It's no secret that the Chiefs defense did not play particularly well against the run in 2014. All one has to do is take a look at the numbers to see it (but don't do it, because they're ugly and I want you to have a nice day).
There have been a lot of conversations about the CAUSE of this struggle since the season ended. Obviously, the absence of Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito hurt, as did the absence of Eric Berry. When your defense loses three of its best run defenders it's going to suffer a little bit at least. Just those guys being gone could account for a lot of the problems.
Another theory I've seen floated (and actually buy into to an extent) is that the Chiefs sold out on defending the pass enough that run defense fell by the wayside somewhat. The only real proof of this is that in certain situations when the Chiefs were clearly gearing to stop the run (like the Seahawks game) they were successful. Of course, on the flip side of this argument is the Niners game, when the Chiefs couldn't get Frank Gore off the field. But it would be a partial explanation as well.
However, the recipient of the most ire has been inside linebacker Josh Mauga. And it's not without reason. I myself have been highly critical of Mauga's play, even going so far as to look at film and explain why he (along with fellow ILB James-Michael Johnson) was a major problem when it came to stopping the run last season.
I've stated many times that Mauga was a glaring weakness against the run last season, and I stand by that. All too often on a successful run play for an opponent you can trace at least some of the fault to Mauga. Over the course of watching (and re-watching, and re-watching again) the 2014 defense, Mauga's primary issues consisted of two big problems.
The first problem was Mauga picking one gap to fill, then watching the running back sprint through an unfilled gap as he AND another defender filled the same gap. Now, is it absolutely certain that Mauga was at fault every time this happened? Of course not, not without knowing the exact assignments given to the defenders before the play. However, this happened often enough that it seems at least somewhat likely it was a Mauga-centered issue.
That problem, though, paled into comparison with the main issue I found in Mauga's tape; hesitation. Mauga very frequently hesitated on running plays, taking a half second or second too long to attack the gap. In the NFL, a half second or second is absolutely fatal. Time after time runners would sprint through gaps before Mauga arrived OR be most of the way through when he arrived, resulting in a lunging, dragging tackle rather than a hard hit.
A lot of people seem to believe Mauga is a poor tackler. I don't believe that was (entirely) the issue. The issue was Mauga would arrive a half second too late and be forced to try and grab on as opposed to squaring up and hitting. When Mauga placed himself in decent position he did decently (though not great) as a tackler. It's a mental issue, not a physical one.
If you click the link five paragraphs ago you'll see what I'm talking about. Mauga's primary limitation was one of decision making. As in, he didn't do it quickly enough.
The reason this becomes relevant is that, for all the bad publicity Mauga has received (and earned) for his failures against the run, the fact remains that he DID have some snaps where he did some very good things.
No, seriously. He did!
Considering the Chiefs gave Mauga a contract extension this offseason, there's no doubt that they plan on keeping him around for at least a little while. So while it's tempting to talk about the idea of moving on from Mauga, it's likely pointless. Until someone else steps in, he's the guy who will be playing next to DJ. So it becomes a matter of figuring out what made Mauga successful on certain snaps, and whether that can be duplicated more consistently next year.
Play 1: Week 7 at Chargers, 14:55 in the 1st Quarter
This play ends up with a 1 yard stuff of Branden Oliver, a pretty effective back whose combination of shiftiness and power (when you're 5'8" and weigh about 210, you're tough to bring down) gives defenders problems. Mauga is circled, with the blocking assignments and general play drawn up for your convenience.
Long story short, this play involves the LT directing Tamba Hali wide around the run, the LG keeping Allen Bailey in place, the C and RG double teaming Poe (with the RG to peel off and take on Johnson, the other ILB), and the RT keeping Houston contained. The job of keeping Mauga out of the gap falls to Antonio gates in what basically amounts to a down block.
Oliver is going to have the option of going to the gap on either side of the C/RG double team of Poe. If Gates clears Mauga, he's got space left. If he doesn't, there's (ideally) a cutback lane behind the RG.
That's the plan, at least. And really, considering Mauga's habit of hesitating before hitting gaps it's a very good plan. If they can get Mauga to hesitate, Gates has time to seal him off and Oliver gets at least 5 yards before Husain Abdullah can clean up.
So as you can see, Oliver gets the handoff and things are KIND of going according to plan for the Chargers. I say kind of because the majority of the play is working out in their favor. Poe isn't moving much from the double team, which is unfortunate (for them, not those of us who love Poe and America).
Beyond that, the blockers are walling off decently, and there are two gaps for Oliver to choose from. However, as you can see in the first of the two pictures above, Mauga IMMEDIATELY planted and started moving toward "his" gap as Rivers started to move to hand the ball off.
