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Kansas City Chiefs preseason first team defense: Bob Sutton's Science Lab

The Chiefs defense was awful this week against the Panthers, and there's cause for concern ... right? Not quite. Let me bust some of those myths.

Grant Halverson

In the days following the Kansas City Chiefs' preseason loss against the Carolina Panthers, I read assessments from fans, pundits, and bloggers describing how bad the Chiefs will perform this season on the defensive side of the ball.  The most common thread seemed to be the lack of a serious pass rush this week, even with new addition Dee Ford.  So, instead of the usual post reviewing the performances of individual players, this week will be more of a recap, showing what the Chiefs did differently from the past, and hopefully quell some of the fears that the defense is in trouble.

Last week, I praised coach Bob Sutton for finally running a 2-4-5 defense with another coverage linebacker on the field.  It helped with sideline to sideline coverage, allowed an extra man in the box (helping with run defense), and still afforded the team some short coverage without sacrificing the pass rush.  Every element of that scheme changed this week.  While the Panthers starters were on the field last Sunday, the Chiefs alternated between a base 3-4 defense and a 2-3-6 dime defense.  I'm...less than enthusiastic about the Chiefs "auto-dime" defense, and here it was, cropping its ugly head again.  But this time, somehow, it was worse:

Yes, that is Tamba Hali trailing the tight end at the bottom of your screen...and Dontari Poe is playing a short "contain" zone.  The Chiefs blitzed Chris Owens and Husain Abdullah on this play, overloading the offense's right side of the line, but two of the Chiefs best three pass rushers were in coverage on the play.  This was by design, a wrinkle in Bob Sutton's gameplan, because teams won't be expecting the Chiefs to drop their athletic nose tackle and speed rusher into coverage.  In a regular season game, you'd see half of the team's normal pass rush in coverage once, maybe twice in a game.  Not so this week.  The Chiefs dropped Tamba Hali into coverage 7 times, Justin Houston into coverage 7 times, and both of them dropped into coverage together six times in one half.

There was also another circumstance that occurred a couple of times during Sunday's game, and that is shown above.  As I discussed in the previous paragraph, both Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are in coverage, and the Chiefs are in their base 3-4 defense.  However, the Panthers have motioned the running back out of the backfield, and they are now in a 4 WR set.  One of my bigger complaints with the Chiefs defense and 3 WR sets was that the team switched to an auto-dime defense when it could have used a nickel defense.  Running a base defense against a spread offense?  That's an even bigger complaint.  The Chiefs dropped eight men into coverage on both of these plays, flooding the secondary with bodies that aren't particularly good at pass coverage.  The play shown above was an overthrow by Cam Newton to a wide open Kelvin Benjamin (who had beaten Hali and Abdullah over the top), and the second time it occurred turned into a 24 yard reception, beating Sean Smith.  As pointed out by my friends and fellow AP writers Ryan Scott Hall and HisDirkness in their AHPKC podcast review of the game, there is no excuse to drop 8 into coverage if there are open players anyway.  It just led to confusion in the secondary, a three man rush of Jaye Howard, Dontari Poe, and Allen Bailey (not exactly striking fear into the hearts of offensive coordinators), and ample time for any quarterback in the NFL to pick apart a defense.  It just didn't work.

There is absolutely no chance that Sutton calls these packages with any kind of frequency.

So why do I bring these things up?  I haven't exactly enjoyed the packages the Chiefs put together in Week 2 of the preseason, and I'm supposed to try to make you guys feel better about the defense as a whole.  Well, here it is: There is absolutely no chance that Sutton calls these packages with any kind of frequency. Bob Sutton is known as an aggressive playcaller as a defensive coordinator.  He takes risks, calls blitzes, and likes to get after the passer.  This week he blitzed 8 defensive backs in the first four drives, sometimes two at a time.  Joe Mays was blitzed 4 times himself in one half!  Sutton called these packages for almost an entire half to see what worked and what didn't this week.  We all know Tamba Hali isn't great in coverage.  It makes me cringe every time I see him do it, honestly.  Bob Sutton knows this as well.  He's not going to take his best speed rusher into coverage 15 times a game when he doesn't do it well.  Because of this game, though, maybe he found a blitz or two that was more effective than the other six or seven he tried.

Nothing is a stronger argument for this (for me) than the base 3-4 against a 4 WR set.  If anything, this Chiefs defense is too eager to jump into a dime package when an extra WR hits the field.  What those two calls told me was that Sutton wants to get caught with the base personnel on the field to see what happens.  Do the players recognize it and shift? (Answer: they do - Abdullah was getting everyone organized before the snap) Is there mass confusion with who is covering whom? (Answer: 100 percent yes)  These are things that can be practiced to an extent, but really can't be tested until it is a live situation ... and tested they were.  Even more convincing: after the Panthers starting offense came off the field, the Chiefs immediately switched to a nickel defense in their sub package.  They even ran a fun little 1-4-6 with Poe as the only down lineman, and DJ, JMJ, Hali, and Houston as the linebackers.

So, for anybody who was freaking out about the pass rush, front seven, or coverage schemes this week:  fear not.  Sutton may be a gambler, but he's not insane.  The Chiefs got some very good experience with some blitz packages this week, and that's not something that teams normally do in the preseason.  We'll see if they pay off.

P.S. - I did go through and chart the starters this week.  If there are specific players you are curious about, ask in the comments and I'll be happy to discuss!

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