Let’s get this over with.
The run defense has been concerning this year. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but the Chiefs are allowing opponents to run for 4.9 yards per carry, which is ranked 29th in the league. They look even worse in DVOA (a more comprehensive group of statistics that factor in strength of opponent and other factors), where they rank 31st.
I’d hoped the run defense was starting to shape up after a pretty strong performance against the Raiders (of course, then the pass defense decided to fall off a cliff, but that’s a whole separate article). Then the Broncos came to Arrowhead and rushed for 177 yards, with none of the running backs averaging less than 4.9 YPC. Gross.
There are a lot of theories floating around as to why the run defense has been poor, ranging from blaming Marcus Peters and his newfound aversion to tackling (hint: that’s not the real problem) to blaming the defensive line to Bob Sutton’s scheming.
Of course, because I have serious issues, I can’t let questions like that hang in the air. So I went back and watched every run defense snap for the Chiefs against the Broncos. In case you’re wondering, some days this job really bites.
After taking a long, hard look, there are multiple issues with the run defense. That’s not really surprising. Generally speaking, when you’ve got a major issue on offense or defense there are multiple problems, not just one silver bullet issue. If I were to break it down, there are three main issues plaguing the Chiefs run defense, one of which I’ve been avoiding for ... well since the season began really. It’s time.
First issue: Inside linebacker play
So far in 2017, Derrick Johnson hasn’t been ... well, he hasn’t been DJ.
DJ gets caught wrong-footed, then abandons the gap and gets caught completely out of position. Nacho out of position too. Parker saved a TD. pic.twitter.com/Jt0WUS1DPO— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) October 31, 2017
Look, I don’t know how else to say this, so I’m just going to say it as bluntly as possible: if I were to pin the Chiefs’ run defense struggles on any one player, it would be DJ.
I cannot believe I just typed that sentence, but that’s where we are at. One of the greatest run defenders I’ve ever seen has been a liability the majority of his snaps. Of course, a few times per game we see a flash of the DJ we know and love. But those snaps are few and far between at the moment.
And this isn’t as simple as DJ has slowed down. That’s not the problem on a lot of these snaps, or the above gif. The problem seems to be as much (or more) mental than physical. DJ continually appears to be guessing wrong rather than right, attacking the wrong gaps and moving backwards or hesitating rather than moving forwards. He’s consistently been caught out of position and hasn’t been able to recover. I believe this is why so many people think it’s just a physical issue: they see him in pursuit and they think “oh, he can’t catch up.” But the real issue is the initial wrong read.
And it’s not a one time issue. I could show you many, many gifs of DJ jumping into the wrong gap or waiting for blockers to come to him. But frankly, I don’t want to. It’s too depressing. DJ has been so great for so long that the idea of him being NOT great is borderline painful. If you’re willing to take my word for it, it’ll save you (and me) a lot of heartache: DJ has been pretty bad against the run so far this year, and it’s had a massive effect on the defense.
And unfortunately, Reggie Ragland (who is, let’s remember, essentially a rookie at the moment) hasn’t been the answer we’d hoped as a thumper against the run. The main problem with Ragland is that he seems to hesitate rather than get downhill and, you know, thump.
Perfect ex. of what I mean. Ragland has a free lane to the runner instead he gets pancaked and RB gets 5yds. pic.twitter.com/azUwaT8AT1— Joe D (@pulseofdachiefs) November 1, 2017
Much like with DJ, I could show you multiple gifs where Ragland let blockers come to him rather than moving downhill. It’s definitely something he needs to improve on, as he’s demonstrated the strength to do some good when he’s attacking.
Right now, the ILB play has been ROUGH, and it’s resulted in a lot of free runners into the secondary rather than being met at the line of scrimmage. That’s the first big issue.
Second issue: Bob Sutton invites the run
We’ve talked about it before, but it needs to be mentioned any time the Chiefs run defense comes up: Sutton sets the defense up to be weak against the run (and in a perfect world, strong against the pass) on first and second down quite a bit by going with nickel and dime sets that involve only two defensive linemen. Sometimes those linemen aren’t even at a traditional DT spot.
