The Kansas City Chiefs played the available players of their starting defense for the entire first half of their preseason Week 2 game against the Atlanta Falcons, and the results were rather concerning for Chiefs fans.
Excluding the kneel-down to end the half, the Falcons had four drives averaging nine plays and 59.5 yards per drive. They converted six of 11 on third and fourth down. They reached the red zone on three of four drives and scored touchdowns on two of those drives.
Although the Falcons turned the ball over on downs twice — which makes it sound better for the defense — had it been a regular season game, the Falcons undoubtedly would have kicked field goals, as both ended deep in Chiefs territory.
That would be four scoring drives out of four. That’s simply not good for the Chiefs.
Before I talk everyone onto the ledge, let’s head into the Nerd Squad Bungalow, go down into the lab and check out some film. Maybe we can some find some saving graces.
The Chiefs run defense just wasn’t showing the consistency that we’d like to see out of the starting unit. It was almost as if the Chiefs were making stops on the ground when a defender shot a gap or destroyed their block — but anytime guys made routine plays, there was a breakdown that allowed a huge gain.
The defensive line appeared to play a solid game, holding stout at the point of attack or pushing into the backfield. The safeties even looked pretty good coming up in run support from either deep or out in the overhang position.
The real breakdown of the defense seemed to happen between defensive line and the safeties — that is, with the inside linebackers Terrance Smith and Ukeme Eligwe.
The film: Terrance Smith
Eligwe comes back with this beauty; leans forward on the snap with a small read step then IDs the RT and RG comboing Jenkins indicating run. He explodes forward off the RT's outside hip and back underneath the wham TE. Jenkins does a great job anchoring vs the double and shedding pic.twitter.com/VmM73f0SGa— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 19, 2018
Here, Eligwe flashes the ability to shoot through some gaps on the play side — and even take on blockers while stacking and shedding them.
But Eligwe was certainly a project when drafted, and like some other young Chiefs defenders is in a new position compared to his college days. With that come quite a few thumps and teaching moments — and this game was full of them for the second string linebacker.
However, this review isn’t about Eligwe, but rather about the player beside him: Terrance Smith.
Note that Smith is most often lined up as the weak-side inside linebacker (opposite the tight end) which puts him in a position to chase plays more freely than the strong-side inside linebacker.
As shown here, Smith simply isn’t being aggressive enough — or quick enough — to recognize his path to the ball. He is late to decipher where the ball is going — and how to properly approach it — on far too many plays.
On this play, Smith’s first real step — a lateral step — doesn’t come until the pulling offensive linemen have already gotten halfway to their next gap. Smith doesn’t show the instinct to attack. He’s working as the back side linebacker on this play — so he’s supposed to be tracking the ball — but you can work laterally down the line of scrimmage squared to the oncoming blocks.
Even worse, he has an open lane to attack the running back who gets forced to cut to the back side, but instead opts to try and go up and over the deuce block on Jenkins — which leads to him being swallowed whole by the right tackle.
Yes Terrance, YES Terrance, Oh. Smith does a good job reading the blocks, IDs the gap (with an assist from X w/ the vet Defensive hold), and attacks. Just comes in a hair too hot, diving/breaking down from 2 yards back, on a small, shifty RB. Also, not my favorite Niemann snap. pic.twitter.com/bjMvunqrE8— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 18, 2018
This time, Smith starts well. He reads the play and still gets a good jump on the blocks due to his athleticism. He sees the inside zone concept coming at him, and he is able to slip by the combo blocker tasked to reach him — thanks in part to a subtle hold by Xavier Williams.
When he enters the running lane, this should be a Jacked Up moment (that segment should come back!) with a hit against a smaller running back downhill into the hole. Instead, Smith breaks down and dips his head forward — losing eye contact — about three yards shy of the runner. The running back hits a good spin move in a tight area, and leaves Smith diving into the air — turning a two-yard loss into a three-yard gain.
It’s fair to think that Smith might be more of a traditional 4-3 weak-side linebacker who is on the field to be a chase down players and execute coverage snaps. His athleticism and body frame would suggest that as well.
His tape, however, shows an entirely different story. There were multiple passing downs in which Smith just didn’t seem to know where he was supposed to be lined up, what his assignment was, or in general what the coverage call was.
It's impossible to know 100% what went wrong here, BUT the RB motioned out to the slot and the S (McQuay) bumped out over him. The RB was likely a man read to whichever side he released for the ILBs, since he went to the slot, Terrence Smith has to pick up Hooper. pic.twitter.com/kBAUsYnftD— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 18, 2018
This is an example. This would appear to be a routine cover 1 man coverage. Just before the clip starts, McQuay is lined up over the tight end until the running back motions out to the slot. McQuay then bumps out to the running back — who is clearly his man now — leaving the tight end uncovered.
Smith doesn’t disrupt the tight end at all. He gives him a free release to wherever he wants to go. No matter the coverage, that’s a mistake. But the bigger mistake is not realizing that since McQuay had to bump out to the running back, he has to pick up the tight end.
