps had some moments last year that were very exciting, and Lewis ... well, once upon a time he played just well enough in the Cover 2 that the Chiefs thought they were set at the position. I'll leave it at that.
The point is that both guys are gone. And in the system Bob Sutton runs, safety is a big, big deal. Mostly because last season when the Chiefs were in dime (which was a LOT), Sutton brought in an extra safety. What that meant on a practical level is that for almost half of the snaps last year the Chiefs had three safeties on the field at once, with very different roles. Those roles weren't exactly static, as Sutton (contrary to popular belief) mixed up looks and assignments.
However, there was one basic look used more often than the rest, and it's the look that Sutton seemed to be most fond of. Of course, the Chiefs didn't have the personnel to pull it off, so he would move away from it as games progressed (more on that later). However, if I were a gambling man this is the alignment I believe Sutton favors.
I know, I know. Your eyes are bleeding. Hey, I just got done re-watching that game yet AGAIN, so don't expect any sympathy from me.
Ignore the names, they aren't important right now. Just look at where the three safeties are lined up. One is playing single high, with his responsibility being the back third of the field. The second (in this case, Abdullah) is basically playing ILB rather than a traditional safety spot. The third (Eric Berry here) lines up in various places all over the field. Here, Berry is assigned the TE (who stayed in to block).
Again, if I had to bet my life on how Sutton wants to use his safeties, that's the alignment. On single high, one hybrid LB, and a third whose assignment changes constantly.
The problem is that in a lot of cases the Chiefs WEREN'T using the safeties like that when in dime. Instead, they were lined up like this...
The very obvious difference here is that instead of having one safety deep, there are two (yay math!). With Demps being brought in to play deep, we've gone from single high to Cover 2 deep. Berry goes from being in a roamer position to being placed at ILB.
The disadvantage here is two-fold:
1) It means there's one less player in the box, which makes it easier to take advantage of the smaller guy playing LB and to just run right over this defense.
2) It limits where you can put Berry, an exceptionally explosive player. He's stuck there at ILB.
So why would Sutton use this defense? Well, I've never met the man so I can't tell you for sure. I can only guess based on what I saw last year. And what I saw was a starting free safety (Lewis) who wasn't anywhere close to fast enough to play single high safety. And so we were forced to play Cover 2 instead (and even Cover 3 later on in the year, as Lewis and Demps together proved ... not terrific protecting the deep end of the field).
All right, that's enough primer. We're 650 words in and I haven't even talked about the main point of this article. Basically, I want to see Picture No. 1 this season, not Picture No. 2. Picture No. 1 is almost exclusively the type of defense the Chiefs trotted out against the Colts in the playoff game, and it's my belief it's what Sutton WANTS to do.
Now, I understand that 95 percent of you are screaming at your computer "WHY WOULD WE WANT TO USE THE DEFENSE THAT ALLOWED A 28-POINT COMEBACK????????????" I understand your surprise and will wait for you to calm down a little. Grab a drink of water. Go watch a Jamaal Charles highlight video.
(Waits, examines tort law. Learns nothing)
You're back? Great, I wasn't doing anything important anyway. I get that the Chiefs defense let fans down massively against the Colts. I'd stipulate, however, that the the issue wasn't the scheme being run. It was the personnel being asked to run it. Very specifically:
1) Dunta Robinson should not have been in there at any point in the game. In only 16 snaps in coverage he was targeted four times. In those 4 targets the Colts gained 100 yards and a touchdown. Any time he came on the field Andrew Luck went AFTER him. Robinson seems like a great guy on the sideline and has had a decent career, but he was three steps too slow out there.
2) Kendrick Lewis had a really, really bad day. Several times Lewis just got flat-out burned, and multiple times he was either too slow to get to his spot on the field or was mistaken about his zone responsibilities (given how much the coaches and players praise his brain, I'm guessing it was the latter). Per PFF, Lewis was responsible for four catches, 103 yards, and two touchdowns.
3) Eric Berry played one of the worst games I've seen him play in the last two years. That is to say, he was average most of the day with a couple of really bad moments. Nothing like the offense-destroying force of nature you can see on tape throughout the rest of 2013.
4) There were miscommunications in coverage multiple times. I have no idea what was going wrong out there, but on at least four different occasions Colts WRs got ridiculously wide open in zones that should have been covered, but two Chiefs converged on a different zone. Just ... weird. Weird, weird, weird.
Anyway, that's a long road to the short thought that the scheme itself is fine. And at times throughout 2013 it was downright dominant. The problem was personnel and execution. Which brings us back to Abdullah.
Husain Abdullah, wild card
Ever since the year ended I've wondered why Sutton didn't use Abdullah more. He passed the eye test when on the field, and the Chiefs had such a glaring hole at the position that it seemed ludicrous that he wasn't getting a shot. When he was re-signed, I was happy. When he was rumored to have the first crack at free safety, I was happy.