DEN audibled into this run, and you can see why. Basically begging them to run on you. Too much went wrong for one tweet. pic.twitter.com/G75a9OkVy8— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 1, 2017
When you only have 2 down linemen, you create a strength/weight issue against opposing teams. At a certain point, the size of the dog in the fight matters a great deal. And when you’re asking linebackers (even Houston, who is a monster against the run) to fulfill roles usually filled by guys 25+ pounds heavier than they are, you’re asking for trouble.
This trouble is compounded by several personnel decisions Bob Sutton is making on a consistent basis.
- In the two down DL sets he’s often going with a combination of Chris Jones and Allen Bailey. Both of them are solid defensive linemen, but neither of them are particularly good at absorbing double teams (we’ll come back to this)
- Sutton uses OLBs as undersized defensive ends. Again, Houston can pull this off. But most 3-4 OLB’s aren’t going to win this way, and teams often just run away from where Houston is (because why wouldn’t you?)
- Sutton, despite having a very undersized four man front, swaps out a linebacker for a safety (usually Daniel Sorensen).
So what you end up with, in the end, is a guy taking on double teams who isn’t built for it (either Bailey or Jones), and then a bunch of guys who are generally undersized for what they’re being asked to do. You end up with well over 1,800 pounds of blockers (w/ a TE) going up against maybe what, maybe 1,500 pounds of front six (can’t even call it a front seven with the way it’s often lined up) up the middle. And it ends predictably.
Chris Jones isn't winning 1x1 battles enough, but this personnel group is set up to fail vs. run. Way too undersized, pic.twitter.com/b9j0Eyu9BL— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 2, 2017
Yes, Jones not being able to get off his block one on one hurt there, and we’ll talk about that. But at the end of the day, there’s a massive size/weight disparity here.
My belief is that, in the past, Sutton was able to get away with these types of formations because of Dontari Poe’s presence (he wasn’t good against double teams last year but was still better against them than Bailey or Jones) and, more importantly, the greatness of Eric Berry and Derrick Johnson.
When you have a safety like Berry who can legitimately play linebacker and be a plus player against the run, it covers up a lot of issues (imagine Berry in there instead of Sorensen. My guess is he attacks the ball and prevents more than a 3-4 yard gain). When you have an ILB who blows up every fourth play or so before it can even get started and is always on the ball before anyone else, it covers up a lot of issues.
Well, now Berry is out for the year, DJ is struggling, and Sutton doesn’t use Bennie Logan (far and away the best defensive lineman at handling double teams) in these sets enough to move the needle. It’s a tough combination.
Sutton HAS to know these things. He’s made comments about execution and, to be fair, had Jones or DJ or Sorensen executed better in the gif above it’s not a big gain. BUT ... he has to know he’s asking some guys to do things that they’re just not best suited for (like asking Bailey to be a block eater, for example).
However, Sutton seems willing to get gashed in the run if it mans being better against the pass, which is the purpose of that formation. And to an extent, I get it. The Chiefs got killed on the ground against the Steelers and the Broncos, and neither team could even get to 20 points on the day. The Chiefs played well against the run vs the Raiders, yet gave up 30+ because the pass defense struggled.
In the modern NFL, stopping the pass is paramount. I believe we’re seeing Sutton treat it as such. The problem is, as I said before, the issues are more glaring than in the past because of personnel deficiencies. Unless DJ becomes himself or Jones/Bailey/Nacho start winning their one on one battles more OR Sorensen morphs into Berry Lite, those struggles will continue.
Third issue: Defensive line isn’t winning enough
You already saw in the gif above where Jones failed to win a one on one. That’s been too much of a problem this season for most of the defensive line. It was demonstrated well on this touchdown run by Denver:
This snap is pretty straightforward. All 3 DL 1x1, just couldn't shed. DJ gets put in a no-win situation. pic.twitter.com/TLZR6HBI54— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 1, 2017
Now make no mistake, that’s a rough snap for DJ again. But we’ve covered that. My issue here is that not one DL wins his one on one battle to force the RB to even change direction. The only one who even comes close is Logan, and he’s not that close.
