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What changed with the Chiefs pass rush and why was it successful?

It’s no secret that the Chiefs pass rush has been a bit disappointing this season. Coming into the year we all hoped that it would be a strength of the defense. However, as often happens, reality has not been kind to expectations.

Justin Houston, despite being sent into coverage far more often than other edge rushers (we’ll talk about that more in a bit here, but it’s my least favorite Bob Sutton decision by far) is 10th in the league in sacks at 9.5. However, the next highest Chief is Chris Jones with ... 4.5. That doesn’t even put him in the top 50 in the league. The next highest Chiefs? Allen Bailey and Dee Ford, tied at two apiece.

In short, the Chiefs haven’t had the scariest pass rush this season. But why? With Houston and Jones, the Chiefs have a combo that should lead to at least a decent amount of pressure, even with Ford being hurt or ineffective most of the year and Tamba Hali only recently coming back. So what’s the problem?

Well, that’s a long story, and one where opinions differ wildly. Some claim it’s because Houston has taken a step back. Many (myself included) have blamed Chris Jones not taking a step forward. Still others blame Sutton’s defense. The role player pass rushers have taken quite a bit of heat as well. Whenever you’ve got that many suspects to place blame on, you know the situation is bad.

Fast forward to Sunday. Against one of the better offensive lines in the league, the Chiefs sacked Derek Carr three times, hit him five more times, and had multiple plays in which they were able to harass Carr into throwing the ball earlier than he wanted to.

So again, why did the pass rush suddenly come to life? Well, you know me, I went back and re-watched every pass defense snap, trying to get an idea for what the defense was doing differently. I wanted as much information as possible regarding things that might be different, so I charted the following:

  1. The number of rushers per play
  2. Whether there was pressure on Carr on each play
  3. The time between the snap and Carr’s release or Carr getting sacked
  4. The Chiefs who “won” their matchup on each snap
  5. Whether the Chiefs played press coverage
  6. Whether Justin Houston rushed the passer on a given snap

First and foremost, one thing that happened in this game is Chris Jones built on a (quietly) strong performance against the Jets and terrorized Derek Carr on multiple snaps. He was beating the Raiders OL from the first drive of the game...

Until the last play of the game (his pressure helping lead to Carr’s game-ending interception)...

So that’s one thing that was different. While Jones has, upon review, been perfectly respectable this season (the reasons he hasn’t been getting home for sacks have often been outside of him, but we’ll get to that), he was more consistent against the Raiders in shedding his blockers, rather than going back and forth between solid and stonewalled.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to post the raw information I collected first, then we’ll talk about what was different this game from what I watched (there were multiple factors).

Number of Pass Rushers

The Chiefs rushed 4 pass rushers on 77.1% of the passing downs against the Raiders by my charting (note: I did include a couple of plays that penalties altered, as the play was still run through at full speed). Sutton rushed 3 defenders on 20.8% of the snaps, and 2 players on a single snap to fill in the other 2.1%.

Interestingly, I didn’t see a single snap in which Sutton sent 5 or more defenders. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but if it did I certainly missed it. While Sutton DID blitz on occasion from the secondary, when he did so he dropped a linebacker (or 2) into coverage.

Plays with Pressure and Time to Throw

The Chiefs were able to generate pressure on 45.8% of the passing downs I reviewed. Obviously there are different levels of pressure (immediate being better than pressure that takes a few seconds), but it was a very high level considering the lack of extra rushers Sutton sent. Additionally, the Raiders were often using their RB’s and TE’s to help chip (or as extra blockers), so the fact that the Chiefs got so much pressure was impressive.

As usual, Carr often released the ball quickly against the Chiefs. While showing an average time to release would be misleading, as several plays featured Carr scrambling around for 6-7 seconds in the face of pressure, it’s worth noting that on 58.3% of his passes he released the ball in under 2.5 seconds after the snap. A lot of this was due to pressure rather than an immediately open receiver.

On many of the snaps Carr held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds, he was under pressure and moving around.

What made this game different from the last game against Oakland, where Carr was also getting rid of the ball very quickly the majority of the snaps, was the fact that the coverage wasn’t allowing receivers to run open within 2 seconds of the snap. But we’ll get to that.

Who Won Individual Matchups

Justin Houston- 8 wins

Chris Jones- 7 wins

Tamba Hali- 6 wins

Allen Bailey- 4 wins

Jarvis Jenkins- 3 wins

Rakeem Nunez-Roches- 2 wins

Tanoh Kpassagnon- 2 wins

Take from that what you will. It’s worth noting that Tamba was on a snap count, so that number of wins is quite impressive in limited time. It’s also worth noting that Houston wasn’t rushing on quite a few snaps. Both of them did a nice job ruining Carr’s day, especially as a tandem.

