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Kansas City Chiefs defensive trends and tabulation for Week 14

Some surprises — and a fair number of positives — came out of a clutch defensive performance against the Ravens.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports


The Kansas City Chiefs showed some serious toughness on both sides of the ball this week, edging out an overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens. While most will — deservedly so — be discussing the performance of our wunderkind quarterback, I walked away from this game with pride in the defensive performance.

Needless to say, when the narrative that the defense played very poorly started developing, I wanted to get the numbers run and a look at the coaches film to try to put together the performance that I saw on Sunday during the heat of the game.

This week — as I do every week — I’ll break down the numbers from Sunday’s game. We’ll hit the highlights, find where the Chiefs won, lost and bucked trends and then we’ll move on to some clips of their good, bad and under-the-radar plays.

The numbers

Quarter/Down/Distance - Week 14

- 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 Avg Week 14 Success
- 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 Avg Week 14 Success
Q1 5.59 51.67% 7.55 27.27%
Q2 6.02 50.48% 3.73 66.67%
Q2-Under 2:00 5.98 56.45% 0.00 100.00%
Q3 6.39 51.55% 5.70 45.00%
Q4 5.61 55.07% 3.77 61.54%
Q4-Under 2:00 6.19 56.14% 1.67 66.67%
Overtime 2.89 66.67% 2.89 66.67%
1st Down 6.46 51.15% 5.83 46.67%
2nd Down 5.59 51.07% 3.96 56.52%
3rd Down 4.58 60.76% 4.33 58.33%
4th Down 5.79 41.67% 3.33 66.67%
Yds remain 0-3 4.63 34.92% 7.88 12.50%
Yds remain 4-6 5.25 48.36% 4.09 54.55%
Yds remain 7-10 6.29 53.86% 4.70 55.81%
Yds remain 11+ 5.45 77.50% 3.00 83.33%

Those critical of Sunday’s defense need not look further than their performances in the first quarter, third quarter, on first down and in short-yardage situations. You’d be right in that — all of those situational performances this week were very poor.

However, this came down to two drives for the Chiefs defense — the first quarter drive with no passes thrown and the drive immediately following Mahomes’ interception. Removing those two drives from the numbers brings every single success metric up over 60 percent on the day. That’s not something you can do, as the game has to be taken as a whole, but for 80 percent of the drives the Chiefs defense faced on Sunday, they won more than they lost in every facet.

Those two drives were certainly abysmal, and the Ravens were able to kill clock and put points on the board — something all of us are terrified of come January. But looking at Sunday’s game with a little bit of context can show that they played better than it initially seemed. This is especially true of drives in the second, fourth and overtime periods, when the defense came up with multiple plays to keep the team in the game.

Defensive Formation - Week 14

- 2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 % Week 14 YPP Week 14 Success
- 2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 % Week 14 YPP Week 14 Success
1-4 0.84% 8.75 62.50% 0.00% N/A N/A
2-3 15.17% 4.87 59.03% 9.86% 3.43 71.43%
2-4 53.11% 5.67 49.80% 46.48% 5.18 48.39%
3-3 6.64% 4.11 47.62% 11.27% 2.88 50.00%
3-4 22.23% 6.34 42.65% 32.39% 4.78 54.55%
4-3 0.95% 0.11 66.67% 0.00% N/A N/A
4-4 0.84% 0.38 50.00% 0.00% N/A N/A

As expected this week, we saw more of the Chiefs’ three-down formations to help stop the run — with limited success. The three-down lineman, three-linebacker nickel continues to perform well and had a 60 percent success rate against the run. The two-down lineman, four-linebacker nickel struggled against the run, posting a horrifying 39 percent run success rate. That’s atypical of the season to this point, with the “run-stopping” defenses performing worse on the year.

The Chiefs continued to implement their dime defense, even against a run-heavy team like the Ravens, and it continued to be the highest-performing defense that the Chiefs run regularly. That’s likely due to second and third-and-long situations, but with the Chiefs coming up with more of those each week, the dime is proving to be a major asset.

