Life, as they say, goes on.
I’m still smarting from whatever it is that led to the Chiefs trading Marcus Peters for a 2nd round pick and a swap of other picks. I’m not going to get into what I believe the team’s reasoning was behind the move here, in part because I discussed it at length on the Chief in the North (summary: based on everything I can see publicly and a few things I was told not publicly, I think it was an issue of coachability. Boring, but the most likely major reason). If you feel like listening to that, here’s where to find it.
But for me, it’s time to move on. I wish things had gone differently (the Chiefs were SO CLOSE to having a CB group that stacked up against almost any other in the league), but I can’t change anything. So my mind moves towards the future.
There’s not too much evidence out there for what a Chiefs defense with Marcus Peters will look like, given his constant status on the field over the last three years. Additionally, it’s impossible to predict what the defensive personnel will look like next season. Given Brett Veach’s level of aggression, there’s almost nothing that would surprise me at this point.
However, we did get a brief glimpse of what Bob Sutton might do without Marcus Peters on the field last season. After an incident (or two) the week prior, Peters was suspended in Week 14 against the Oakland Raiders.
I (like many others) expected the Chiefs defense to get absolutely shellacked. They had just given up 300+ yards in the air to Josh McCown, and spirits were at an all-time low after four straight losses. To make matters worse, Derek Carr had hung 400+ yards and three touchdowns on the Chiefs WITH Peters on the field earlier in the season. It seemed like a near-certainty that Carr would have another big game and the Chiefs would be sent packing.
Instead, the Chiefs completely shut down the Raiders passing attack and held the them scoreless until the game was well out of reach in the fourth quarter. Carr barely completed 50 percent of his passes and threw a couple of interceptions, and the Chiefs got their first win in weeks.
So ... what happened? How did the defense lose one of its best two players and by far its best CB and perform at a higher level than it did for the majority of the season? Since I’m not one to leave mysteries hanging, I looked at the film to try and at least consider what the defense may have to do next year to be successful without Peters lurking.
Two things were different that game from what I could tell. I’ll use one gif to demonstrate both (though you’ll only be able to see half of it).
Chris Jones was used more and more on the edge as the year went along on obvious pass rushing downs, and I hope they do more of it. Houston is capable of beating interior linemen and forces extra attention, Jones is just too strong for tackles. pic.twitter.com/68GixaauHo— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) February 27, 2018
Obviously on this play Chris Jones gets a nice rush on the quarterback. This was one of the first games I noticed Bob Sutton lining Jones up on the edge consistently (it did happen in previous games, but not as much from what I could tell, though I didn’t chart it) and moving him all around. Jones responded with a big game, with multiple QB hits/pressures to go along with this sack.
However, Jones isn’t the only part of that gif I want you to notice. Pay attention to Carr’s drop as well. Notice that when he hits the top of his (quick) drop, he DOES have a beat before Jones gets to him. However, because his first read is covered, he’s forced to pause for a moment. That pause is enough for Jones (and Allen Bailey, with a nice bull rush) to crush the pocket and send Carr sprawling.
This snap emphasizes two things: first and most obvious, the Chiefs were able to rush the passer more successfully against Oakland. The less obvious thing is that the secondary in general did a significantly better job covering quick reads against Oakland and forcing Carr to hold the ball a second longer.
I’ve discussed the “speed” of pass rush a lot this offseason in conjunction with coverage. The fastest sack of the season (per Next Gen Stats, a fantastic resource) occurred in 2.03 seconds. The 20th fastest was in 2.48 seconds. What this means is that the VAST majority of the time (as there were well over 1,000 sacks in 2017), it took pass rushers longer than 2.5 seconds to get to the quarterback.
Why is that relevant? Because it means that if the QB’s first read was open and the ball came out in under 2.5 seconds, the majority of the time no pass rush in the NFL was going to get home. This is one of the concepts the spread offense is based around: get the ball out fast and the rush doesn’t matter.
