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NSFW: Chiefs third down defense breakdown

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The loss Sunday against the Buccaneers stung for a number of reasons. One of them is that it came in part due to multiple failures on 3rd down by both the offense and the defense.

There’s something disheartening about a failure on 3rd down by a defense, especially 3rd and long. It takes the wind out of a team’s sails, as they go from about to get the ball back for the offense to... well, staying on defense with the other team that much closer to scoring. For two consecutive weeks, the defense has struggled on 3rd down.

There are a lot of people getting blame for those failures on 3rd down, but as always, I’m not good with unanswered questions. So we’ll take a look at each failure on 3rd down (some in more depth than others) and try to figure out whether the problems Sunday are something that can be addressed or something that is likely to continue to haunt the team moving forward.

5:52 1st Quarter, 3rd and 4

The Buccaneers lined up in shotgun formation with three receivers left in a loose trips look, with 1 receiver to the right. As best as I can tell, the Chiefs were looking to play some kind of man coverage (at least, that’s what was played on the left side of the defense and how the players seemed to move with the receivers), but there was some confusion with regards to assignment, resulting in this.

Between Gaines, Berry, and Nelson, SOMEONE took the wrong guy (it’s unlikely Berry is the culprit, considering it’s a WR). Gaines is the farthest to the outside and the first player to react to Humphries (the receiver), so it makes sense that it’s his guy. I drew an arrow to show where Gaines was looking to start the play.

This screenshot is not even a second after the ball was snapped and this play is doomed. The pass rush is totally irrelevant as Winston’s first read is open enough for a first down on a quick out.

It’s impossible to know for sure who is at fault here, but it looks like an individual mistake in coverage. This is correctable. Also, it’s worth noting that Marcus Peters would generally be the guy handling at least one of the coverages here, and he FEASTS on that type of quick throw. I call this a correctable mistake, though it’s a costly one.

4:12 1st Quarter, 3rd and 9

The Bucs lined up in shotgun again in an obvious passing down. Bob Sutton sent multiple blitzers (including a corner) while having Justin Houston drop back into coverage. It’s actually a really nice blitz that utterly overwhelms the left side of Tampa Bay’s clearly surprised offensive line, forcing the RB to protect that side and allowing Dontari Poe (who quickly beats his individual blocker) to get right in Winston’s face almost immediately. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Winston keeps a cool head under pressure and immediately goes to his tight end, who beats Daniel Sorensen on a well-timed curl just past the first down marker.

Here’s what I hate about this play. Look at Sorensen as the ball is snapped.

Now on one hand, Sorensen is in front of the line of scrimmage (which seems good). What I hate is the free release. When you’re sending a blitz, I prefer to have receivers jammed in order to screw up timing on shorter routes. This decreases the likelihood that the QB can just throw the ball up prior the receiver making his break (like Winston does here).

The bigger mistake here, though, is on Justin Houston. Houston fakes a rush (to sell the blitz) and then drops back in coverage. It appears that he’s trying to defend the shallow zone to compensate for Sorensen’s “deep” coverage. However, he doesn’t get enough depth on his drop and doesn’t keep track of the route, so he loses a precious half second glancing around to find the receiver and the ball sails over his head.

In my opinion, Houston with a little more time under his belt gets proper depth on his zone here and has a potential pick. I THINK this play was an attempt to bait Winston into just such a decision, but the execution failed. It’s worth noting, though, that the pass rush did generate pressure here. It was the coverage where the failure lay, partly with Sorensen (who definitely should’ve broke on the route more quickly) and more so with Houston.

11:28 2nd Quarter, 3rd and 5

Here, the Bucs are again in shotgun. Sutton sends DJ and Sorensen on a blitz up the middle, which the Bucs do a good job picking up so there’s no immediate pressure. Winston throws to his TE, who is covered VERY tightly by Eric Berry. Unfortunately, in the NFL there’s rarely such a thing as perfect coverage, and a nice throw with velocity to the tight end and a good contested catch resulted in a first down.

Sometimes the other team just makes a good play, and this was such an instance. The Bucs picked up the blitz and slowed down a stunt on the defense’s right side nicely, Winston made a really nice throw, and the TE made a really nice catch. Tough to defend that.

7:15 2nd Quarter, 3rd and 10

I knew if I did this long enough, I’d inevitably find a play that made me irate.

Jones eats the RG alive right at the snap and is about to have a free run at Winston. The RG then does what he’s supposed to do: grab on for dear life and risk a penalty rather than letting his quarterback get devoured by a really big dude.

Because of the hold, Winston has plenty of time to scan the field and manipulate Ron Parker with his eyes. He holds Parker in the middle of the field then delivers a strike on an in route (Acker just got beat, nothing fancy there). I wish Parker would have been more aware of the route right next to him rather than drifting towards routes he couldn’t possibly help on, but the main culprit here is the hold.

Had the RG not held, that’s likely a sack or a throwaway. As things stand, it should have been a 10 yard penalty and forced the Bucs into 3rd and 20 well out of field goal range. Considering this drive ended in a FG in a low-scoring game, that’s a HUGELY important non-call. Gross.

0:25 2nd Quarter, 3rd and 10

Shotgun again, the Chiefs rushed 4 and Winston didn’t face much pressure. Houston got a little but Winston had plenty of room to step up into the pocket and Houston was sent wide. Steven Nelson got beat on a nice inside move by Humphries, and Winston delivered a good throw in stride.

