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Anatomy of a play: The importance of the deep safety to the Kansas City Chiefs

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Let's break down a not-so-good play from the Kansas City Chiefs last season that highlights the safety play.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that if you write a check for "10 dollars" and leave enough space for someone to write "thousand" in there, which the bank then cashes, you may well not get your money back? True story. The bank has a defense of "negligence" on your part for leaving the blank space, and you're basically out of luck.

Sometimes, the law is terrifying.

You know what else is terrifying? Playing defense without proper safety play (see with the segue? C'mon, that was some newscaster-level stuff there). Sometimes I think we say the names of certain positions so often that we kind of forget how practical the names are (in some cases). "Running backs" run the ball. "Centers" are in the center. "Wide receivers" receive the ball. "Quarterbacks".... well, I bet all your examples aren't perfect either.

So let's talk about safety. What does it mean? Well, thanks to the internet, I know the word itself is defined as "the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury." That really sums up the primary job of an NFL safety quite well. Yes, the position can be expanded to involve all kinds of stuff (hi Eric Berry!). But the most basic, fundamental job of a safety in the NFL who is playing deep, is to protect the defense from danger, risk, or injury. That danger, risk, or injury are of course large numbers of points scored by very fast men with really high numbers on their jerseys.

After a couple of articles breaking down fun plays, it's time to take a look at some not-so-fun plays. One suggestion people gave me was the sack-strip of Alex Smith in the playoff game. I went back and looked, but honestly that was exactly what it looked like:

1)  Anthony Fasano was alone against Robert Mathis and was beaten as quickly as you'd expect.

2) Jeff Allen pulled from LG to help and had to travel way into the backfield to do so. While he gave Mathis a good shove to send him wide, he half-whiffed. Would've been better off not lunging.

3)  No one got open.

4)  Alex Smith hung on to the ball too long and didn't sense Mathis.

That's really it. There's not a whole lot else to report. So I decided to go another direction and take a look at one of the many "big" plays that killed the Chiefs that day against the Colts. That game has been looked at in great detail by myself and others, so I'm just going to focus on one play and talk about what went wrong. I'm then going to show a bonus play from earlier in the season and show how the exact same thing went wrong and allowed for a touchdown (against the Browns. Blech). And we'll all want to jump off a bridge together. Fandom, yay!

No. 1: The start of a comeback

I won't belabor the scenario, as I value your feelings and don't want to cause multiple computers to be smashed. So here's the bare facts ... 12:39 left in the third quarter, first and 10 for the Colts on their own 44-yard-line, Chiefs up 38-10. The first image is right as the ball is snapped.


For the sake of knowledge, here are the players on the field.  Sean Smith at RCB, Brandon Flowers in the slot, Kendrick Lewis (bottom) and Eric Berry (top) are deep at safety, Marcus Cooper is at LCB.  The two ILBs are Husain Abdullah (top) and Derrick Johnson (bottom). The defensive line / rushers from left to right: Frank Zombo, Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey, Justin Houston.

Clearly, the Colts are in full-fledged comeback mode. They'd just run the ball for an eleven-yard gain, but the real threat is the deep ball. Let's move forward to after the snap.


So far, we're looking OK.  Smith is giving his WR a cushion, seemingly anticipating a go route. Cooper is right on his man and gets a hand on him to slow the route down. Abdullah and DJ are in zone and seem to have a handle on the TE. Flowers is right with his guy.

If I were to have any complaint it'd be that the pass rush isn't doing much. There's a muddle in the middle, Zombo is going nowhere, and Houston has been stalled. Let's jump forward just a bit in time.


All right, a lot has changed in less than a second.

The good news is that the pass rush is no longer looking helpless. Houston has gained leverage and is beating his man inside. Poe, who is also interested in causing harm, has beaten his initial blocker and is in the process of running right by the next (because he just does things like that). Luck still has room to operate, but the window is closing.

