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The Chiefs on third down: What happened?

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It’s no secret that the Chiefs’ defense struggled against the Jets. Any time you score 30+ points and lose, you know there are problems on that side of the football. Additionally, any time you hear the phrase “Josh McCown, offensive player of the week,” you know that something went horribly wrong on defense.

The biggest issue on Sunday against the Jets was 3rd down. According to my charting, if you include plays with penalties the Jets faced 3rd down 22 times and converted 15 times. That’s absolutely abysmal. Awful. Abhorrent, even.

Of course, you didn’t need me to tell you the defense was bad on 3rd down on Sunday. You saw it firsthand. The question I set out to answer was WHY they were so bad. What was happening on 3rd down that led to so many missed plays? I’ve heard a few theories:

  1. The pass rush is awful.
  2. Bob Sutton is awful and has guys 8-10 yards off the LOS constantly.
  3. Marcus Peters isn’t trying hard enough.

I wanted to see exactly what was happening on every 3rd down. So I re-watched every 3rd down on all-22 to try and ascertain whether failures on defense were schematic vs execution, individual vs group, etc.

There were a lot of different ways to do this, but I decided the way that would provide the most information would be to just share a brief breakdown of each 3rd down. From there, I’ll draw a few conclusions, but you’re all of course welcome to draw some conclusions of your own. That’s the point of information, right?

I’m going to label each down by the point in the game, the down and distance (it’ll obviously always be 3rd down), and whether the defense succeeded (forcing 4th down) or failed (allowed a conversion). Then we’ll talk about what happened. This’ll be brief, because, you know, there’s 22 plays to cover.

OK, are you ready for some ugliness? Let’s goooooo.

1st Quarter, 10:58, 3rd and 10: Success

Hey, things started off on the right foot! On the first 3rd down the Chiefs faced, McCown attempted a quick slant against off-man coverage. The throw was inaccurate and the defenders were in place enough that I BELIEVE they would’ve stopped the receiver short of the sticks. The ball was out in 1.42 seconds.

1st Quarter, 7:46, 3rd and 2: Fail

On this play, McCown went underneath to his RB fairly quickly after literally no one picked him up. The Chiefs were playing zone, and from what I can tell it was Reggie Ragland’s zone responsibility and he turned his back to follow a different receiver. The RB was wide open almost immediately. The ball was out in 2.53 seconds, pressure didn’t affect the play (everyone lost their battle, Houston’s RT pushed him wide, selling out control to buy his QB a brief window. It’s a good tactic if the ball is coming out quickly).

1st Quarter, 6:16, 3rd and 1 (goal line): “Fail”

Why did I put the word fail in quotations? Well...

As I say in the tweet, I’m not often a “yeah but holding” guy. But on this particular play, Chris Jones had this play blown up after a great move at the line of scrimmage to shed his blocker. If you watch, his blocker responds by tugging on his left arm to slow him down and, when that’s not enough, just grabs his jersey and pulls while Jones pursues the RB. Given how close Jones is to making the play anyway, there’s no real doubt that he makes the tackle for loss without that hold.

If that weren’t bad enough, Frank Zombo gets held even more blatantly after doing a nice job setting the edge. Had he been able to move without the hold, he at the VERY least directs the RB wider and allows Ragland to finish the play (as it is, Ragland has a chance but it’s a VERY tough play given the position of the OL and the runner’s angle).

I understand refs aren’t going to see every hold, but when there’s a pair of open, blatant holds that are literally the difference between a touchdown and a tackle for loss... that’s rough.

1st Quarter, 3:06, 3rd and 2: Success

Run off the LG, Allen Bailey blows it up. Ragland redirects the runner (who has already been forced to change direction once due to Bailey) but misses the tackle. Ron Parker makes a great tackle just shy of the 1st down marker. It’s worth noting that Tanoh Kpassagnon set a really nice edge on this play.

2nd Quarter, 4:44, 3rd and 4: Fail

Christ Jones does a good job creating pressure here, immediately forcing his blocker into the backfield and forcing a double. He even manages to beat that, but McCown has taken off up a wide open middle of the pocket (I’m really not sure about Jenkins’ rush lane here). Daniel Sorensen does not close like I’d want to see on a QB despite being in zone coverage, and McCown makes it to the 1st down marker. Houston, notably, was not on the field.

2nd Quarter, 6:21, 3rd and 18: Success

The Jets choose to run a “let’s just get some yards back” draw that’s doomed to failure. So while it’s a success for the defense, it’s more a “success.” The real success here was found on 1st and 2nd down.

2nd Quarter, :29, 3rd and 11: Fail

This is one of those plays that makes you want to throw a chair through a window.