Chiefs in Press Coverage

The Chiefs lined up in some form of press (which I define more loosely, rather than getting technical) on a much higher percentage of snaps than I’m used to seeing. If you include plays where the Chiefs pressed half the field (at times the CB(s) on one side would press while the CB(s) on the other side would not), the Chiefs pressed on 60.4% of the snaps.

This number would have been even higher, but on Oakland’s last drive the Chiefs backed off on all but 2 plays. One thing to note: the Chiefs did NOT “switch to prevent” with regards to corner alignment until Oakland’s final drive. I’ve seen a lot of people claim that the Raiders didn’t score until the Chiefs switched to prevent (which means different things to different people, it seems), but that’s quite simply not true. The Chiefs were still pressing quite a bit until that final drive, and it made a difference (we’ll talk about that in the final portion of this article).

Justin Houston Rushing

Houston’s usage has been... controversial this season. I wanted to track how many snaps Houston was actually in and rushing the passer (as opposed to out or in coverage instead). I also tracked double teams on the snaps Houston was rushing, just for the sake of having more information.

In total, Houston was NOT rushing the passer on an absolutely staggering 35.4% of the pass defense snaps. Now before you freak out, it’s worth noting that not all of those snaps were spent in coverage. Some of those snaps he was getting a breather, and on a few of them he appeared to see a quick throw design by the Raiders and backed off on his own to get into a throwing lane (it’s impossible to say whether that’s by design or Houston’s own decision).

That said, it made me sad just how often Houston wasn’t part of the pass rush, considering the high level of success he was having against the Raiders. On a separate note, on 7 of the plays Houston DID rush the passer he obtained an effective double team, with the Raiders sending either a guard, a TE or a RB after him. Which makes sense, because when their RT was matched up against Houston it often went like this.

So What Was Different?

All right, I’ve provided information. Now for some conclusions.

The Chiefs absolutely did some things differently against the Raiders than what they’ve done in previous games. At least, they did some things more FREQUENTLY than they had in the past.

For starters, the Chiefs were consistently in press coverage against Oakland’s receivers. This appeared to take away some of the short, quick throws that have been absolutely murdering the Chiefs this season. In turn, the extra second bought by the the secondary disrupting Carr’s and his receivers’ timing seemed to help the pass rush get home. The pass rush getting home messed with Carr further, and everything snowballed into Carr looking like a flustered rookie the majority of the day.

That was a welcome change by the defense, and one fans have been screaming for for quite some time. Switching to more aggressive press man defense isn’t without risk, but considering the fact that the Chiefs have been getting beat with big plays even when “playing it safe” in coverage, I’m hoping they keep going with the more aggressive look in the secondary. It seemed to have a positive effect on Terrance Mitchell and Steven Nelson, with Darelle Revis also looking solid for most of the game.

Another thing the Chiefs did differently that you could see on Jones’s first sack was how they lined up Houston and their defensive ends. They had Jones, Bailey and even Jenkins spend some time on the edge, with Houston (and occasionally Hali) moving inside. The results were often pretty good, as Jones in particular seems too strong for tackles to handle and Houston being inside created some real issues with the Raiders’ blocking scheme (the drew multiple double teams from that spot, as guards couldn’t handle him one-on-one).

Shifting players around is one way to spice things up in lieu of sending extra guys after the QB, and given the unique skillsets of Houston, Jones and Hali in particular, I’m hoping Sutton continues to move guys around. Kpassagnon might be a guy who could help with that as well, having worked on the inside a great deal in college.

Besides those two things, the biggest change that I saw Sunday was that the Chiefs had multiple players step up in their “wins,” rather than just 1 or 2 guys.

On that particular play, Jones gets double teamed, and all 3 of the other rushers win their individual matchups. Bailey and Hali bull rush their blockers right into Carr’s lap, while Houston wins the edge to apply pressure from his side. There’s too much chaos for Carr to keep his eyes up (coverage was quite solid as well), and it’s just a matter of which player is going to bring him down.

One real issue with the pass rush this season is that it’s often been a one-man band, with only Houston consistently winning individual matchups (Jones has done it, but not consistently enough). Against the Raiders, everyone contributed in keeping Carr uncomfortable.

The Chiefs had 24 “wins” rushing the passer by guys NOT named Justin Houston. That’s going to be huge moving forward. They need other guys to step up and contribute, especially given Sutton’s somewhat strange use of Houston.

If the Chiefs continue to get similar play out of their secondary (though the safeties had a ROUGH game, it’s worth noting) and pass rushers besides Houston (Jones and Hali are going to be crucial), what we saw Sunday is absolutely something that can be replicated.

We’ll know more after the Chargers game as to whether this was a fluke game. But for at least one week, the defense looked a lot like what we expected from the very beginning of the season. It was like seeing an old friend for the first time in a while. Hopefully that friend stops by again Saturday.

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