Nothing much to see here other than the fact that the safeties, in my opinion, both stayed way too deep. It could well be that Sutton was more concerned with preventing a big play, but the fact is that Eric Berry was 12 yards deeper than any receiver when the ball was released. Mostly, though, a good play by Tampa Bay and Winston in particular.

11:47 3rd Quarter, 3rd and 10

This play, the secondary provided great coverage and the pass rush made Winston skittish. He bailed on the pocket and ran left. Justin Houston got held nearly as blatantly as Jones did earlier, which allowed Winston to escape the pocket and run free for a first down.

These holds are making me too angry to talk much more about this play. It’s worth noting that Steven Nelson was called for illegal contact regardless. Because apparently only illegal contact should be called instead of holding (excuse me while I go pout in the corner for a while).

Oh, quick side note since we’re here... Houston looked a lot better than I expected. Seemed like he had his explosion and he did have more than a few pressures early. He also provided nice edge contain in the run game. He seemed to get a bit gassed as the game went along, but overall I was thrilled with how he did. He’s way ahead of where I thought he’d be, and that’s GOOD news.

10:46 4th Quarter, 3rd and 5

This one was a killer. The Chiefs offense had just marched down the field only to have the drive snatched away when Smith’s tipped pass was picked off (probably would’ve been picked regardless, but that’s for another day). The Chiefs defense held decently and looked like they might force Tampa Bay to punt the ball with the offense getting a shot at redemption (on a day they were moving the ball decently).

Instead, this happened (watch the bottom of the screen to start, then watch Sorensen in zone coverage).

I am on record as a big fan of Phillip Gaines’s ability in man coverage. And Nelson has been pretty solid this season after a quiet rookie year. However, this is the second mix-up in coverage involving those two (more likely Gaines in my opinion) that cost the Chiefs on 3rd down. That HAS to get cleaned up.

If you were wondering why on a few plays it looked like Buccaneer receivers were wide open, well... they were. Because of mistakes like this. Assignment is all-important in the secondary, because if you blow that you end up with a receiver running free past the first down marker.

I’d also place a little blame on Sorensen for not getting more depth in his drop. There doesn’t appear to be any reason for him to stay shallow at all, and if he gets back more quickly he takes that throwing lane from Winston, or at least makes it a much tougher throw.

6:30 4th Quarter, 3rd and 1

This is one of the Bucs touchdowns, from the four-yard-line. It really stung, as it put the Bucs up two scores.

The Bucs run a play action with a fullback, then had the fullback leak into the flat. In the meantime, the TE ran straight off the line of scrimmage, managing to get in the path of Ramik Wilson, who had the FB in coverage. Wilson doesn’t realize he’s being conned and hesitates, looking for the run (as best I can tell). Then it’s too late.

This is as Winston prepares to release. As you can see, barring some kind of miracle wherein Winston passes out and falls down, or maybe Bane blows up the entire field, a touchdown is a foregone conclusion at this point.

This play was a decent play design, and the running back laid a nice block on Houston to slow him down. However, Wilson let himself get hung up and missed the fullback leaking out of the backfield. The result was six crucial points for Tampa Bay.

I hate myself for doing this. Let’s keep moving.

2:11 4th Quarter, 3rd and 3

This is the final conversion I’m covering (I may have missed a couple, but I’m already close to vomiting and just can’t bring myself to care at this point), and the one that hurt the most. The Chiefs offense managed to score a touchdown to bring the game within striking distance. They needed a stop here to get the ball back with at least a couple of minutes left.

I’ll let the play speak for itself to start. The conversion goes to Evans (top of the screen).

A few thoughts here, presented numerically in order to avoid getting emotional about some of my feelings regarding the defensive play call (Sutton, in my opinion, did an overall great job by the way).

  1. The Chiefs definitely look like they’re expecting a run. Watch the safeties and ‘backers. Eyes on the backfield, generally.
  2. Acker ended up alone on an island against a very, very good wide receiver. I think Acker did a decent job, but he doesn’t belong in man coverage with no help against Evans with the game on the line. I very, very much believe the presence of one Marcus Peters changes that play call entirely by Tampa Bay.
  3. Justin Houston does not rush the passer here. Instead, he is dropped into zone, which does nothing to help because he does not get enough depth to protect the route Evans runs. I have a lot of feelings about Justin Houston not rushing the passer on this play. They are not good feelings. They are sad feelings. And mad feelings. And confused feelings. All the feelings, really, except happy.

So there you have it, a look at what went wrong on 3rd down. Overall, I didn’t see anything that makes me think we’re wrong about this defense’s ceiling. The Buccaneers had a combination of luck (a couple of crucial non-calls and defensive mix-ups in coverage) and some really nice plays to convert a lot of tough 3rd downs. It wasn’t matter of the Chiefs getting beat consistently, it was more a few key things going wrong.

The absence of Marcus Peters was huge. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I think I saw more throws to the right side of the field Sunday than the previous 3-4 weeks combined. Additionally, Winston threw a LOT of contested passes. It’s hard to believe that Peters doesn’t make him pay for it at least once or twice (I also think he hauls in the interception Acker dropped). Combine that with Ford’s absence in the second half and the Chiefs missing Jaye Howard (though RNR acquitted himself pretty well in a penetrating role), and the Chiefs were missing some key contributors (nevermind the fact that Derrick Johnson is clearly playing hurt).

I’m not ready to bury the defense. They still did a ton of things right and made the Bucs work for ever inch of it, despite injuries and some (ahem) questionable calls. Houston performing well his first game back is absolutely huge, and the ceiling of the defense once Peters returns (along with Ford, hopefully) could blow the top right off.

Now about that offense...