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Kansas City Chiefs defensive trends and tabulation for Week 1

Craig takes the microscope to the Chiefs defense in Week 1, finding both good and bad

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs fans have been waiting for months to see what this team would look like in the 2018 season. There has been excitement and anticipation for the offense — and worry and discomfort about the defense.

On Sunday, the Chiefs defense didn’t give much reason to shelve that discomfort.

After letting quarterback Philip Rivers throw for 424 yards and three touchdowns, the Chiefs secondary has some questions to answer. And with running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler accumulating 189 of those yards through the air, it’s obvious there are questions about the linebackers tasked with covering them.

There’s no doubt it wasn’t a good week from an execution standpoint, with missed tackles and blown coverages. There were even repeated examples of lining up in the neutral zone:

It was an ugly looking game, for sure.

But how did it look from a scheme standpoint? I’d actually argue that it was an above-average day at the office from a playcalling standpoint, putting a lot of things on tape for which offenses are going to have to account going forward.

So this week — like every week — we’ll dive into some of the numbers. We’ll also highlight some good plays and some bad plays, and some things you might have missed from the game against the Chargers.

The numbers

Take a deep breath, and let’s look at the numbers. You might consider looking at them through one eye.

  • The Chiefs lined up in their base 3-4 defense 20.7% of the time. This was mostly against 12, 21, and 22 personnel. They averaged 7.57 yards per play out of this formation, including 5.88 yards per rush. All but one snap was while the Chiefs had a two score lead or less.
  • The Chiefs lined up in their nickel defense with three defensive lineman and three linebackers 4.8% of the time. This was mostly in goal to go and two point conversion situations.
  • The Chiefs lined up in nickel defense with two defensive lineman and four linebackers 73.1% of the time — handily their preferred formation this week. In it, they allowed 7.35 yards per play — 5.65 yards per play when it was a still a two score game — and 5.38 yards per rush.
  • The Chiefs showed one dime look with one defensive lineman and four linebackers. It was a third and 14 situation late in the first half that resulted in an incompletion.
  • The Chiefs dropped an outside linebacker into coverage on 25.4% of the passing snaps — mostly in the first three quarters when Sutton was dialing up different looks. That is lower than the 2017 season average of 33%.
  • The Chiefs sent extra rushers on 9.2% of the passing snaps, which is lower than the 2017 season average. However, the Chiefs showed pressure, brought a rusher from the second level while dropping another rusher, ran a stunt, or blitzed on 35.2% of the snaps, forcing the Chargers offensive line and Philip Rivers to keep their protections straight at all times. On those snaps, the Chiefs defense allowed 5 yards per play — well below the 6.6 yards per play they allowed on the day.
  • The Chiefs rushed three players 11.1% of the time. Most of these situations were in long down and distance situations, and that number is well below the 21% from 2017. The Chiefs rushed four players 79.6% of the time.
  • The Chiefs were in their cover 1 defense 57.4% of the time, and 90.3% of the coverages on those snaps were press coverage. They mixed it up with some cover 2 looks 12.9% of the time, with an almost even split between man and zone. They closed out the game with a lot of cover 3 zone looks, running it 35.1% overall, with 73.7% of those snaps coming in the fourth quarter.

Something good

We can’t not talk about the Ron Parker interception.

Parker definitely did a good job reading and undercutting the route, but there’s a few pieces leading up to that moment that really highlight how the play came to fruition.

Kendall Fuller is in the slot against Keenan Allen, and when Allen cuts to his out route, Fuller slips and falls. (Side note: I counted over six times Fuller slipped and fell while cutting on Sunday. Someone needs to get this man some longer cleats!) Nelson has good coverage on the vertical route to the outside, so Parker sees Allen coming open and comes up to help.

Meanwhile, Bob Sutton has dropped both Justin Houston and Dee Ford into coverage while still bringing a four-man rush by blitzing both inside linebackers.

As the far side crossing route comes into Ford’s zone, he recognizes he’s inside five yards, puts a shoulder into the receiver, and re-routes him deeper into the secondary. This is crucial because it now forces the crossing route and Allen’s out route to be in the same area.

Rivers feels the blitz coming and has to throw it further to the sideline, as Ford’s chip on the receiver has allowed Orlando Scandrick to catch up to the play, and Parker makes a good read on the ball for the interception.

That’s a good, heads-up play from both Parker and Ford that results in a big turnover for the defense.

There’s been a lot of consternation about the Chiefs in press coverage, and Sutton utilizing off-man and zone looks in 2017 and the preseason. However, the Chiefs in Week 1 pressed early and often, and that allowed Sutton to bring different looks from his fronts.

Here we have another example of the Chiefs dropping their outside linebackers into the slant lanes while blitzing Terrance Smith, one of the inside linebackers. Anthony Hitchens’ responsibility on the play is coverage against the running back, but when the back stays in to block, Hitchens green dogs, which is a transition of his coverage responsibility into a pass rush.

Because Ford and Houston are in the slant lanes, the hot routes for Rivers are taken away — and thanks to a good press by Nelson on the outside where he mirrors and and rides the receiver’s outside hip — Rivers has to hold the ball while the window opens, and attempt to make a perfect throw into tight coverage.

