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Stout Assessments: Run fits in the 4-2-5 defense

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Craig takes a look at some of the ways the 2017 Chiefs played the run out of the nickel defense.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret how excited I am for the Kansas City Chiefs to run the 4-2-5 defense more often.

For years now, I’ve pounded the table like general manager Brett Veach for a second inside linebacker that was capable of staying on the field on passing downs.

Since Bob Sutton has been here, the Chiefs have had one inside linebacker that seemed capable of playing the pass. The rest were more thumper linebackers who could not.

This meant that Sutton has leaned on what I called the auto-dime — the 2-3-6 defense. In this scheme, because the other inside linebacker wasn’t strong in coverage, Sutton deploys a safety in the box as a hybrid linebacker, putting six defensive backs on the field any time the offense put a third wide receiver on the field.

From a coverage standpoint, it makes sense.

From a run stopping standpoint, it does not.

You see... by putting an inferior run defender in the box, teams have been able to rip off huge chunks of yardage against the Chiefs dime defense time and time again.

Since Sutton has been the defensive coordinator for the Chiefs, their average DVOA ranking against the run has been an abysmal 21.8.

In 2017, they finished dead last. So how does the 4-2-5 help with this?

Quite simply, it replaces the box safety that Sutton deploys in the 2-3-6 auto-dime with an inside linebacker that is more stout against the run — and who also has a better feel for his run fits.

I’ve already shown that the Chiefs don’t drop their outside linebackers into coverage as often in the 4-2-5, and they also rush more (and rush the featured) players out of the 4-2-5 against the pass. Obviously, adding in the extra inside linebacker does help against the run, and out of that defense, the Chiefs can line up with some basic run fits against the opposition and have some success.

But what’s the fun in basic run fits? That’s where this article comes in.

In this post, we’re going to look at a few different ways the Chiefs use their 4-2-5 defense against the run and show some run fits that you might not have noticed.

So yes... prepare yourself. We’re going to look at the 2017 Chiefs run defense.

Strapped in? Let’s go.


The scrape exchange

The first topic we’ll cover is the Chiefs’ usage of a zone-read beater out of the 4-2-5, called the scrape exchange. Quite simply, a scrape exchange is when an edge player plays a zone-read by crashing and attacking the running back, while the inside linebacker behind him loops around through the D-gap and attacks the quarterback.

Instead of the quarterback being able to read the edge player’s run commitment and having an open hole to attack, he’s now got to consider both the inside linebacker and the edge defender in the run game. It can be used out of any formation — not just the 4-2-5 — but we’ll look at how the Chiefs weaponized it last year out of their nickel.

In the Buffalo Bills game, the Chiefs ran more of the 4-2-5 than in most other 2017 games. Here we see the Chiefs in a single high look with seven men in the box. The Bills are in an attached 2x2 alignment. The two boundary cornerbacks and the slot cornerbacks have pass-first responsibility, the box safety has pass first responsibility against the attached tight end and the deep safety has pass first responsibility. That leaves six players in the box who are run-first minded and looking for the handoff off the snap.

In the box, we can see the Chiefs are in an over front, with the three-technique (Chris Jones) lined up on the tight end side of the formation. Jones will work to the strong-side A-gap through the Buffalo right guard. The nose tackle will work through the weak-side A-gap toward the B-gap, and the weak-side inside linebacker will funnel to the running back in whichever of the two gaps is open. The weak-side outside linebacker will occupy the C-gap and set the edge.

And that brings us to the scrape exchange. The strong-side outside linebacker will crash to the running back, and the strong-side inside linebacker will loop around the play to defend the quarterback keeping the option.

Here it is, in action:

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor reads Justin Houston crashing to the running back and decides to keep it for himself. However, because the inside linebacker, Derrick Johnson, is filling the D-gap, Taylor has to kick the play further outside where the defense has more run support. If Taylor had handed off, the Chiefs backside run fits should have resulted in a short gain at best.