From what I’ve seen Chris Jones (who had a marvelous rookie season) is in a bit of a sophomore slump. He’s still a good player, but he’s maddeningly inconsistent. He’s been set up to be one on one against OL a lot this year and just isn’t winning as much as he should, often failing to get off blocks against the run. He appears to still be relying on his physical gifts rather than any refinement of his hand fighting. He also still seems to lack awareness of the ball on a lot of snaps.
Allen Bailey and Rakeem Nunez-Roches haven’t been blameless either. Both of them have failed to win one on one battles and get off their blocks in similar fashion to Jones. Again, neither has been BAD specifically (the main thrust of the defensive issues, in my opinion, are the first two problems we discussed), they just haven’t been good enough to cover deficiencies elsewhere. And that’s a problem, as this line was supposed to be top-notch.
The only defensive lineman I’d call a consistently good run defender (though not perfect, as the gif above shows) has been Bennie Logan. He’s been by far the most consistent in maintaining gap discipline and holding off blockers, and he does much better against double teams than any of the other DL on the roster. It just hasn’t been remotely enough to make the run defense competent.
So ... now what?
What I’d REALLY like to see would be Bob Sutton switch to a more consistent one-gap scheme against the run, asking guys like Nacho, Jones and Bailey to shoot into gaps rather than holding OL up. This would play to their strengths. However, I’m not sure we’re going to see that. I also think Sutton needs to start keeping Logan on the field more with three DL sets. He’s provided enough push in the pocket that I don’t believe he’d be a liability if opposing teams pass. But whether or not we’ll see that is anyone’s guess.
Really, the hope for the run defense lies in guys simply doing their jobs better. Bailey, Jones and Nacho need to win more one on one. They just do. If they improve even marginally at that, the run defense will improve.
And even more so, we need to keep in mind that what we’re seeing from the ILBs right now is hopefully not the best it’s going to get. With Ragland, one needs to remember that he’s basically a rookie who has played barely half a dozen games. And the raw materials are there.
This is what I want to see more of from Ragland. Send him to attack blockers. You can see he's got real "thumper" strength closing the hole. pic.twitter.com/XxydAhZ8Yr— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 2, 2017
I hope to see Ragland grow in his decisiveness as the games move along, and he’s showed more than once the traits that led Brett Veach to trade for him. As he continues to grow in the defense (again, one he JUST joined up with) we’re likely to see improvement from him.
And then there’s DJ. Look, it’s depressing to think about DJ as a liability against the run, but there’s something to consider here...
DJ’s 1st achilles tear 9/8/14, took ‘til around wk 8 of ‘15 season to look good. 2nd tear on 12/8/16, 3 months later into season than 1st. pic.twitter.com/4i1cRej8on— Brent Ross (@Brent102Fire) November 2, 2017
DJ is still less than 11 MONTHS removed from an achilles tear. Doing some browsing on the interwebs, I found that NFL players who suffer an achilles tear and return (not all do) average a return date of ... you guessed it, 11 months.
In other words, DJ is only now reaching the time that most players who suffer this injury would be returning to NFL action at all. And he’s been playing for months now. He’s way, way ahead of schedule. While on one hand that’s great (well, kinda), on the other hand that means DJ is that much closer to a long period of inactivity and rehabilitation rather than actual football training.
Remember DJ’s 2015 season? He tore his achilles the very first week of 2014. He was back the first week of 2015 (still more time to recover than he’s had as of yet with this injury), but for the first few weeks of the season he appeared a bit rusty. There were whispers that he’d slowed down and would never be the same ... and then he murdered the Raiders in December and we never looked back.
Is that what is going to happen this time? It feels unlikely. All I know is that given the amount of time that’s passed since the last tear, I’m going to give DJ the benefit of a doubt that he’ll come around, at least to improve on what he’s done. And I’ll continue to hold onto that hope until it’s been completely snuffed out. Because he’s freaking DJ, and he’s earned that.
And unfortunately, with the run defense, hope is the best thing we have right now. I guess we’ll see what happens.