Rivers knows he has to get the ball away, and he throws a pass on which Nelson is able to make a play. A quarterback that is less savvy than Rivers might hesitate, and be forced to eat a sack.

Since the Chiefs will be able to press across the board this season, Sutton should be able to bring some later-developing looks that can still have effective coverage. He definitely didn’t have that capability last year.

Something bad

While the Chiefs secondary as a whole didn’t play particularly well, there were a couple of areas where they showed a repeated weakness: crossing routes and deep posts/corner routes. The latter is shown here.

Parker had a good day overall, stopping the run and coming up on a few shorter routes, but he struggled to get enough depth, and in reading some of the deep throws the Chargers attempted.

Here, Parker gets a fine backpedal, but because the Chargers showed this look earlier in the game, he anticipates a corner route by Travis Benjamin. Instead, Benjamin runs a post, and Parker is fooled.

But Rivers isn’t able to put enough zip on the ball, and Benjamin has to slow down to attempt the catch. This allows Parker to catch up, preventing a touchdown. However, a quarterback with a little more velocity and ability to drive the ball — ahem, Ben Roethlisberger — would make this an easy six points. That’s what happened to Parker on the earlier corner route — as well as a post route late in the game — and it’s something that he’ll need to clean up in order to defend against quarterbacks with bigger arms.

The other spot that the Chiefs really struggled this week was inside linebackers covering running backs in the flat. After spending the offseason touting the abilities of Hitchens and Reggie Ragland in coverage, their play in Week 1 didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

On this play, Ragland’s lack of sideline-to-sideline ability shows up in a big way.

The Chargers run some clearout routes to that side of the field, getting Melvin Gordon in a one-on-one matchup with Ragland. That’s bad news for the Chiefs, as Gordon is able to make the catch, square up, and easily get to the sideline for a big gain.

The worst part? This was the short side of the field.

While Hitchens does well against the tight end on the above play, he had multiple instances in coverage where he showed a lack of range similar to Ragland’s — albeit to the wide side of the field. It was definitely concerning to watch, because going forward, that’s a matchup that could be exploited fairly easily if Sutton doesn’t switch up some of the responsibilities.

Something you may have missed

Dee Ford had himself a good day on Sunday, but not enough was made of back-to-back plays he made in the red zone.

The focus on this play is definitely on Hitchens, as he is unable to get out in coverage against the running backs. But you may have missed Ford’s lightning-quick first step and great inside move to put pressure on Rivers on both snaps.

I’ve been hard on Ford in his time here, but if Sunday’s version of the player is showing up all season, he’s in for a big year.

We’ve talked a little bit about some of the looks Sutton brought on Sunday, and here is a common one.

The Chiefs line up the two defensive linemen outside the tackles in a wide nine position (or in this case, a wide Nnadi) with three linebackers in the interior and one exterior. Throughout the course of the game, Sutton would rush two or three linebackers from this look on the interior (Dee Ford’s sack was one of these), but would keep the offensive linemen guessing about was dropping and who was rushing.

On this play, Sutton drops all three of the interior linebackers into a zone, and only rushes three players up front. This leaves the Chargers with six blockers against three rushers, and due to the alignment, Smith off the edge is able to hurry Rivers against a blocking running back. Nnadi works inside and is able to get a hurry/hit as well.

While the back end was a lacking a little bit on this play, the Chiefs were able to confuse the Chargers blocking scheme and get pressure with only three rushers, and it’s another look that the opposition has to be aware of going forward.

Finally, at the end of the game, the Chiefs reverted often to a Tampa 2 shell, which is a cover 3 look where the middle linebacker in a defense “runs the pole” to cover the middle third of the field when he reads a pass play.

This is a look the Chiefs haven’t used very often in the past, and they did it with both Hitchens and Ragland to close out the game. It’s a good coverage call for keeping everything underneath and forcing the offense to chew up clock.

Note that on this play, Chris Jones is dropping into short zone coverage. He doesn’t have much to do, but it was done to prevent the Chargers from leaking running backs over the middle for big gains. This was the only time they had him do it, but unfortunately there wasn’t a route for him to cover.

In conclusion

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Overall, the defense was pretty poor this week.

It showed some bright spots. Ford bringing pressure, Nnadi holding his own at the point of attack, Jones penetrating often (and being held) and Eric Murray being a steady (if unspectacular) presence opposite of Parker are all among these.

However, there’s a lot to clean up going forward.

The Chiefs secondary is definitely not communicating as well as they’d like. Scandrick, Fuller and Nelson opted not to banjo this week, and stayed with their men through pick and rub routes. This created all kinds of space for the receivers. Sutton likes switching those coverage responsibilities through banjo techniques, so I’d expect that as Scandrick gets more integrated into the defense, they’ll implement them.

Still, poor press techniques, linebackers struggling to get out in coverage, missed tackles and sloppy angles reared their ugly heads this week, and that can’t make anybody comfortable going into this week’s matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And while there were mistakes all over the field, there is some context to be had with this week’s game:

While the Chiefs defense definitely backed off in the fourth quarter — when the Chiefs were up three scores — they still needed to close out some drives, because a better team might make them pay.

We’ll see if they can clean it up a bit in Week 2.

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