The news in the secondary is less encouraging. It APPEARS that Flowers is attempting to pass his man off in coverage, but isn't sure if he's got the support he wants (he's looking over his shoulder toward the zone his receiver is running toward). Fortunately, DJ is taking a very deep drop in zone (this will be even more clear in the next picture). Abdullah seems to be keying in the RB now (who is doing nothing), and Cooper remains locked onto his receiver.

The real trouble here is the Flowers / Lewis / DJ area. Again, DJ has taken a deep drop. Berry seems to be staying back, as though he's covering the deep third on his half of the field, so there's no coverage from him into that open zone. It's not readily apparent who is covering the TE. Is it DJ? Or is he dropping back? Most concerning, though, is Lewis planting his foot and heading toward the receiver Flowers is on.

Lewis is clearly anticipating a throw to that receiver and intends to arrive in time for a pick (or at least a deflection). While I applaud the motivation, the execution ... well, let's move forward again, this time with three pictures showing the action progressing.




Lewis continues to break on the receiver. In the meantime, DJ continues to add depth to his drop, effectively covering the area that looked open only a moment prior (at least barring an incredible throw over the top). Flowers is now keeping an eye on the TE (albeit form a distance and with some apparent confusion as to who should be where on defense). And Berry, with no one else near his zone, is breaking toward the receiver as well.

That all SOUNDS nice (multiple players covering a zone that was open a second ago), but there's a problem. First, however, let's give props where it's due. Both Houston and Poe did their job and got loose, forcing Luck to move left. Luck ends up making the throw WHILE moving left (the toughest thing for a righty QB to do) and about a hundredth of a second before either would have the right to flatten him. And that throw goes to the worst place possible.

You know all those defenders I just mentioned converging on the open zone? That sounds great in theory. After all, what could be better than defenders making sure an open zone gets covered? Well, one thing would be only ONE defender making sure a zone gets covered, with everyone else staying put and doing their jobs. In football, and especially the NFL, if you get out of place you're creating an opening elsewhere.

I can't say with any certainty what Kendrick Lewis's assignment was on this play  What I do know is that DJ and Flowers never allowed the receiver to have a truly open zone, and that despite that fact Lewis completely bailed on covering the deep third of the field in an attempt to make a break on the throw he thought was coming. Had the throw gone to that receiver we'd all still be talking about Lewis's great pick in the playoffs. That's the gamble.

Except when your job is to create "safety" for the defense, gambling is rarely a good idea. Because that gamble leaves someone else (in this case, Smith) alone on an island in coverage. Look at that last picture. There's no one within 20 yards of Smith and his receiver.

Smith, to his credit, has exceptional coverage. He sticks to the receiver like glue and goes up for what amounts to a jump ball. He does allow the receiver to get inside position but is basically on top of him as the ball arrives.  Look at how close this is.



I can't believe the receiver brought that down. It was an incredible catch. The one thing Smith could've done differently was gone for the swat instead of the pick. I think he would've had a great chance of knocking it away. But still, Smith had great coverage for a corner left on an island. He was beaten by a throw very few quarterbacks can make, and a spectacular catch. No shame in that.

My issue is with the fact that Smith ended up on that island in the first place. Again, I don't know what Lewis's assignment was. But common sense tells me that completely abandoning the deep ball in favor of a receiver who is already pretty effectively covered was the wrong choice. Basically, Lewis thought he knew where the pass was going, committed to breaking up or picking off that pass, and turned out to be wrong. And it really cost the Chiefs.

One of the major issues with the Colts comeback wasn't just that they were scoring, but how QUICKLY they scored. This deep ball was the beginning of the dam bursting. Had Lewis stayed back and played it conservative, that receiver has almost no chance of bringing in a ball between two defenders. Luck might not even make the throw, instead opting for the open TE. Which means a more time-consuming drive that doesn't give the same morale boost to the Colts.

I've talked time and again how important safety play is, and how at times it really crushed the Chiefs defense last year. Lewis and Demps (who, obviously, wasn't in here) both had a tendency to try and "jump" routes when they figured they knew where the ball was going. Sometimes they were right (Demps especially had a few big picks early in the year). But all too often, they were wrong and left a corner on an island.

Let's look at another example, this one with less commentary and more pretty pictures.