Of note, the Chiefs featured the “NASCAR” rush package with Justin Houston, Dee Ford, and Tanoh Kpassagnon, this week in overtime to try to make quarterback Lamar Jackson less comfortable.

Rush Numbers - Week 14

- 2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 % Week 14 YPP Week 14 Success
- 2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 % Week 14 YPP Week 14 Success
Rush 3 11.27% 5.42 50.70% 3.13% 10.00 0.00%
Rush 4 73.49% 6.15 51.62% 75.00% 4.08 59.09%
Rush 5-6 15.08% 4.62 55.79% 21.88% 3.43 71.43%

While the Chiefs struggled to get home with the blitz early on this year, they’ve come on very strong as of late. Sutton is calling great situational blitzes and those blitzes are resulting in more sacks, incomplete passes and big stops. Sutton’s rush plan was very good this week — more on that below — and the Chiefs are getting some great individual performances out of their four-man rush as well. There’s reason to believe that this pass rush can win on multiple levels at just the right time through scheme and individual brilliance.

Coverages - Week 14

- 2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 % Week 14 YPP Week 14 Success
- 2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 14 % Week 14 YPP Week 14 Success
Man 55.24% 5.70 50.86% 71.88% 5.43 43.48%
Zone 44.29% 6.01 54.12% 28.13% 0.78 88.89%

While the Ravens didn’t throw often, the Chiefs hit them with man coverage more often than not when they did. The Chiefs primarily ran Cover 1 this week and only pressed out of their man coverages 52 percent of the time. That allowed the corners and safeties to keep the initial read in front of them to try to crash down against the run. Playing this way allowed the Ravens to have some success on crossers and flat routes with later-reacting coverage defenders.

Where the Chiefs did find major success this week was out of their static Cover 3 and 3 match looks — an 89 percent success rate. These were sprinkled in just over a quarter of the passing snaps to keep Baltimore from having too many predictable reads in the passing game.

Something good

In last week’s advance scouting article, I spoke to the importance of the Chiefs using gap exchanges to defend the Ravens’ option rushing attack. Above is a prime example of one that the Chiefs executed well.

Off the snap, Houston dives down, reading the interior run from the back. Quarterback Lamar Jackson keeps the ball on an exterior run. As Houston plays the interior run, he engages the tackle while Anthony Hitchens loops around the outside. He takes a good angle to the edge and Jackson isn’t able to pick up big yardage on the play.

Hitchens had a few plays in space that he was able to make a stop this week, arguably one of his better games of the season. Even though the Chiefs had some issues in the run game, his defense in space and his coverage were both much improved over that which we’ve seen so far this year.

The play of the day from the Chiefs defense, set up by a great overload blitz by Sutton.

Sutton dials up a blitz off the offense’s left side with Ty Montgomery in the backfield. Hitchens shifts Derrick Nnadi’s alignment to the blitz, giving the Chiefs a hat-for-hat rush if Montgomery’s protection is shifted to the overload. Jackson doesn’t shift the protection, and the left tackle blocks outside-in — a tendency that the Ravens showed — and the Chiefs got Houston on a free rush for the strip sack in a crucial moment.

Sutton made a great call in a crucial moment, banking on a rookie quarterback and recently acquired running back to have to shift protection correctly. With the tendency of the tackle to kick out against the blitz rather than block inside out, Montgomery would have had to block Houston with a full head of steam. That likely wouldn’t have gone particularly well, either. The film study and personnel recognition made for a great time to dial up the perfect blitz that should have won the game in regulation.

Something bad

While I believe that some of the run defense woes for this week were overblown, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t really poor on a number of snaps. Shown above is a prime example of what happened to allow the Ravens to run the ball successfully on the two biggest drives of the day.

The play is actually read very well by both Nnadi and Reggie Ragland. Ragland follows the blockers to the boundary, reading the G/C combo blocking Allen Bailey. Nnadi knives through the backside B-gap as the left guard climbs to the second level to block Hitchens. Ford sets a good edge, and the back is forced to cut toward a pursuing Nnadi. Ragland cuts back to the gap, getting on the inside shoulder of the center and preventing a block. The back is dead to rights for no gain.