But when I heard that Eric Berry was being given shots at single high safety in practice, I was elated. Because Berry, unlike Lewis, absolutely possesses the speed to play single high (as does Sanders Commings. But he's way too unproven to factor in right now). And I was also intrigued by the idea of Abdullah taking over at least some of Berry's duties close to the line of scrimmage.
And so it was time to watch the tape. And so I once again set my teeth and started watching the playoff game on All-22 film, this time with an eye on Husain Abdullah. I kept track of some things and will give you a few raw numbers, then we'll explore the impression Abdullah left and where we're at moving forward.
When you're re-watching a game, there's always a question as to what to quantify. Different people care about different things. For me, I wanted to quantify where Abdullah took his snaps and how he acquitted himself. I also wanted to see how he played in both man and zone coverage.
Abdullah's snaps, by my count, were divvied up as follows:
37 at ILB (66 percent)
11 covering slot WR (20 percent)
5 playing deep safety (9 percent)
3 on the line of scrimmage as if he were an OLB (5 percent)
On the majority of the plays he was at ILB he dropped into a shallow zone, with responsibility for the Colts RB if he came out of the backfield. I'll give some impressions about his zone coverage momentarily, but we've got a few more numbers to get out of the way.
I kept track of the times when Abdullah had to go into direct coverage of a receiver on his route, whether he was in man initially or ended up solely responsible for a WR or RB in his zone. I then recorded (regardless of whether the ball was thrown his way) whether that coverage was a "success" (as in, stays right with the receiver) or a "failed coverage" (as in, a QB could've gotten the ball there without a great throw).
I am not including times where Abdullah just covered a receiver briefly as they passed through his zone, or when he pressed at the line then passed a receiver into coverage. These are strictly the times Abdullah ended up in what amounted to man coverage.
Times in coverage: 19
Successful coverages: 17
Failed coverages: 2
Of the failed coverages, one was TY Hilton just destroying him on an out route the first time he was assigned Hitlon on a passing play. The other was when Donald Brown just flat-out outran him.
Of those coverages, seven were Abdullah vs. Hilton. Only once was Hilton able to shake him. Every other time Abdullah stayed right with him. I have no idea why the Chiefs didn't go to Abdullah vs. Hilton in the slot sooner. It could have been the difference in that game. But that's not the point here.
The point is that Abdullah, when asked to play right at the line of scrimmage, was by and large quite successful, even when drawing the difficult assignment of man coverage in the slot. That bodes well for the future.
As for more subjective impressions go, I have a few observations about that game.
First, Abdullah seems to do all right in zone coverage. He let a receiver slip behind him for a solid gain once, but only once. No real issues to report.
On the flip side, it's really interesting to re-watch via All-22 and see just how devastating a weakness at one position can be in coverage. For example, on one play Abdullah dropped into zone from his ILB spot. A completion was made to a WR pretty much exactly where you'd expect Abdullah to be. A failure by Abdullah, right? Well, it's not so simple.
Abdullah was on the outside of his zone (to his right, the QB's left) because a RB was coming out of a wheel route wide open with miles of space in front of him. So Abdullah moved toward the RB, and Derrick Johnson started to slide more toward the right. However, at the same time a TE who had run a deeper route came open across the middle, forcing DJ deeper into his drop to cover that TE. As a result, the WR in the more shallow zone ends up wide open with a first down.
The reason the TE was open? Kendrick Lewis was too slow to get to where the TE was. And so the dominoes fall. It's something you'll never see in a stat book ("failed coverage that results in another player's failed coverage as he tried to cover your failed coverage" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue), but stuff like that will KILL a team. It's very representative of the symbiotic nature of the secondary. A weakness at once spot affects the whole field.
Anyway, back to Abdullah. Watching his snaps against the Colts, I predict that he'll take on the hybrid ILB role that Berry played the majority of his snaps out of in 2013. Abdullah is comfortable in zone, doesn't seem to mind taking on contact close to the line of scrimmage, is a willing tackler, and can play solid press coverage. His speed outside of the first five yards isn't overly impressive, but in the box that's all he needs.
Abdullah is a really, really versatile player (as his snap count shows in the playoff game). He's almost like "Eric Berry Lite" (or Ultra Lite, if you will). He can play in the box or in space. He's comfortable in man or zone. He can be a coverage safety or a run support safety. I fully expect Sutton to take advantage of that versatility this year.
Look up to that first picture one more time. If all ends well, we'll be seeing that type of formation a lot more this season. Only this time, with Abdullah playing more snaps and Berry being allowed to get outside the box more often, we could see it without personnel holding it back. Here's hoping Sanders Commings (or one of the other safety candidates) is that third guy the Chiefs need
(Or, I mean, it could all go terribly wrong. But it's awful early in the season to start panicking ... right?)