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Chiefs Adapting? Changes to Run D vs Dallas

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows that the Chiefs’ run defense has struggled this season. While there are various reasons for this, a huge portion of blame has been handed out to Bob Sutton and the schematic/personnel choices he’s made as defensive coordinator, particularly on nickel and dime sets.

One major issue fans have had is that Sutton has repeatedly used a 4-2-5 setup on defense (4 guys on the line, 2 “linebackers,” and 5 secondary players) with a very “light” personnel grouping:

  1. Justin Houston and either Ford/Zombo/Hali at the other “end” position, often without their hands in the dirt. This essentially creates a situation where you are undersized on the edge (though Houston is the best play side edge defender in the NFL, so that doesn’t matter too much on his side).
  2. the 2 interior tackles are generally undersized as interior “4-3” type tackles. It’s often been a combination of Allen Bailey and Chris Jones, though there’s been some swapping out. This further adds to the front being undersized.
  3. Of the 2 linebackers, one of them has been Daniel Sorensen, who is not an actual linebacker (#analysis) but a 210-pound safety.

So in short, you’ve got a slightly undermanned group against the run (with a 6 man front instead of 7), and then you’ve got a lack of size throughout. The results have been... well, they’ve been pretty bad against the run.

There have been a few other issues that have bothered fans as well with regards to how Sutton has coached the defense. The defensive line has appeared to be overmatched at times when asked to 2-gap rather than 1-gap and attack against the run (besides Bennie Logan, who has been solid), and the ILB’s have struggled with “read and react” snaps. Fans have wanted Sutton to switch to a more aggressive scheme where players are just required to attack one gap (though that increases the risk of big plays) for quite some time.

I believe the thing that has frustrated fans the most is that it’s appeared Sutton is unwilling to change how he does things. At least, that’s how people felt until Sunday, when Sutton inserted a number of changes to the defense.

First and most noticeably, Sorensen was out as a “hybrid LB,” and Kevin Pierre-Louis was in. This wasn’t a magic fix for the nickel run defense, but fans did notice an immediate impact early on.

Of course, this is the most successful run defense snap by the nickel defense on the day, so it’s not representative of how the entire day went. BUT... there was a noticeable improvement in the run defense in said sets.

I went back and tracked the nickel run defense, and the Chiefs allowed 4.78 YPC when in that alignment. Now, let’s be clear... that’s not GOOD against the run. However, it’s significantly better than what we’ve seen previously from the nickel alignment. For example, against Denver (which doesn’t have nearly the OL Dallas does), the Chiefs allowed 6.61 YPC when in nickel.

Going from “completely atrocious” to merely “not good” may not seem like a big leap, but in reality it makes an enormous difference. Obviously, with only one game go off we can’t be sure this is a trend, but it IS encouraging.

Another change Bob Sutton made, as far as I could tell, was that the defense seemed more oriented on attacking gaps rather than reading and reacting.

Again, one game isn’t necessarily an indicator of a trend. However, it was encouraging to see the Chiefs, at least for one game, simplify things a bit and play more to the strengths of their players. Guys like Reggie Ragland, Chris Jones, Allen Bailey, and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are absolutely at their best when they’re attacking a single gap and moving forward, rather than being asked to hold off and read where the run is going. Jones in particular played much better than he had been previously.

Another change Sutton made that I didn’t see coming was employing more looks with 3 down linemen and both edge defenders on the line, or a bear front. Additionally, Sutton trotted out a look I hadn’t seen anywhere except maybe on the goal line previously.

Here, Sutton had Jones, Roy Miller, Logan and Nacho all out there as a 4 man front. While it wasn’t the greatest snap across the board, they were able to shut down the read option look when Jones won immediately (notice he’s just attacking a gap here rather than trying to hold the LT at bay) and KPL was right behind him to clean up.

Overall, the run defense was much, much better than it has been in previous games, as evidenced by Elliott’s paltry 3.4 YPC on the day (his second lowest YPC of the year). Though that’s an imperfect stat, it’s encouraging to see. Though I’d say the MOST encouraging thing is seeing Sutton making rather drastic changes to the defense to compensate for what has been a clear weakness. Considering the beating he’s taken from Chiefs fans for being unwilling to adapt, he should be given credit for that.

Now, about Acker over Mitchell... well, we’ll save that for another day. I just hope we continue to see the run defense go the right direction.