The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers squared off in Week 1 of the season. In that game, the Chiefs offense jumped out to an early lead with a punt return touchdown, and the Chiefs never relinquished it.
The Patrick-Mahomes-to-Tyreek-Hill connection was in full swing for most of the game, and by the second half, the Chiefs had sandwiched two touchdowns around a Philip Rivers interception. As the Chargers mounted a comeback, they muffed a punt, which gave the Chiefs another chance to score — on which they capitalized — to put the game away.
Mahomes ended up with a good stat line — and overall played very well — but there is no debate that he’s been getting better and better as the year has progressed. The Chiefs have also seen the full emergence of Dee Ford and Chris Jones on defense, and are getting Eric Berry back. But the Chiefs also lost key offensive players like Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Kareem Hunt, and Sammy Watkins.
Meanwhile, the Chargers have had roster turnover, too. They got Joey Bosa back, and are now getting the best from Derwin James. They have lost Trevor Williams, Denzel Perryman, and Brandon Mebane along the defense, and on offense, they’re down to their third string running back Justin Jackson.
Even though these teams are similar to each other — and very familiar with each other — this game should take an entirely different path than the first meeting.
We’re on a short week down in the AP Laboratory, so we’re jumping right in to the Chargers defense, and what the Chiefs can do to find success this time around.
We broke down the Chargers defense in detail back in Week 1 — but here’s the main takeaway:
The Chargers run predominately a Cover 3 zone, heavily influenced by Gus Bradley’s time with the Seattle Seahawks, so the majority of their coverage snaps have three deep zone defenders and four underneath zone defenders across the middle of the field. By its nature, this creates a lot of space underneath — that is, close to the line of scrimmage — for the curl/hook defenders to occupy.
Changes since Week 1
The first big change to the Chargers defense has been the loss of a couple of good run defenders: Brandon Mebane and Denzel Perryman.
Both guys are incredibly stout and excel against the run — and the Chargers have felt their loss on the interior. Jatavis Brown — more of an every-down nickel linebacker — has taken Perryman’s place in the middle linebacker role. Safety Adrian Phillips has transitioned form an overhang/apex-type player to a box safety.
These changes give the Chargers more overall team speed and range, but severely limits their run-stopping power on the second level. Damion Square and Justin Jones have been forced into replacing Mebane, but they haven’t been near the same level as Mebane as either space-occupiers or block-eaters.
Another change since Week 1 is that starting cornerback Trevor Williams has been replaced by Michael Davis. Davis has not seen the Chiefs on a live offensive snap, so seeing Tyreek Hill attacking him vertically should be something to keep an eye on. The Chargers coverage scheme is very cornerback-friendly so they can hide him better than other schemes.
Joey Bosa is also back on the field. His importance can’t be understated. Bosa is an elite pass rusher, and his presence removes pressure from Melvin Ingram — as well as extra blockers — and frees up someone to get of one-on-one opportunities. Bosa hasn’t been fully back to his old self, but if the offense isn’t prepared, he can still ruin a game.
The last major changes are in the Chargers’ coverage trends. In the first meeting, the Chargers stuck to their guns by running a lot of static Cover 3 — and that left some big holes to be picked apart. Since then, the Chargers pass defense has evolved, mixing in some Quarters coverage along with more man-to-man than they have in the past under Gus Bradley.
Chiefs game plan
Much of the Chiefs game plan will remain the same as it would have been in the first meeting — just with a few small tweaks based on how the Chargers have evolved. The Chargers’ predominant coverage is still Cover 3 — with Quarters as the next most common — which means there are still going to be holes in undermanned underneath coverage. It will be possible to get the ball out into the short and intermediate zones, which should allow for plenty of yards-after-catch opportunities.
To play off the passing attack, the Chiefs should attack the interior of the Chargers run defense — using double-teams and pulling blockers to get linemen to the second level against lighter linebackers like Phillips and Brown, which will open big holes for running backs. They should force those linebackers to take on the big bodies, and keep them from running sideline-to-sideline shooting gaps. Pairing the screen game with the interior rushing attack could provide better returns against the Chargers’ less-sound defense than it did against the Baltimore Ravens last week.
To increase the effectiveness of the passing attack, the Chiefs should also aim to flood specific player’s zones with multiple routes. For years, this has been a staple of beating the Seattle-style Cover-3, and will stress the defender into taking away one of the two routes. Combining the downfield attack on a specific zone puts all the deep zone players on their heels, opening up that between-level window even more.
Quarters and the Broncos flood the switch point of the two deep zones on the weakside. As the slot presses vertical the S has to stay on top of it and by the time he breaks for the corner, the dig has fallen in behind. Sending 2+ routes at a single zone worked 1st game for KC too pic.twitter.com/LIgOywlPGK— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 11, 2018
Holes in the underneath coverage
The Chargers’ coverage philosophy is to keep everything in front of them, forcing teams to work down the field rather than burn them with the big play. Whether they’re playing with three deep defenders, Cover 3 or four deep defenders — Quarters — they put less emphasis on defending passes in short and intermediate zones. The deep defenders can help reduce the passing lanes — unless they are carried deep — but there will relatively small passing windows around the hook/curl zone defenders.