Let’s check out another example of a scrape exchange:

Another single-high look out of the Chiefs with the Oakland Raiders in a three by one alignment. All corners and the box safety have pass-first responsibility — as before — as does the deep safety.

In the box, the Chiefs are again in an over front, this time with Chris Jones at nose tackle and Allen Bailey at the three-technique.

Again, the Chiefs are banking on a scrape exchange for Houston’s backside pursuit from the outside linebacker position, and inside linebacker Reggie Ragland will be responsible for a quarterback keeper. Bailey has the strong-side B-gap, Jones will work across the left guard to attempt to cover the weak-side B-gap, Tanoh Kpassagnon will be responsible for setting the edge. and the weak-side inside linebacker (Kevin Pierre-Louis) will cover the weak-side A or B-gap.

Houston crashes on the running back without having to worry about having responsibility for the quarterback — and eats the play alive. Ragland peeks into the backfield and sees the quarterback doesn’t have the ball, so he doesn’t need to pursue that run fit anymore.

On the weak side, Kpassagnon gets blown off the ball, leaving a large B-gap and an easy read. However, Chris Jones moves well off the snap to get the lower half of his body in the way of the offensive tackle, causing an intended combo block that would get to the second level to peter out before it began — all while driving the left guard back into the running back.

It’s just freak agility and strength on this play; PIerre-Louis reacts and has a completely clean fit for a run that goes nowhere.

A firm understanding of these run fits up front means the Chiefs can implement more scrape exchanges — knowing they can defend read options without relying on a superhuman play out of the edge defender.

Even in the last example — with a poor edge set on the weak side — if the rest of the defense understands which gaps they’re supposed to be in (and have the determination to get there) then the Chiefs can implement this technique even when they’re trying to stop the run with six.

Secondary force

Sure, the big guys up front are responsible for the more widely publicized run fits — but let’s not forget about those that come from the secondary.

If you follow football for long enough, you will hear people discuss setting the edge in the run game. The goal is to keep run plays from being able to stretch outside the tackle box as much as possible by utilizing defenders to funnel the run play back toward the teeth of the defense — and the pursuing defenders.

Most of the time you hear about players setting the edge around here, they’re referring to the Chiefs outside linebackers. But they’re not the only ones; many times, the secondary will have force responsibility.

The Raiders are in an attached three by one alignment. All of the Chiefs cornerbacks are in man, and the Chiefs two safeties have crept up on the line of scrimmage as the play clock winds down. As I’ve shown, the safeties have force responsibility outside of the tackle box.

Inside the tackle box, we once again see the Chiefs in an over front, with Chris Jones as the three-technique. He’s going to shoot the strong-side B-gap. The nose tackle will work across the center and collapse the strong-side A-gap. Houston and Zombo will attempt to set the edge on either side. The weak-side inside linebacker will read the weak-side B-gap and funnel to the running back. The strong-side inside linebacker will read the strongside B and C-gaps and also funnel to the running back.

The strong safety has read the attached tight end and aligns outside the player. This will help with coverage (inside release will be covered by the hook defenders — the inside linebackers) and in the run game.

Jones once again wins his matchup and drives through the B-gap, then makes sure to string the run along all the way to the edge. Oakland blocks down on outside linebacker Frank Zombo, attempting to seal the edge. That leaves safety Daniel Sorensen with force responsibility, and he plays it perfectly. He purposely takes a wide berth off the outside shoulder of the tight end and works upfield as far as he can before diving back toward the running back. This sets the edge against the run, and the pursuing defender — Reggie Ragland — can close on the back.

Let’s check out another example:

This time, it’s the Chiefs run defense nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chiefs have a single high safety against a two by two alignment, and the corners and strong safety have pass first responsibility. This time, the strong safety and the slot cornerback have force responsibility outside of the box.

