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Why the Kansas City Chiefs run defense is going to be better (plus a fun stat)

With the offseason doldrums threatening to ruin everything I care about (which is basically “have something fun to talk about regarding the Chiefs,” and then, you know, my family and stuff), ya’ll have come through and given me plenty of stuff to think/talk about.

This started off as a call for mailbag questions. But some of the stuff I’ve received is enough fodder for its own article. Starting with this interesting question.

I have had some iteration of this question asked me at least a dozen times since the season ended, and it’s probable been more like a hundred times.

Which makes sense. After all, the prevalent theme when talking about the Chiefs’ run defense in 2016 is that it finished 26th in the league in total yardage, giving up 1,938 yards. That’s not a small number of yards, to be sure. And anyone who watched the losses against Tennessee and Pittsburgh knows that the run defense was a concern last season.

So let’s talk about that. First, I want to contextualize the 2016 run defense just a bit more than “total yards given up” so we can figure out how bad the problem was. When you look at yards per carry given up, the Chiefs were again bad, ranked 24th in the league (they and five other teams were tied at 20th-24th, giving up 4.4 YPC). It should also be noted that DVOA (a Football Outsiders metric that contextualizes situation into stats) had them ranked 26th as well. So yes, there was an issue. A big one.

Is there any silver lining to be had? Well, I guess if you squint hard enough you can be encouraged by the fact that the longest run the Chiefs gave up all year was 44 yards, good for 8th in the league. So... yay?

But in reality, run defense was a problem. And even in today’s NFL, where passing the ball is at a premium, if you can’t stop the run it’s difficult to win.

Additionally, the Chiefs got rid of Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard this offseason. Given that they consisted of two thirds of the starting line at the beginning of last season, that seems less than ideal. So... time to panic?

Well, I don’t really think so. Sure, things could go south. There are no guarantees in the NFL. And frankly, as long as Bob Sutton continues to focus on stopping the pass (which he definitely does considering his liberal use of nickel and dime looks with two or even one actual defensive lineman), this team is likely never going to be a pure run-stopping team.

However, there are plenty of reasons to believe the team will be better against the run than it was down the stretch last year (when it REALLY reared its ugly head as a major weakness). I’m not even thinking of “developmental” reasons like “Chris Jones and RNR should both be better after another year of development.” I’m talking practical, tangible upgrades at multiple spots from what we had down the stretch last season.

First off, the Chiefs are getting this guy back fully healthy.

I understand people are afraid to believe Houston is healthy. But you have to remember, you just HAVE to remember, that he came back quickly after a VERY unusually-timed surgery (it was well after football ended) and has since admitted that there was soreness. This time last year the man wasn’t even running, he’s practicing with zero limitations, and he flat-out told the press that his knee is giving him no issues.

All signs point to him being fully, completely, totally back. And a fully, completely, totally back Justin Houston is quite literally one of the best players in the NFL. That dominance includes being one of the best edge-setters in the entire league, defensive end or outside linebacker.

I could show you dozens and dozens of GIFs that are similar to the one above, where Houston just destroys the edge and wrecks a play going right. When he’s in, teams almost completely (in most cases) stop running to the right edge with any consistency. He’s that good. It becomes pointless. And by forcing offenses away from him, he makes them more predictable. Which benefits the rest of the defense.

Getting a fully healthy Justin Houston back is as though the Chiefs had gone out and signed Khalil Mack in free agency. Would you be excited about that? Well, Houston has consistently been as good as or better than Mack was last season. It’s a huge, huge step forward.

And before you say, “yeah, well, Justin was back against the Titans and Steelers and they still ran the ball well,” go back and watch the film. By and large they avoided Houston (who also didn’t look to be quite himself against the Steelers). It was on other guys to step in and take advantage, and often it didn’t happen.

Which brings me into my next few points. Beginning with...

The guy who helps Houston wreck this run should be back.

All reports I’m hearing about DJ, including Houston’s interview linked above, are that he’s doing well and is on track to return for training camp. And in case you’ve forgotten, DJ’s ... pretty good against the run. And by “pretty good,” I mean he’s one of the best ILBs in the game.

The most common critique I hear of this argument is that the run defense struggled prior to DJ getting injured against the Raiders. In fact, I heard it so much that I basically accepted it as a fact and usually said something like, “yeah, well, it wasn’t AS bad though.”