Prime example of the Chargers Quarters coverage and how the underneath zone defenders can be manipulated to open up good sized passing lanes. As the MOF hook defender is drawn forward to the curl, the dig bends around the Apex into the soft spot underneath the deep Safeties. pic.twitter.com/HAiVK9ye2L— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 11, 2018
When the Chargers are in their Quarters coverage — which they’ve done as they feel more comfortable with Derwin James playing deep — the Chiefs have to take advantage and attack underneath. The Chargers will try to limit the Chiefs’ vertical passing game with their Quarters coverage, and Mahomes and the Chiefs will need to execute where the numbers favor them.
The unique screen game
The Chiefs are masters of unique (and complex) screen passes, and this is a perfect game to use them. The Chargers defense isn’t the best at staying home and being assignment sound, so the misdirection game — paired with screens — could lead to a lot of open space.
The Chargers aggressive EDGE players paired with less experienced LBs on the field many snaps creates a trap for them on screen plays. This screen off of PA gets a ton of space and there isn't a team in the NFL better at designing and executing these PA schemes than the Chiefs pic.twitter.com/YneRsS9ScN— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 11, 2018
Coming off the run action, all the Chargers’ defensive linemen start heading upfield looking for the quarterback on a perceived pass play. On the second level, only one player identifies a screen play, and is flowing late when blockers are already set up. Everyone else is trying to drop into their pass responsibilities by the time the ball is completed.
Whether it’s play action, jet motion — or even throwing a screen back to a non-running back — the Chiefs utilize all kinds of different screens, and this is a game where they should bust out lots of different looks.
Attack the light second level
Jatavis Brown and Adrian Phillips are both under 225 pounds, and neither play particularly bigger than that size. Neither are overly instinctual at identifying blocking concepts and running lanes. Without Corey Liuget and Mebane, the triangle of run stoppers for the Chargersn — Perryman included — isn’t great. Their defensive line doesn’t hold up well against combo blocks, and the linebackers behind them often run themselves out of the play, or are easily reached and moved by offensive linemen.
The Ace and Deuce blocks work through the Interior Defensive Linemen, turn them out, and are able to pick up both 2nd level defenders who get antsy. W/o the ability to anchor on the DL the LBs have to play aggressive and press gaps but it can lead to big gains vs patient backs. pic.twitter.com/sxnLakBRLs— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 12, 2018
Here is a simple mis-diagnosis by both players. The offensive linemen get hip-to-hip on the defensive line, which gives them leverage and allows them to seal off the running lane. The linebackers both see the crowded A-gaps and decide to attack outside of them — anticipating a bounce by the running back that never comes. Instead, the running back stays patient — letting the hip-to-hip combo blocks do their job and climb to the second level, sealing off any recovery.
Chargers run D has been vulnerable as of late. The struggle is coming at the second level as they are forced to play Safeties in run stopping roles. Double teams + climbing blockers have been a major problem. IZ with good patience opens up a big hole as both LBs have bad flow pic.twitter.com/yJC3gTE46T— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 11, 2018
This play less a mis-diagnosis than it is two guys being unable to work through traffic. The plays starts with similar hip-to-hip combo blocks, but then both linebackers creep towards the line of scrimmage — which makes it easy for the offensive line to slide off the double-team and pick up both linebackers. No one is left to fill or recover after the running back bangs it right up the strong side A-gap.
Vertical zone flooding
This topic has been covered numerous times this year, so to keep it short and sweet... the Chargers will often have one player covering a third or a fourth of the field vertically. Putting two receivers in that zone —and running routes that stress the defender in two directions — will create easy throws for chunk plays.
Chiefs used similar vertical concepts to attack the Chargers C3 look in the first game and they will likely look to it again. Pure Verticals concept with mirroed nines on both side's of the formation, puts stress on the CF to get to the slot receiver leaving the backside free. pic.twitter.com/AiwmuiCh7F— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 11, 2018
A Cover 3 defense against four verticals will never work as long as a quarterback doesn’t stare down his only read. Here the quarterback looks to the flat to hold underneath defenders near the line of scrimmage, which puts four receivers — two on each side — against three deep defenders. Whether the ball goes to the near or far side, with proper eye manipulation a receiver is going to be open every time . This works with Verticals, Dagger, Mills, etc.. and other route concepts the Chiefs have run this year.
The bottom line
The Chiefs offense should not have to struggle moving the ball on the Chargers defense on Thursday night.
Outside of Ingram and Bosa just annihilating the offensive tackles — which Mahomes has already proven he can still beat — the Chargers defense doesn’t present a challenge the Chiefs haven’t seen before.
If the Chiefs utilize a similar game plan as the first game —and then incorporate some of these new twists to counter the Chargers’ “new look” — they should blow the doors off their defense. A heavy dose of inside zone — using the screen game from misdirection — and then attacking the undermanned parts of the Chargers’ short and deep zone coverages — should keep the Chargers on their heels for the entire game.