While I’m not in the huddle, it appears to me that Frank Zombo just blows it in zone coverage here. Parker appears to have responsibilities on the other side, the Chiefs have the numbers and a good call (4 defenders to cover 2 receivers), and if Zombo gets depth on his drop there’s no window for McCown to throw anywhere.

However, instead Zombo does what he does (like he’s looking for an outside move, though he shouldn’t worry about that anyways as that’s Derrick Johnson’s responsibility from all appearances), and the RB is wide open almost immediately. Ball is out in 2.33 seconds. Houston, if you look, appears to be dropping into a throwing lane rather than purely rushing, as though he’s expecting a quick throw. Well, it WAS a quick throw... but not in his lane.

3rd Quarter, 14:13, 3rd and 2: Fail

Jets execute a semi-pick play very well, victimizing Steven Nelson and getting an open receiver immediately (the defense seemed susceptible to these types of things, lacking communication). Throw out in 1.86 seconds, making pressure irrelevant.

3rd Quarter, 12:19, 3rd and 10: Fail

McCown scrambles away from pressure created by a combination of Jones, Houston and Zombo (though Jones was the initial guy to “win.” Side note: he played a lot better than I thought watching the game live). Chiefs are in zone, so there’s no excuse for a QB like McCown to get 10 yards.

Both DJ and Peters fail here, for different reasons. DJ hesitates (I assume fearing a throw to the WR behind him) and just doesn’t have the closing burst he used to have to make up for it. Peters takes a really rough angle and then... well, you can draw your own conclusions. I personally saw Peters make some nice plays in coverage and lay some hits, so I don’t believe he’s scared to hit or is anything but a very good player... but this is not what you want to see.

Also worth noting that now we’ve had 2 separate 3rd downs where the pressure got him, but zone defenders couldn’t account for a scrambling quarterback and the play resulted in a 1st down. How different is a game’s narrative if we remember “pressure forced a punt” instead of “scramble for a 1st down?”

3rd Quarter, 10:26, 3rd and 4: Fail

Another narrative-changing play. Chris Jones gets pressure, which leads to an inaccurate throw by McCown...

... BUT Terrance Mitchell is called for defensive holding away from the throw, so it’s all for naught. Ball is out in 2.5 seconds

Another thing to note on this play: watch how the OL handles Houston in protection. They have both the RT and TE entirely dedicated to him to start, then when Peters is forced wide the RT moves to try and help with Bailey. A really smart design to prevent Houston from getting an effective rush in the first 2 seconds, which is basically all it takes when you’re throwing in under 3 seconds.

Again, how does our view of Chris Jones (or the rush) change if there’s no failure by the secondary here? Just worth noting.

3rd Quarter, 9:00, 3rd and 9: Fail

The ugliness in the secondary continues.

I don’t even know what to say here other than there are some BASIC communication issues among the secondary. Additionally, I could be talked into the idea that KPL is supposed to drop into zone in the general area the WR eventually gets the ball... but is sucked in by play action instead. If you watch closely enough, you see DJ make a “what are you DOING” hands-up gesture when KPL goes in front of him.

With regards to the rush, yet again it’s a snap where Houston, rather than just rushing, drops back to try and put his hands up in a running lane. He was doing this all game, I ASSUME at the direction of coaches? It’s driving me crazy, because as has always been the case, when he rushed he did well. McCown held the ball for longer than normal here, throwing at 3.32.

3rd Quarter, 7:04, 3rd and 11: Fail

This one hurt. A lot.

The play speaks for itself. The ball was out in 1.79 seconds, which leaves absolutely no time for a pass rush to affect the play whatsoever.

As I state in the tweet, it’s worth noting that while Peters plays off man here, the other 2 corners were playing press coverage. I saw that more than once throughout the game, and it is enough to make me at least ask how much of that is Sutton and how much is Peters’ preference.

Some people will point to this as a lack of effort play by Peters, and I can certainly understand that. However, it could also be viewed through a lens of Peters anticipating the WR to cut outside and just guessing wrong, then hesitating out of concern for missing against a very quick/fast WR and allowing a much bigger play. Which is it? No idea. But worth noting there’s more than one possibility there. I do hate that off man coverage though.

3rd Quarter, 5:37, 3rd and 3: Success

Justin Houston gets pressure against a rolling pocket, beating the RT pretty easily, and forces an inaccurate throw from McCown. Ball is out in 2.93 seconds, the time being lengthened as McCown ran/backed away from Houston.

3rd Quarter, 3:35, 3rd and 5: Success

A stunt featuring KPL produces immediate pressure, forcing what’s essentially a throwaway by McCown. Ball is out in 2.30. One thing McCown does well is getting the ball out when the pressure is coming.