Compare that to Johnson, the other ILB. He's gap-watching, which puts him in a position to where he barely moves between screen shots. We'll come back to him later, but the focus here is Mauga. If Mauga holds still, Gates gets to him and now there's nothing to stop Oliver from scampering for a nice gain.
Instead, Mauga didn't hesitate and got a great jump. He gets skinny enough that Gates can't lay a decent block on him. Which leads to Mauga exploding through the gap that Oliver was supposed to run through. The play finishes off on a great note for the Chiefs, and it's largely due to the work Mauga does (with a hat tip to Poe).
Mauga finishes the play strong, catching Oliver as the shifty RB tries to cut right toward the much-more-open gap between the RT and the RG (who has disengaged Poe to try and stop a finally-moving Johnson). While Mauga doesn't make a spectacular hit here, he wraps up a tough RB to tackle and makes the play.
Contrast what you see in Mauga and what you see in Johnson on this play. Now, let's make something clear; I don't know the defensive play call. It could be that Johnson was responsible for multiple gaps (or keeping an eye on the edge), and that's why he didn't attack the gap inside the RT more aggressively. I can't know without asking Bob Sutton, and I seem to have lost his number.
That said, it APPEARS as though Johnson got hung up watching the running back. And because of that, he broke for the gap too late and was engaged by a rather large human being before he could completely fill the gap. While Justin Houston does a decent job moving the RT inside (shrinking the hole), there's still room there for Oliver to burst through.
Of course, he doesn't, because Mauga does precisely the opposite of what I (and many others have complained about). Rather than hesitating, he goes RIGHT for "his" gap. If he doesn't move immediately, Gates gets to him and it's a bad deal. And Mauga demonstrates that fact that, when he doesn't get hung up thinking too much, he's got good closing burst to fill the gap and stuff the runner. He also shows the ability to get skinny around a blocker... PROVIDED he's being decisive and moving forward.
Mauga's issues aren't physical. His speed and strength are perfectly fine for the position when he's asked to attack a single gap, and I'd argue he's actually pretty good at playing the position within that limited context.
This particular play wasn't a lone event, either. I could have taken any number of plays and shown the same thing; when Mauga attacks, he does pretty well. When he's forced to try and make choices, he waits to long and takes himself out of the play.
Play 2: Week 17 vs Chargers, 2:57 in the 2nd Quarter
Here's another situation where Mauga, rather than waiting for the ball carrier to come to him, aggressively attacks a gap. As a result, a stop for a loss is made. We'll do the full sequence of pictures in a row here to speed things up a bit (plus, we can pretend it's a comic book!). The call from the Chargers appears to simply be a stretch run play to the left.
Here, Mauga sees the play developing and immediately crashes into a gap in the line as they move left. He gets upfield quickly enough that the RG (who briefly engages a DL before trying to fill the gap Mauga is crashing) isn't able to get in front of him. Mauga again demonstrates the speed and ability to "get skinny" and work his way past the late shove.
Because of Mauga's quick jump, the play is essentially dead in the water. You can see that Tamba Hali does a fantastic job setting the edge (he's come a long way as a run defender in that department. Just a terrific player who is going to retire a Chief) and moving the LT far enough back that there's no way for Oliver to escape outside.
There are potential running lanes for Oliver to follow, especially behind the FB between the LT and LG. However, Mauga is on him so fast there's no way for him to take advantage of those lanes. Oliver attempts to cut back to the right, but Mauga fights to keep a grip on him and holds him up long enough for Jaye Howard to come help clean up (though Mauga had a leg by the time Howard arrived, so I believe he makes the play regardless).
Anyway, we see again what Mauga can do when he's attacking and not thinking. He can actually provide a positive presence on the defense in a very specific set of circumstances. He just shouldn't be asked to keep an eye on multiple gaps, as he consistently shows an inability to recognize quickly enough where he needs to be.
In the very last picture I put an arrow above Joe Mays for seemingly no reason. Well, there's a reason; to show that Mays, despite hanging back and watching the play, was able to read which gap he needed to fill quickly enough to avoid second level blockers and get there as the play was unfolding. Even if Mauga hadn't stopped Oliver in the backfield, Mays would have filled that particular gap in time to prevent a run longer than a few yards.
That's the difference between Mays and Mauga (and even more so with a guy like Derrick Johnson). There's a speed of recognition required to be a linebacker when you're asked to do more than fill a single gap. So far in his career, Mauga hasn't demonstrated that "speed of mind" (for lack of a better term).
Very few people have been harder on Josh Mauga than I have. However, he can be at least a neutral player for a defense, or even a positive player. That's PROVIDED he's not asked to do too much. With DJ's return this season, Sutton needs to lower the number of decisions Mauga is asked to make on the field and simply have him attacking gaps. By doing so he could mask Mauga's main issue as a defender and, through that, the main weakness in the Chiefs run defense.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to imagine what the Chiefs defense would look like without a glaring weakness against the run.