Instead, neither Nnadi nor Ragland can wrap up the back on easy tackles, and the play goes for major yardage. Both did the hard part here to make a play, and one that would have forced a long down and distance situation, where the Chiefs found success this week. Instead, we saw the drive continue and more yardage added to the Ravens total.

The Chiefs did a pretty good job containing Jackson on Sunday and not allowing him to extend as many plays as he’s certainly capable of extending. This was not one of them, unfortunately.

The Chiefs do a particularly good job in coverage here, as Ron Parker takes away the corner route, Kendall Fuller and Steven Nelson take away the out routes, and Hitchens sits on the curl. Chris Jones gets penetration and is unable to bring down Jackson. As Jackson rolls to his right, the scramble drill starts and the running back rolls with him into the flat. Because the Baltimore offense lined up in so much 12 and 21 personnel this week, Ragland found himself on the field to play downhill and occupy gaps in the run game — but that also means he draws pass coverage responsibility on this play as well. Ragland is caught between two minds, whether to play the quarterback or the running back and ends up peeling off, leaving the back open to catch and run into space. Nelson has his back to the play as his receiver goes vertical, and the play ends up gaining 21 yards on a first and 20.

Jackson has a rare ability to escape the pocket and make plays, something that few quarterbacks in this league can tout. However, a missed sack opportunity forced Ragland to cover longer than he should be asked to do so. Unfortunately, that leads to a preventable big gain and a drive extender when the Chiefs had set themselves up in a good scenario.

Something you may have missed

As I mentioned in the numbers, the Chiefs have found more success with their three down lineman, three linebacker nickel as of late. A fair amount of that success has come with Hitchens and Nnadi getting comfortable with each other as the year has gone along.

On the above play, the Chiefs are three tight with their down linemen, and Hitchens shifts Nnadi’s alignment to the play-side A-gap. The Ravens run inside zone, and Bailey catches a combo block. Nnadi gets good leverage and fully extends while anchoring, and he peeks into the backfield. Hitchens comes up to fill the backside A gap, and Nnadi throws the center aside to close the play-side A-gap.

As these players have seen more time on the field together, we’re finally starting to see some of the understanding and trust required to play off of each other. It’s been highlighted in the 3-3 Nickel especially, as Hitchens is the only off-ball linebacker, so he’s able to shoot and fill gaps as more of his responsibility, instead of relying on Ragland to fill.

The bottom line

Two drives.

That’s what likely informs your decision about the defensive performance this week. If you can’t shake the 7.11 yards per carry or the fact that the Chiefs only forced three third downs in 11 attempts between those two drives, I can’t blame you. They were poor, and it gave many people glimpses of the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers playoffs matchups in years past.

Personally, I walked away from it more inspired by the outstanding 3.57 yards per carry on the other eight drives the Chiefs faced on Sunday. Sutton implemented more gap exchanges, used the 3-3 nickel more liberally, and the team tackled better in those other eight drives than we’ve seen for the majority of the year.

We knew what the Ravens were going to do. We knew they were going to come in and run the ball, and run it well. They’d broken 200 yards rushing in their previous three games with Jackson at the helm, and they didn’t crest 200 with an extra period to work with this week. For a Chiefs defense that is — no sugar coating it — the worst run defense in the league, those are all positives.

Anthony Hitchens had his best game of the year, in my opinion. Dan Sorensen had a couple shaky moments as a deep safety, but largely played with good energy and looked more like the Sorensen of old. Justin Houston did exactly what he does best — reading his keys quickly, identifying the play, and fulfilling his gap responsibility.

And yes, Bob Sutton even had a good week, dialing up timely blitzes and making the necessary adjustments to fix what ailed the defense on the second drive of the game, and once again after a long third-quarter touchdown drive.

This team played like a team that had a gauntlet thrown in front of them this week, with more energy, more physicality, and better execution throughout large portions of the game. They needed that gauntlet thrown, and they needed to finish the game in the way that they did to boost their confidence going into the playoffs.

This game will likely be a polarizing one for those evaluating the defense. The question that we still need answered is this:

Is the real Chiefs defense the one that showed up for eight drives, or the one that showed up for two?

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