Last Sunday's Chiefs-Dolphins game was very, very fun to watch. It featured a breakout performance for Knile Davis. Joe McKnight did his best impression of Darren Sproles as a guy who makes a huge impact with limited touches. Tamba Hali finally got to own Branden Albert in a game that counted. Triple tight end sets made their first major appearance of the season (and hopefully not their last). It was a fun game. Any time the Chiefs win I'm going to be happy.
But of course, because we're Chiefs fans, we were given one potentially concerning issue to worry about: 7.2.
That, of course, is the number of yards Lamar Miller rushed per carry on Sunday. While Miller is an OK back with some talent, he's not exactly LeSean McCoy. Giving up that kind of yardage is ... concerning.
There were multiple times it seemed like Miami could run at will on the Chiefs. This appearance was created by the fact that Miami WAS running at will on the Chiefs at times. The only reason it didn't become more of a problem is that the offense stepped it up a notch and the Dolphins were forced to rely on their much-shakier passing game.
Look, let's not beat around the bush; the Chiefs are currently playing without their absolute best run defender. Derrick Johnson is a life-altering force of nature against the run. He's arguably the very best run-stopping linebacker in the NFL. No player has more "how did he DO that?" stops per game. He seems to just ... materialize in front of ball carriers.
Of course, it's not as if DJ is ACTUALLY magical. At least, I don't think so (I mean, I'm not going to rule it out). A lot of what DJ does is simply a matter of understanding the game and having the athletic ability do do the "right" thing faster than other guys can. Little things like knowing what gap to fill and moving toward it before a blocker can reach him, for example.
You're probably wondering why I've talked about DJ so much. It's not just because I miss him on defense like crazy (though that's certainly part of it. MAN I hope he comes back healthy. An all-time great Chief). It's because of those little things. Those examples I used above (knowing what gap to fill and getting there before a blocker can stop you) weren't by accident.
I used those examples because those little things were killing the Chiefs run defense on Sunday.
I understand that no backup on Earth is going to be a replacement for Derrick Johnson. I also understand that the drop off is bound to be substantial. Finally, I understand that Joe Mays, the Chiefs other starting inside linebacker, is out as well, leading to even more "depth" playing substantial minutes.
However, James-Michael Johnson, and Josh Mauga (particularly Mauga) have to be better if the Chiefs want to be a good team against the run. I'll use one of Lamar Miller's "big" gains to show the issue. Again, it's one of basic recognition and reaction. Let's look at the first play, a 17-yard scamper that got the Dolphins out of field position trouble.
It's 1st and 10 on the Dolphins 4-yard line after a 900-yard punt by Dustin Colquitt (who remains a stud, in case you were wondering). The Chiefs have the Dolphins way back and have managed to "reverse" field position, a big deal when your offense is struggling.
The Chiefs line up here with two down linemen, Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe (they did a lot of this on Sunday). As you can see, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are on the outside, with JMJ and Mauga playing inside linebacker.
Let's fast forward to the handoff. Note that a Miami tight end has motioned to the left side of the offensive line just prior to the snap.
All right, left to right let's figure out what's going on here, starting with the defensive line (well, the four up front)
Justin Houston is about to engage the right tackle. No issues there, big man WILL hold the edge. We know this. Allen Bailey is engaging the right guard and is getting some push. Dontari Poe is (as will become clear in the next picture) already in the process of shedding his blocker because he's a monster, with a double team closing in. Tamba Hali is about to engage the receiver.
As you can see from the handy-dandy blue arrows, Miller has two options at this point. He can continue forward to the gap in front of him (the 3 gap) or cut back and go to the 5 gap (between the left guard and left tackle).
The problem he SHOULD have is that Husain Abdullah, with good recognition, is already hurdling toward the 5 gap. That closes up any opportunity there. While Miller could theoretically cut all the way outside the blocking tight end, that's a more time-consuming proposition, and risky if Hali sets the edge properly. So far, so good.
Now about that 3 gap. Mauga SHOULD recognize that Abdullah is coming to fill the 5 gap and move to block the 3 gap accordingly, creating a wall that Miller can't get past. He does this, and Miller is stuffed for a minimal gain provided everyone else does their jobs. But that's not what happened.
Mauga hesitates ... and hesitates ... and then almost starts to engage the blockers already tangling with Poe. I could add another picture showing Miller sprinting past Mauga as he dives in an attempt to fill the gap with his horizontal body, but that would be depressing.
Everyone else here did their job. Houston and Hali set the edge. Bailey gets a ton of push into the backfield (he had a really nice game Sunday and deserves a lot of credit). Poe takes on a double team and keeps them occupied (I believe the term our own Craig Stout uses is an "effective" double team). JMJ correctly attacks the guard. Abdullah fills the 5 gap.
If Mauga fills that 3 gap at any point, this play goes nowhere. Instead, he sits and hesitates, never really committing to either gap. That hesitation lets Miller get 17 yards, and the Dolphins are out of trouble.
Those kind of mistakes absolutely cannot happen if you want to be an effective team against the run. It's a good example of how just one mistake by one player can ruin your defense.
Let's be clear; there were some other issues with the run defense on Sunday. The threat of running that Ryan Tannehill brings froze the Chiefs defense momentarily on a few read option plays. But the principle issue was one of basic gap-filling and tackling. Mauga in particular was ... well, he had a rough game. A very rough game. He needs to tighten up his recognition, because he doesn't have the speed to recover if he hesitates.
Hopefully playing a team without the read option as a legit threat (I don't think Tom Brady has run 15 yards in the last 10 years or so. And not just on the football field, but in life) will allow Mauga to be more certain about his gaps. But he needs to get this figured out, and quickly.
Since I like to end columns on a good note, there's a bit of good news here. While observing the defense, I noted that Houston, Poe, Bailey, and (for the most part) JMJ were all stout against the run. Additionally, Vance Walker had a major effect on the run when in the game. We know Kevin Vickerson is an excellent run defender. So it's not like the Chiefs are doomed. Even with Mauga playing a poor game, the rest of the Chiefs are talented enough that it's not always going to matter.
The run defense is a concern moving forward, and it has to get addressed. But again, the plus side is that the issues are preventable with good coaching. Here's hoping Sutton is up to the challenge.