4th Quarter, 15:00, 3rd and 4: Fail

Another collosal error in coverage, this time by Terrance Mitchell in man. Watch him overrun the play based on the presnap motion. Given the route and his momentum, it’s over at the snap here. McCown is able to see his receiver open almost immediately and just needs to wait a moment for him to clear the scrum for a huge gain.

What’s REALLY frustrating for me is, like multiple other plays we’ve seen, pressure would’ve made a big difference if the defense didn’t fail elsewhere, has Houston was doing Houston things.

The ball was out in 2.2 seconds here, rendering pressure mostly moot. Even though McCown couldn’t step into his throw, it was such an EASY throw due to the failure by Mitchell that it didn’t matter. Gross.

4th Quarter, 13:08, 3rd and 4: Fail

On this play, Houston was dropped into zone, Steven Nelson got beat to the sideline and the receiver made an absolutely remarkable catch against at least decent coverage. The throw was made in 3 seconds even, but with Houston in coverage the pressure just wasn’t there.

4th Quarter, 11:32, 3rd and 7: Success

Sutton sends the house on a blitz, which forces immediate pressure and an inaccurate throw that was basically a throwaway. Ball out in 2.02 seconds. Nicely called and executed.

4th Quarter, 8:25, 3rd and 6: Fail

Here, zone coverage fails, with Derrick Johnson appearing to be the culprit. He leaves Marcus Peters in no-man’s land against 2 receivers, unable to cover both. There’s good pressure from Chris Jones and a blitz by Steven Nelson, but McCown actually does a really nice job moving forward away from the pressure, keeping his eyes up, and finding the failure in zone. Worth noting that Houston was in coverage on this play. Throw was out in 4.60 seconds.

4th Quarter, 6:57, 3rd and 4: Fail

This was the 50+ yard gain by Kearse. Steven Nelson gets beat by a simple slant route. Nelson was actually playing right at the line of scrimmage, but didn’t actively press and got beat by a nice move. The inexcusable part was on both him and Ron Parker missing tackles that would’ve limited to the play to about 6-7 yards at absolute most. And really, had Parker hit Kearse the way he intended (he missed left), he may have jarred the ball loose. ROUGH play overall, ball was out in 1.83 seconds.

4th Quarter, 4:37, 3rd and 7: Success

Chiefs played solid zone coverage throughout and baited McCown into a checkdown throw. Houston was in coverage, the ball came out in 2.43 seconds.

4th Quarter, 2:39, 3rd and 4: Fail

Another killer penalty on Steven Nelson, a hold that results in a first down. The coverage elsewhere was very solid, and Frank Zombo got pressure that resulted in an incomplete pass (McCown was hit as he threw). Houston, again, was in coverage, and the ball came out in 3.99 seconds. The worst part? McCown never even looked in Nelson’s direction, so the hold was utterly pointless.

4th Quarter, 2:20, 3rd and 1 (goal line): Fail

This was a QB sneak. Pretty basic stuff.

So... why did the Chiefs fail on 3rd down?

Well, like in any other scenario, there were a lot of things that went wrong. Any time your defense fails the vast majority of the time on 3rd down, there’s never any “one thing” to blame.

One thing I will say... I just don’t buy into the “blame the pass rush” narrative. I DO think the Chiefs need a lot more pass rush, make no mistake. But the Jets consistently got the ball out quickly enough to negate pressure, and the coverage wasn’t able to hold up for even that long.

Another thing I’ll say is that the idea that it’s all on Bob Sutton, once again, just doesn’t work for me. The failures I saw (many of them gif’d) were on a basic level that shouldn’t be happening on any level.

Now, it IS on the coaches to help players be clear about their assignments... but so often it just seemed like players just failed to mind their zone (seriously, so many zone coverage failures), or missed a tackle, or had some other failure of execution. The idea that tons of 3rd down conversions occurred because of “constant off man coverage” or whatever just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

That doesn’t mean Sutton is blameless though. While he did send more blitzes and had a few more stunts built in, he continued to place Houston in coverage a great deal, as well as have Houston playing some kind of hybrid coverage/rush role that was not effective at all (though again, that could just be Houston’s choice when he sees a quick throw coming. It’s impossible for me to say).

If I’m Sutton, I’m simplifying things as much as possible, sending more blitzes, ordering the corners to press more, and emphasizing staying in your zones with your eyes on the quarterback. I’m also unleashing Houston on passing downs and just letting him worry about rushing. Given the changes we saw on offense (more of a quick-strike mentality), I think a more aggressive defense trying to force mistakes makes sense.

On a final point, I owe Chris Jones a bit of an apology. He made some plays out there where other guys couldn’t deliver, and it totally changed the potential narrative about him post-game.

What does this mean for next week? I have no idea. But I do know the Chiefs need to find secondary players who can communicate and execute basic assignments, OR defensive coaches who are able to properly teach such things. Like now.