The Chiefs run fits this time definitely play toward the strong side of the defense. Jones still carries the strong-side B-gap — and the nose tackle still works toward the opposite A-gap — but Zombo’s primary job is to contain a counter, and Houston’s is to set the edge. Both inside linebackers take off in a dead sprint to the strongside edge right off the snap, signifying that Pittsburgh had put this on tape before.

Once again, the tight end seals Houston with the help of the pulling center. The pulling guard gets out in space, and Ron Parker has force responsibility. While not getting quite outside the pulling guard’s shoulder, the effect is largely the same. The running back has to cut back after avoiding an almost-DJ-Special, and the pursuit defenders are there for the stop.

Neither Parker was or Sorensen is really heralded as a quality run defender for the Chiefs. Most will point to missed tackles, or getting bowled over when they’re playing the dime linebacker role.

However, using players like that outside the box (instead of inside in the dime) with force responsibility can pay big dividends when the rest of your defense is allowed to focus on their primary run fits and funnel to the ball. Neither player showed up on the stat sheet for these plays, but both were crucial to stopping these runs.

Gap exchanges/stunts

Earlier this offseason, I covered stunts in the Chiefs defense, and how they used them to rush the passer in 2017.

Well... they’re also quite handy for getting advantageous run fits as well. By having a set of players exchange gaps, offensive linemen can be left grasping air with their blocks — which is even more devastating to an offense than when it occurs in the passing game. More often than not, having that extra defender free to pursue the ball carrier results in a big stop.

The Los Angeles Chargers are in a three by one alignment, and the Chiefs are implementing a single high safety. Nothing looks different from what the Chiefs do on any other given play from a pre-snap formation...

...but it’s far from normal.

The Chiefs are again in an over front, but this time, Chris Jones is going to work to the strong-side A-gap from the three-technique off the snap, and Allen Bailey is going to loop from the one-technique to the strong-side B-gap. Both edge defenders are responsible for their respective C-gaps, and the strong-side inside linebacker keys off of the tight end — where he will have force responsibility if the tight end blocks down on Houston. This leaves the weakside inside linebacker — Reggie Ragland — with both A and B-gap responsibility on the weak side of the play. It’s definitely a gamble.

The defensive linemen execute the exchange perfectly, leaving the left guard diving at Bailey’s feet — with nobody to block. Jones destroys the pulling center on his way through as the right guard attempts to block him. Ragland avoids the left tackle’s block, and now Bailey, Pierre-Louis, Ragland and Kpassagnon are all unblocked when originally it was just supposed to be Kpassagnon.

The play never really had an opportunity to get going — thanks to a gutsy call by a guy that’s criticized for his “boring” and “vanilla” defenses.


The bottom line

So there are a few examples of techniques Sutton implemented out of the 4-2-5 nickel last year.

There are many, many, many more on top of some general run fits that Sutton likes to implement out of that defense. Most of all, it’s putting good run defenders in positions to make plays when you have lighter boxes due to offenses putting extra receivers on the field.

The NFL is a passing league. There’s no denying it. More and more, teams have adopted their sub-package defenses as their base defense, and the Chiefs are no exception.

However, with the Chiefs switching to a dime more often than the nickel, the run defense suffers immensely. In the above examples, you can see the inside linebacker opposite Derrick Johnson routinely making correct run fits and showing the ability to get off blocks and stop the run in its tracks. The Chiefs don’t get that out of their safeties when they’re asking them to play linebacker.

Sutton routinely tried to run the 4-2-5 in 2017. More often than not, it did the trick against the run. But Sutton just didn’t have the personnel to run it against the pass, so he had to abandon it.

With Reggie Ragland playing lighter, a second year of snaps and learning the by Ukeme Eligwe — and new acquisition of Dorian O’Daniel — Sutton might finally have the personnel in to run a defense that’s a happy medium for the run and the pass.

And when Sutton does run the 4-2-5 next year, you can turn to the DAF (Dumb Arrowhead Fan) next to you and point out the scrape exchange that blew up the read option... or the force technique from the secondary that turned the back toward the pursuing tackler.

You’ll look smart.

And I want you to look smart.