Then I realized ... had anyone actually looked at how the defense did in run defense with DJ as opposed to without DJ? I sure hadn’t. And so, because I have issues, I went through each box score and added up carries and yards by opposing running backs before and after DJ went down (including the Raiders game he actually got hurt).

Want to know what I found? Are you ready to have a FANTASTIC stat the next time someone says DJ doesn’t make a big difference? Are you?

Prior to Derrick Johnson’s injury, the Chiefs gave up 4.19 yards per carry against opposing running backs. After his injury, the Chiefs gave up 5.31 yards per carry against opposing running backs.

If you don’t think that’s a massive difference, picture having a running back who averages the first number versus the second number. That suddenly got a lot more real, no? Or how about this... with DJ, the Chiefs were a middle-of-the-pack run defense, as 4.19 YPC would’ve had them at exactly 16th in the NFL. The 5.31 YPC given up thereafter? Dead last in the league.

Want an even more glaring look at how important DJ is to the run defense (or at least was last year, with all the injuries elsewhere)? Against Oakland the game he was injured, the Chiefs gave up 23 yards on eight carries prior to DJ leaving the game (2.88 YPC) with three “stuffs” of zero yards. After he got hurt, they gave up 111 yards on 20 carries (5.55 yards) with no “stuffs” at all.

Of course, your run defense shouldn’t ideally be that dependent on a single guy. But DJ really does elevate the entire run defense that much. He’s that good.

Of course, that’s not all that’s changed since last year.

Allen Bailey is back

While Bailey is not a world-beater at defensive end, he’s a very competent and consistent run defender who will bring strength and stability to a line that was all too often forced to rotate in guys who were over their heads down the stretch last year (that’s what happens when both of your defensive ends get injured early).

Basically, any time you can add this guy...

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a good thing. Sweet Moses, he’s a monster.

Bailey being back means fewer rotational snaps for guys who aren’t as consistent or strong at the point of attack. The running game is all about exploiting weaknesses, and Bailey just isn’t as much of a weakness (on a snap-by-snap basis) as some of the guys the Chiefs had to march out there last season down the stretch.

While we’re on that note, something that should be understood about the run defense last season...

Teams took advantage of defensive line rotations

If you go back and watch the tape, a lot of the runs given up occurred when the Chiefs swapped out their “starting” (and I say this loosely given that Bailey and Howard were hurt) defensive line. Pittsburgh especially in the playoff game took full advantage any time Chris Jones was removed from the lineup, and went out of their way to go after the backups.

With Bailey back (though Howard was cut in a rather mystifying move), the rotation should be a little shorter and help prevent teams from finding as many weak spots to go after on the lines.

And one final note about the run defense...

All indications are Bennie Logan is an upgrade over Dontari Poe

People love to say that it all starts in the middle with run defense, and I agree to a point. If you’re not holding up in the middle, things are going to end badly across the board.

I reviewed six games of Poe from the 2016 season. I also reviewed multiple Bennie Logan games from 2016. I’m just going to say it bluntly: Logan was a much better player in 2016. It wasn’t even close. His loss percentage is half of what Poe’s is, and it’s glaring against the run. In four games I only charted six “losses” for Logan against the run. Poe had three GAMES with more losses against the run.

The simple fact of the matter is that Logan was consistently much, much stronger at the point of attack than Poe.

Poe, in particular, really struggled against superior offensive lines like Oakland and Pittsburgh. Poe had eight run defense losses against the Steelers in the playoff game. When Logan’s Eagles played the Steelers, he had ONE run defense loss all game. He was just much stouter at the point of attack, much less likely to get moved by double teams, and much more likely to redirect runners.

I hope Poe goes on to have a ton of success in 2017 with the Falcons, but the fact of the matter is that he had a pretty mediocre year as a run defender last season, and it showed in how much the defense struggled without DJ (in his defense, he was playing with a bunch of inexperienced youngsters, which couldn’t have been easy). Unless Logan takes a big step backwards with the Chiefs he’ll be a marked improvement over what we had in the middle of the defense last season.

The moral of all this isn’t that the Chiefs are guaranteed to have a great (or even good) run defense next year. The beautiful thing about the NFL is its unpredictability: there’s no way to know how everything will gel together.

But one thing is certain: the glaring run defense weakness that plagued the Chiefs down the stretch last year, despite few noticeable moves by the Chiefs, should be addressed by a return to health from three important players and the acquisition of a stout nose tackle. Anything else on top is a bonus.

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