This issue is what killed the Chiefs against the Raiders earlier in the season. Their offense is designed to get the ball out quickly, and Carr was generally releasing that night as soon as he hit the back of his drop. Pass rush becomes irrelevant at that point.
However, if you can cover well and force the quarterback to go past his first read, pass rush becomes a great deal more dangerous. A look at the interception Jones forced when he hit Carr shows this as well.
I just realized I haven't posted a Chris Jones gif in like a week, maybe more. That's my bad. This play is a wonderful demonstration of his unique combination of strength and nimble feet. pic.twitter.com/bjVhgv4MCA— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) February 23, 2018
Now, that’s a good snap for Chris Jones, make no mistake. However, I want to go a step deeper (because it’ll be relevant to what was different about Week 14 and how the Chiefs played well without Peters) than just “nice rush by Jones.”
Here’s a look at the all-22 view of that play.
Writing about Week 14 of last year and the symbiotic relationship between competent initial coverage and pass rush. This play demonstrates that concept. Initial read covered so Jones has an extra split second to get home, leads to a toss-up INT. pic.twitter.com/zuyJJabtF1— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) February 28, 2018
Take a look at the coverage here as the play develops. From all appearances, the first route Carr looks to is the slant across the middle of the field, with the inside receiver attempting to draw away the zone defender.
However, the linebacker doesn’t bite, properly passes off the receiver and sits on the slant. A throw isn’t an option there as the receiver is going to get killed or the ball will get knocked down/picked. So Carr, instead of throwing immediately from the top of his 3 step drop, has to reset and try to find another target.
Of course, as he attempts to do so, Jones is causing havoc and coming at him, which causes Car to drop his eyes. Then, as Jones hits him, Carr (for some ridiculous reason) tries to throw the ball, which predictably ends in a pick (on a nice catch from Mitchell.
We’ve taken a long road to a short thought on this play: had the initial receiver not been correctly picked up by the linebacker, Carr would have fired the pass off in 1.5 seconds and no one would have even realized that Jones “won” on the play.
A similar thing happened in the first play gif’d above. While Jones gets good pressure here, note the amount of time that elapses and when Carr hits the top of his drop. Had his first read been open, Carr would have been able to release before Jones arrived.
That’s what I mean by pass rush and coverage working together. We all know this, but it bears repeating as we discuss what happened in Week 14. Because while on one hand, the pass rush was certainly better (and more “team-oriented,” which we’ll come back to) that day, so was the coverage.
The entire defense played significantly better than it had the previous week. The coverage, as was noted during the broadcast and analysis afterward, was more consistently aggressive, with corners lined up at or near the line of scrimmage much more consistently than in many other games throughout the year (though NOT always in press man, to be perfectly clear). Additionally, I didn’t see as many blown zone coverages underneath as I saw in previous games.
One player who made a particular impact on the game, both in coverage and as a tackler, was Steven Nelson.
Looking at KC/OAK Week 14 (Peters's suspension). They tested Steven Nelson immediately and he swatted a pass away, then let Crabtree know about it. Him being in top form (contract year) will be crucial in 2018. pic.twitter.com/oJE1Y6WRQC— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) February 26, 2018
Nelson played well against the Raiders, seeming to finally hit his stride after coming back from injury a few weeks prior. He played aggressive, physical coverage when the situation called for it and generally mirrored routes pretty well (not his strength). He was also very active in run support and against the Raiders quick-pass-based “short game.”
Nelson made some plays against OAK in Week 14, looked back to himself after a few weeks easing his way in (from all appearances). Aggressive both in coverage and tackling. pic.twitter.com/QZYl2l8tMO— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) February 26, 2018
Nelson was the player who did the most work (which is definitely relevant when you consider the current state of the roster), but both Terrance Mitchell and Darrelle Revis played similarly to Nelson: very physical and assignment-sound. It was a far cry from what we often saw from non-Peters corners last season, particularly with regards to assignments in zone coverage and against bunch formations.
