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What’s going on with the Chiefs run defense?

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Every Chiefs fan knows that the run defense has been ... not great over the last few years. It’s been written about time and again, and a simple browsing of the comment section here during games will reveal dozens of people bemoaning the apparent leakiness of the defensive front.

The stats bear out that this year is another rough year for the run defense. The Chiefs are surrendering 4.6 yards per carry, which is ranked 27th in the NFL (well, tied for 25th, but still). While some struggles are expected with all-world run defender Eric Berry sidelined, this has been a source of frustration for Chiefs fans (though it should be noted the short yardage defense has been good at times on third down and short or the goal line, oddly enough).

This issue has rarely been more apparent than it was against the Texans last week, as the Chiefs gave up 6.3 yards per rush (though that was slightly inflated by Deshaun Watson’s scrambling) and, particularly early in the first half, looked like they couldn’t slow down the Texans’ rushing attack.

I thought it was time to go back and examine the run defense snaps on all-22, both successful (three yards or less gained by the Texans) and failures (four or more yards gained), to try and figure out what may be happening. My hope was to discover whether or not the Chiefs are likely to continue struggling to an extent against the run. I watched every snap multiple times to try and figure out what caused the success or failure, and I have come up with some conclusions.

First of all, there MAY be reason to be concerned about Derrick Johnson, but I’m not quite sure yet.

Here, DJ appeared to slip a bit, which was the major cause for him missing the runner (which led to a big gain). However, there’s also the issue of decisiveness and getting to the correct gap.

DJ should have gotten to the gap the RB eventually used immediately, as there were other defenders closing on the inside gap (who APPEARED to have that assignment). It also wasn’t too tough to see where the RB would be heading, yet DJ tried to head towards the wrong gap for a split second regardless, causing his slight misstep.

It’s hard for me to believe that peak DJ doesn’t make this play. Additionally, there were only a couple of successful run defense snaps where DJ really popped off the screen to me. Any other linebacker and I wouldn’t be concerned. But DJ? He normally pops off the screen much more quickly.

I genuinely can’t say for sure that DJ has really lost a step physically at this point, but he looks a little more indecisive out there and definitely isn’t dominating against the run the way we’ve seen him do. That’s been part of the problem, but that’s more a “DJ isn’t covering for deficiencies elsewhere” issue than one of DJ being genuinely bad in my opinion.

The main issue, in my opinion, isn’t about DJ at all (at least not directly). Rather, I believe that the Chiefs’ issues against the run are mostly systemic rather than personnel driven.

Bob Sutton has employed a ton of two DL, two OLB looks this season. While the alignment along the front four basically looks like what you’d see in a 4-3 defense, it’s not exactly the same. For starters, both Houston and whoever has been lining up opposite him (Zombo and Ford, mostly) are almost always lined up in a two point stance (standing rather than a hand in the dirt). This creates a situation where they are naturally not as ready for run defense as they are to rush the passer. However, that’s not the real issue.

The REAL issue is that even though this formation resembles a 4-3 front, it never has a third linebacker. Instead, there are sometimes two (and often only one) inside linebackers behind the four man front. Instead, Sutton has elected to have an extra safety and sometimes extra corner on the field.

In other words, the Chiefs are starting out plays with only five guys in the box who aren’t secondary-type players (you know, guys who weigh around 210 pounds at the most), and only two guys who are remotely close in size to the offensive line. If an offense is running with a tight end (which they often are), it’s a situation where the Chiefs are outweighed by several hundred pounds as you go across the front.

That kind of thing matters a great deal. How do I know? Well, I tracked it. I charted whether the Chiefs had two defensive linemen or three defensive linemen against standard RB running plays. Here’s how it ended up stacking up.

Three defensive linemen

7 snaps, 16 yards given up (2.29 YPC)

3 fails, 4 successes (note: the 3 “fails” were all 4-yard gains).

Two defensive linemen

13 snaps, 106 yards given up (8.15 YPC)

9 fails, 4 successes

Let me be clear: stats aren’t necessarily the end-all-be-all when determining how an individual player is doing. However, when trying to determine the overall efficacy of a team as a whole, they’re a more reliable indicator (though they only tell the what and not the why).

And really, when stats are THIS extreme, there’s really very little room left for debate. The fact is that the Chiefs are much, much, much more likely to lose and give up big gains when they are running two defensive linemen than they are with three, which is hardly surprising when you think about the matchups presented for the offense in that situation. The numbers are so clear that there’s really not much room for debate: the main culprit in the Chiefs’ issues against the run is schematic, not some failure by the players.

So then the question turns to why. Why would Sutton continuously trot out a defense that is so prone to being gashed by the run? I believe there are a few layers to the answer:

  1. Sutton doesn’t care about yards racked up on the ground prior to a team entering the red zone, where the Chiefs have consistently been tough to finish against.
  2. Sutton trusts his players to make JUST enough plays against the run (due to some solid personnel along the line in particular) with two DL sets to discourage teams from constantly running against the Chiefs without bothering to pass at all.
  3. The benefits of being strong against the pass in the modern NFL outweigh the risks of being mediocre against the run, particularly if you can play well in the red zone.
  4. This defensive concept has been a big part of the Chiefs’ defensive gameplan for a couple of years now, but is more noticeable with Eric Berry’s absence. He’s such a force against the run that the two DL set becomes even more palatable. Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray simply haven’t been able to match his presence, or even close.

Those are the four reasons I believe the Chiefs are doing what they are doing this season. I believe this all started based around Berry’s unique ability to make the run defense respectable even when at a severe weight disadvantage across the front (along with DJ and Houston’s similar unique ability against the run). And now, Sutton is simply staying the course despite it being a bit more of a rocky road.

And honestly, can you blame Sutton? The team DOES make just enough plays against the run out of two DL sets to justify some confidence in their ability to step up when it’s important. Chris Jones forced a fumble out of the two DL set, for example.

The Chiefs also had arguably the biggest stop of the game against the run come out of their two DL set in the fourth quarter,

In short, Sutton appears to have confidence in Chris Jones, Bennie Logan, Allen Bailey, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, DJ, and Houston to be good enough INDIVIDUAL PLAYERS that they can at least at times compensate for being at a schematic disadvantage. Because of that, running two DL doesn’t completely cripple the Chiefs against the run; it simply makes them weaker.

When you look at how the Chiefs defense has performed overall, it’s tough to argue with these results. They confounded Tom Brady into completing half his passes. They held a potent Eagles offense in check. They completely shut down the Chargers. They made stops when it counted against the Redskins and the Texans (with the Texans only really padding the box score once the game was out of reach). Those offenses all range from competent to very good, and the Chiefs’ passing defense was quite strong against them all (again, with the exception of Houston’s garbage time scoring). Having an extra defensive back to drop into coverage was a big part of that.

Because what the Chiefs are doing is working overall on defense, I don’t expect Sutton to change things up any time soon with regards to running two DL fronts. Which means unless DJ is still just rounding into shape and will hit another gear this season, we’re quite likely to continue to see teams rack up solid running stats against the Chiefs. And it will continue to barely matter.