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Busting 4 myths about the Kansas City Chiefs defense (it’s not all Bob Sutton)

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Sometimes you hear something that you’re not sure is true, and you just shrug and move on with your life. At least, that’s what you do if you’re a healthy human being. If you’re not, you obsessively research until you’ve dug into the truth of the matter. Unfortunately for me (and perhaps fortunately for you), I fall into the latter camp.

There’s a lot of talk about the defense right now, and deservedly so. After all, the pass defense looked quite poor against the Raiders merely a week after the run defense looked like a sieve against the Steelers. That’s... less than ideal. The Chiefs hung 30 on the Raiders but it wasn’t enough to win, and the defense wasn’t able to stop the Raiders from traveling 80 yards in under two minutes (well, with all the stoppages it was more like 20, but whatever) and scoring the game winning touchdown on Thursday.

When stuff like that happens, people are going to talk. And that’s what has happened. A lot of talk about the defense against Oakland has been based around a few key points:

  1. Bob Sutton put Justin Houston in coverage way too much, and it’s killing the defense.
  2. The defense constantly rushing three and dropping eight resulted in no pressure on the quarterback.
  3. Even when the defense rushed four or more, they weren’t able to get pressure and allowed Carr all day to dice them up.
  4. Bob Sutton is the major problem as the defensive coordinator.

These narratives were interesting to me, and I quite frankly agreed with all of them after watching the game live. Of course, years of experience as to my own inability to adequately diagnose the game live has made me skeptical of my own instant reactions to any game. So I felt like it was time to take a look at these narratives to see if they are true.

(NOTE: I’m not concerned with arguing whether the defense was bad against the Raiders. That the passing defense was bad is beyond dispute. I’m curious as to WHY they were bad. What actually happened out there? And are the popular narratives correct?)

I’ve already discussed these issues on the Chiefs in the North podcast, and you can find that episode here.

But for those of you who aren’t podcast listeners, I thought it only appropriate to lay out what I found here as well. Because it’s too important (well, maybe “important” is the wrong word. I mean, it’s important to ME, but I have issues) to let bad information get disseminated without at least trying to put forth a little reality.

Number 1: Bob Sutton put Justin Houston in coverage way too much, and it’s killing the defense.

We’re going to start with a half-truth. Because on one hand, it IS true that Houston spends too much time in coverage. As recently as last week it was discussed that Houston has been in coverage on a quarter of the Chiefs’ snaps against the pass this season. Compared to guys like Khalil Mack or Von Miller, who are in coverage maybe 5% of the time or so, it becomes clear that Sutton isn’t using Houston to rush enough.

However, this narrative has started to take on a life of its own. I have people telling me that Houston is in coverage half the time or more, and that’s simply not true. Against Oakland, Houston dropped into coverage 11 times in about 55 dropbacks. Now, is 20 percent still too much? Yes, I think so. But it’s not half. It’s not close to half. It’s not close to close to half.

Additionally, you need to know that it WASN’T Houston’s snaps in coverage that killed the defense. In fact, the only touchdown of the night given up when Houston was in coverage was the two yard throw at the end of the game, where they rolled away from Houston’s side and he wasn’t a factor in the play regardless. Not one of the Raiders “big” plays (20+ yards) was when Justin Houston was in coverage. In fact, on the 11 plays, only 2 of them went for more than 10 yards. On five of them, the result was an incomplete pass.

In short, while it’s true that Houston is dropping into coverage more than he should the idea that that’s what hurt the defense against Oakland is patently false.

Number 2: The defense was constantly rushing three against Oakland, which resulted in too little pressure and the defense hurting.

This one is just flat-out wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Chiefs dropped eight into coverage a TOTAL of six times against the Raiders. That’s it. Six times.

Guess how many of those times were one of Oakland’s big plays? If you guessed none, you’d be right. The Chiefs gave up a total of 24 yards on those plays where they rushed three and dropped eight into coverage.

The really funny thing here is that I was CERTAIN I would find quite a few plays because I felt like a noticed quite a few on initial viewing. The lesson, as always, is twofold: never trust your broadcast viewing, and I’m an idiot.

Number 3: Even when the defense rushed four or more, they weren’t able to get pressure and allowed Carr all day to dice them up.

This is another narrative I had no problem believing, because I felt like I watched Carr have tons of time on multiple snaps. Then I turned on the tape, and I found a very different story. We’re going to let Justin Houston demonstrate what the actual issue was on multiple snaps

What do those two snaps have in common? They both involve Houston winning 1x1 against the RT, and they both involve throws that come out so quickly that it doesn’t matter.

Oakland got the ball out early consistently. There appeared to be an emphasis on Carr throwing quickly to take the pass rush out of the game, and the Chiefs were unable to hang in coverage for even two seconds on multiple snaps. When a QB’s first read is open and the ball comes out that quickly, there’s not much a pass rusher can do. Coverage and pressure are symbiotic. The idea is that coverage can stay on point for at least 2.5 seconds or so, and that the pressure can get there in that amount of time.