Interestingly enough, the Chiefs appeared to play quite a bit of man coverage despite being short Peters, and generally with guys pressing or at least close to the line of scrimmage. This marks a contrast from the style Peters was known for (generally playing off the line of scrimmage to keep the play in front of him). And it worked, really throwing the Raiders timing routes off, which allowed the pass rush to get home.
Speaking of the pass rush, it did its part.
Probably the biggest difference in Week 14 vs the Raiders was that it wasn't just Houston/Jones getting after the QB. Hali had a solid game causing chaos, as did Bailey and even Jenkins.— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) February 28, 2018
The Chiefs need some secondary pass rushers. Not stars, just "decent" guys who can help. pic.twitter.com/yBBImQDrF8
Chris Jones and Justin Houston both played well against the Raiders in rushing the passer, but that’s not really new. The biggest difference I saw against Oakland was how the rest of the pass rush group performed.
All too often last season, Houston and Jones were the only two players generating any sort of pressure, which resulted in offenses able to account for them or QB’s able to step away from them. Against the Raiders, it was different. Tamba Hali played 30 snaps, more than at any point in the season, and was able to help generate rush from his side. Additionally, both Allen Bailey and Jarvis Jenkins had some good snaps rushing the passer.
You can see in the play above what it means when you’ve got multiple guys “winning” when rushing the passer. A mere “win” turns into pressure, and pressure turns into a sack, when you’ve got more than 1 guy involved. In the snap above, if any of the 3 guys who won their snap (Houston, Hali, Bailey) didn’t do so, Carr likely escapes from the pressure.
So what was different about the pass rush that week? Well, there was at least he appearance, for me, of more aggression from Sutton’s defense. While he still wasn’t sending a ton of blitzes, he was mixing around his guys up front quite a bit, creating interesting looks up front that seemed to cause Oakland problems. There was also a lot less focus on “contain” from the edge rushers, a welcome change from what I saw all too often last year.
Overall, schematically, I didn’t see HUGE changes from the Chiefs in that Week 14 game, but I did see a few things that stood out to me:
- Corners were generally (though not always) playing closer to the LOS or in press
- There seemed to be a bit more man coverage (though they did various versions of cover 3 quite a bit as well by my eye).
- Pass rushers were moved around more than I saw in previous games, especially Chris Jones.
- Edge rushers weren’t playing contain or zone coverage as often as we saw in most games (this one is definitely worth keeping an eye on).
Again, this could be a one-time game plan, designed to take away the Raiders quick passing game. However, again, it’s the only film we have of the most current roster without Peters, so it causes me to wonder if we’ll see some tweaks without him on the field in 2018.
I’ve largely disregarded the run, in large part because the Raiders just didn’t run the ball that much. They had a couple of big runs from Lynch, but by and large when they ran the defense responded well. There wasn’t much different there to report (other than, you know, the run defense playing decently) that we didn’t see multiple other times. Jones, KPL, Ragland and Houston all stood out in spots against the run, as did Steven Nelson in terms of coming up and playing physical.
What does this tell us about life after Marcus Peters?
I thought long and hard about what I could take away from this particular game. The reality is, again, that it’s just one game and doesn’t tells us much. But here is what I DO know ... if this one game is any indication, the Chiefs aren’t necessarily doomed to have a bad pass defense without Marcus Peters (which seems to be the fear). That’s one takeaway.
How did they do it? Well ... the obvious way: other players stepped up. Nelson in particular, but also Mitchell and Revis, played well. The safeties generally did their job (though down the stretch that got iffy, but I digress). The linebackers did solid work in underneath zones. The pass rush, as a whole, showed up.
In short, football remains an incredibly enigmatic thing in which the whole isn’t what you’d necessarily expect when looking at the disparate parts.
If the Chiefs want to have success without Marcus Peters next year, they will need to continue to overhaul their defense in a way that allows them to play how they did that day: fast and aggressive, rather than reactive. It’ll be interesting to see if they can do so.