No. 2: Getting burned by Cleveland

When the Chiefs played the Browns, the defense got it done early. However, as in the last play shown, one big play undid a ton of great work. Here's the formation just prior to the snap:


Since we're keeping it short, let's just name the relevant players here: Smith at RCB, Lewis at safety (top), Hali rushing from WOLB. The Browns run a flea flicker (a freakin' flea flicker, of all things) and get really solid protection out of the gate.


See Smith at the top of the screen, as well as Tamba Hali? They're both caught staring at the runner and watching the play unfold rather than reacting. Also, Tamba in coverage. Not ever my favorite thing. We also have the rare "Poe getting handled one-on-one" sighting at the hands of Alex Mack. We'll look at two pictures in a row to watch it develop and see where things really headed south.

Chiefs_pic_medium Chiefs_pic_medium

Since we're covering how things went wrong here, we'll cover the problem areas.

First, there's no pass rush even kind of threatening Jason CampbellJustin Houston is about to shake loose, but he's still a full second from being a real threat. And a second in the NFL is too much. No one else is doing anything.

Part of that is that Hali, as mentioned, has been dropped into coverage. The problem with that is only TWO Cleveland receivers are going into routes, so Hali has no one to cover. What he SHOULD be doing in the two pictures above is slamming into the WR (Josh Gordon) who literally runs right in front of him. It's a really easy opportunity to stop a big play before it starts. However, he's too busy watching the backfield and does more to get in Smith's way than Gordon's way.

The big trouble, though, is happening in the secondary. You see how Lewis is starting to run toward the bottom of the screen? He's locked onto the route on his left side, despite the fact that there are already two defenders doing a fine job bracketing the receiver there and that the deep right third of the field is his responsibility. Follow through the next couple shots to watch him completely commit to stopping a route that's already covered AND outside his zone.

While you're at it, watch Gordon break wide open free and clear of Smith, who gets burned watching the backfield, misses the jam, and doesn't have the speed to keep up with Gordon.




It's only in the last frame, after Campbell has released the ball (doing an admirable job staying cool as the pressure finally closes in around him), is Lewis trying to get himself turned around and head toward his deep zone. Of course, his hips are turned completely the wrong way and what we've got is a shot of Lewis essentially running toward the end zone. Yikes.

These next two shots show where Gordon is as he receives the ball, and then as he crosses the goal line.



These shots highlight two things:

1) How far Lewis was out of position when the ball got to Gordon.

2) How Lewis doesn't possess even close to enough speed to make up for the mental lapse and prevent a touchdown.

I'm not trying to pick on just Lewis. Smith made a bad mistake here too by watching the backfield and falling for a flea flicker. That's what led to Gordon getting a step, which is fatal when it's Josh Gordon and you're anyone but law enforcement (too soon?). Tamba made a mistake as well in not jamming a receiver that almost ran right into him. It's not as though the fault is all on Lewis.

But it's Lewis's gamble (thinking the ball was going to a different receiver and committing to that route) that turned this from a damaging play into a touchdown. If Lewis stays home that throw becomes (much like the one in the Colts game) almost impossible to make between two bracketing defenders. Instead, Campbell got to toss the ball to a wide open receiver who could've crawled into the end zone before the safety help arrived.

A lot of people ask what went wrong with the defense in the second half of the year. I believe these two plays encapsulate two of the biggest problems we had down the stretch:

1) Mix-ups, mental errors, and mistakes in coverage within the secondary in general (the zone confusion in the first play, Smith and Hali's errors in the second).

2)  Deep safety play compounding existing problems and creating all new ones.

The pass rush isn't particular good on either of these plays, but it created pressure in the first and eventually caused disruption in the second (albeit on a flea flicker, a play legendary for giving time for pressure to get there). The main problem was on the back end, not the front.

Chiefs defensive coordiantor Bob Sutton needs to figure out why he had safeties gambling as much as they were last season, and how to prevent the same thing from happening this year. Otherwise, the guys who are supposed to be protecting the defense from "danger, risk, or injury" are going to continue to be the cause of that very thing more often than not.