It wasn’t just Houston either (though he had the most snaps like that). Dee Ford and Chris Jones both got close multiple times on snaps where Carr just got rid of the ball too quickly to be threatened by the rush.

And then, of course, there were a few plays killed by penalties, none bigger than this one.

How different would your recollection be of the pass rush if it forced a huge fumble that led to points? Sometimes that’s how narrow the margin is between one narrative and another.

Oh, and in case you wanted to watch Murray during his “illegal contact.” Warning: DO NOT give in to the temptation to destroy your phone, tablet or computer...

Gross. Just gross. But I can’t dwell on that. Let’s return to my point.

The point of showing you the Houston snaps is that pass rushing isn’t just about the guys rushing the passer (oddly enough). The Chiefs actually DID get some pressure on Carr. The problem, on WAY too many snaps, was that the coverage broke down so quickly that it simply didn’t matter.

Of course, there WERE snaps where the rush didn’t get to Carr quickly enough. So let me be clear... I’m NOT saying the pass rush was great. I am saying simply that the pass rush was, on many snaps, getting what should be enough pressure to affect the quarterback, and failures elsewhere negated it.

Additionally, the Raiders did a good job with play action on some snaps, forcing the Chiefs to go into position to defend the run, which they often did (stopping the run was clearly a point of emphasis in that game). When a defensive player goes into defending the run, usually by trying to stand up straight and hold the blocker at bay while he minds his gaps, it gives offensive linemen the edge they need to hold up in pass protection when the the defender realizes he’s been had. That’s one reason play action is such a good idea to slow down an aggressive pass rush IF you think they’ll respect it.

All in all, the pass rush was OK, but nothing to write home about. It was the failures in the secondary that were the real issue for the Chiefs, not rushing the passer. Which brings me to my last narrative that needs to be busted.

Number 4: Bob Sutton is a major problem as the defensive coordinator.

I’ve heard a lot of people give a lot of opinions about Sutton. About how he lacks creativity, is slow to adjust, doesn’t put the players in a position to succeed, etc.

Of course, a lot of the complaints I’ve heard about Sutton center around the first two narratives I addressed. However, I wanted to dig a little deeper, so I re-watched every single play for Oakland that went beyond 10 yards in the passing game, asking in each situation whether the failure was schematic or in execution.

What I found was a lot of stuff like this.

This is one of the biggest plays of the game. Sutton (correctly) thought that doubling up on Cooper would be the smart bet, so he had Sorensen help Mitchell deep with the intention of bracketing Cooper.

However, Cooper got open anyways, using a jab step to the outside to get both Sorensen and Mitchell wrong-hipped (Sorensen in particular bit HARD), then cutting back inside. Carr, who DID have way too much time in the pocket on this particular snap, saw this and made a nice throw deep with enough velocity to beat Ron Parker to the spot (to his credit, Parker gives Cooper a nice shot and almost gets there on time to break up the pass. Without him this is an even bigger play).

That’s a play where the coach put his players in a position to succeed AND correctly guessed what player to key on. It’s on the players to execute that.

Similar issue here, on Cooper’s 2nd TD.

As far as I can tell, Murray fails to pick up Cooper as he’s handed off in coverage, then doubles down on his mental error by taking a horrific angle to Cooper, letting a big play turn into a HUGE play.

This wasn’t a scheme failure. The players were in place to stop this. They just didn’t do their job, and it wasn’t a particularly tough job. Stuff like that isn’t on the defensive coordinator, especially when these are players we’ve seen execute this stuff CORRECTLY. Sutton can’t predict that guys will suddenly blow coverages like this, or bite ridiculously hard on a run fake...

I could go on, but we’ve already covered over a hundred yards of offense as well as a touchdown. If you throw in Cooper’s first touchdown (whether you pin that on Mitchell falling or the official), that’s another 40 yards and touchdown that falls squarely on the shoulders of someone who ISN’T Bob Sutton.

If you re-watch Oakland’s successful passing plays, the vast majority of them were failures of execution, not scheme. The players aren’t being asked to do things that are out of their skillset (other than Sutton’s seeming belief that Sorense/Parker/Murray are interchangeable, that one is a legit criticism), so I can’t fault Sutton for believing his guys can execute what he’s drawing up.

Ultimately, Sutton has a few things he needs to improve (like the safety usage, Houston’s usage and the placement of the corners in relation to the line of scrimmage). But on the whole, it’s the players who bore responsibility for the defensive meltdown against Sutton. The narrative that his scheme is somehow blowing games is absolutely, completely untrue.

The defense has a confirmed terrible offense coming to town on Monday night. This is a chance for them to get back on track after what has essentially been a few hiccups. We’ll see what happens, but I’m not sure it’s time to hit the panic button JUST yet.