In this play, Eligwe is the rat (or robber for you Madden fans, which just means middle of the field defender) and he checks both the boundary and field side to see who is coming into his zone. As Matt Ryan breaks contain in the pocket — thanks to good initial coverage — the tight end works across the field being checked by no one, because Eligwe is working toward the line of scrimmage and Smith is in no man’s land playing zone.
There has been some speculation that Smith was supposed to be playing this hook/curl zone, but there is no one else in zone outside of both inside linebackers, a free man is lined up directly across from him, and he lets the tight end past him — and forgets about him — before the tight end even makes his break.
Is there a chance the tight end still makes this play with Smith trailing him? Absolutely. But if Smith had been on his man, it might have been enough to force an errant throw or scramble from Ryan.
Smith is still learning the position, so there are bound to be some mental errors like this one. These are accepted from a backup, developing linebacker in the NFL. But even when he does seem to be on the right coverage page, he is still struggling to execute.
So much bad in 1 play: Speaks blocked by a FB, yes he drives him back but it's a FB. Eligwe sucked up way too far on the run. Amerson simply beat on the seam. Terrence Smith beat even worse on the post. pic.twitter.com/c6AlG5a56D— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 18, 2018
Simple cover 1 man coverage again, and this time Smith knows he has the tight end. On the snap, the tight end makes no attempt to chip the edge player, but Smith tries to hop to outside leverage and punch before getting his base set. The tight end easily disposes his hands for a free inside release. Since he is off balance after his hop and lunge, Smith stumbles changing directions to turn downfield.
At the end of the day, Terrance Smith has drawn some praise from coaches, but while he’s on the field, he’s simply not helping the team nearly often enough. He is getting the majority of his snaps as the weak-side inside linebacker — and in this defense, that’s a playmaking role.
Playing this position, a player can’t be late to make reads, can’t be passive with their angles, and certainly can’t be on the wrong page on coverage downs. Otherwise, the play at weak inside linebacker could be even worse than it was last year.
At this point in his career — on the plays that offer Smith direct, straightforward routes to the ball carrier — he shows off his athleticism and ability to make plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
The problem is that those plays come few and far between.
On too many plays, Smith is slow to process, is very passive with his back-side angles, and is an eyes down, lunging tackler when he’s in one-on-one situations.
What is the fix? Where do the Chiefs go from here?
The potential solution: Dorian O’Daniel
Dorian O’Daniel is clearly still trying to pick up all the nuances of the NFL and what is being asked of him in Bob Sutton’s defense, but he flashes the same traits you want to see in a weak-side inside linebacker.
3rd Round rookies coming up for a stop here. Derek Nnadi with cat like reflexes to get back off the cut block, redirect his momentum forward to finish the tackle. Dorian O'Daniel with a super quick read on the run release of the OG, squeezes outside and is able to adjust to trip pic.twitter.com/NS98tEccCy— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 18, 2018
Here we see a quick read step, then explosion coming forward to the offensive center, who gets to the second level relatively quickly. O’Daniel even navigates through a bit of traffic to eliminate the outside before working back inside — and never losing his balance. He has to dive to make this hit — but the difference is that when he dived, his eyes were up tracking his target the entire time.
Good recognition by O'Daniel after he gets out to his zone. Gets in position to be under an outbreaking route, works back inside with the RB, but peels off to deliver a big hit on the crossing route. Excited to see him get more snaps next week too. pic.twitter.com/VeeCSxDoXP— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 18, 2018
O’Daniel is still working on his man coverage skills for the NFL — it wasn’t something he was asked to do a lot in college — but as a zone player, he’s getting it.
He likes to flash a hook zone before dropping back into a curl/flat (Lamar Jackson Pick 6 ring any bells?) and as he goes to work under the angle route, he’s able to read the quarterback and crossing receiver. O’Daniel peels off the running back he is chasing to deliver a big, legal hit to the receiver trying to haul in the pass over the middle.
The bottom line
The Chiefs starting defense wasn’t particularly good Friday night, and while that certainly doesn’t fall on any single player, there is definitely some room for improvement at inside linebacker. Both of the starting inside linebackers had their struggles in this game — while the defensive line and edge players appeared to be doing everything they could.
It may be unfair to say so because he was playing with (and against) starters, but on too many plays, Terrance Smith simply doesn’t look like he has a full mental grasp of what’s happening between the whistles.
At this point, he has to be feeling the pressure from Ben Niemann (reviewed last week — and another solid performance against better competition this week) and Dorian O’Daniel, who has come on stronger and stronger since returning from his injury.
Are either of those two players likely to change the entire landscape of this defense immediately? Probably not.
The game changer for this defense is going to be the addition of Anthony Hitchens to the starting lineup. He is likely to clean up the mistakes we’ve seen over the first two weeks, turning inside linebacker into a position in which the red and gold can take pride.
You can also bet your house on two things:
1) Hitchens (and Reggie Ragland) returning to the lineup will make a massive difference in the chunk plays being given up, and the lack of explosive plays by the inside linebackers
2) Once Hitchens plays significant snaps, there will be a nice, long film session from the lab.