We’ve waited months for this moment, and it’s here. The Kansas City Chiefs are about to play an actual football game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
And all anybody seems to be talking about is the Chiefs defense.
There are decidedly more questions than answers for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s squad heading into this season, Eric Berry hasn’t practiced in weeks and Kansas City is worried.
And all the is happening even though Sutton’s been prettay, prettay, prettay good against the Chargers, especially in 2017.
The Chiefs defense without Eric Berry in 2017 held the Chargers to 10 and 13 points, respectively. Those Chargers averaged 22.2 PPG.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 5, 2018
They picked off Phillip Rivers 6 times, sacked him 4 times, and held him to 232 YPG with a 52.6% completion.
Melvin Gordon never broke 80 yards.
Starting this week, I’m going to take a look at the opposition’s offense and the things they do well, some things they’ve done poorly, and what the Chiefs defense should try to do to beat them.
We don’t have any 2018 tape that’s not supremely vanilla, so I fired up The Laboratory and went back to the two Chiefs/Chargers games in 2017 to see the good and the bad.
So let’s do the damn thing.
The opposition is good
While the offensive weapons for Los Angeles may get the praise, the Chargers offensive line is an athletic, run-blocking force.
In both of the 2017 games, the Chiefs were able to mostly contain the Chargers run game but allowed some gashing runs in the interior of the defense.
KC did an okay job containing the LAC run game in 2017, but they were gashed up the middle routinely. On this play, Logan doesn't read the strong A and gets shoved out easily by the RG, who gets to the second level. Wilson hesitates in the B and the RT swallows him up. Big run. pic.twitter.com/3QlfpbrgNL— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 7, 2018
In 2017, the Chargers took advantage of the Chiefs 1-gapping with their defensive line, getting blockers to the second level on inside runs often. This resulted in multiple runs in which the Chiefs inside linebackers were completely swallowed up by offensive linemen, leading to giant runs after the running backs cleared the first level of defenders.
In the above play, the Chargers take advantage of Chiefs then-nose tackle Bennie Logan not getting to the strong A-gap and Ramik Wilson’s hesitation.
Logan engages the center but then can’t fight through the block to get to the strong A-gap. This allows the Chargers right guard to get to Derrick Johnson on the second level, and Johnson’s not winning that battle.
Allen Bailey does well enough to occupy two blockers at the point of attack off the snap, which gives Wilson an opening toward the running back, but the right tackle disengages from Bailey, gets to a hesitant Wilson and is able to pave the way for Melvin Gordon to hit the hole for a big gain.
Another example of not being strong enough at the point of attack for the number of 2nd level blockers. Logan here allows the RG to the second level, then gets washed out of the gap by the OC. Bailey gets too far upfield with Zombo setting the EDGE and a free LG to the 2nd level. pic.twitter.com/B2VTvFVKlS— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 7, 2018
Once again, the Chargers are able to combo block Bennie Logan lined up as a nose tackle in the Chiefs dime defense.
The Chargers right guard and right tackle are able to easily combine to move Logan out of the strong-side B-gap, the right tackle moves to the second level, and Logan is completely washed out of the play by the right guard. The Chargers center is completely uncovered, leaving an easy path to Johnson, and the Chargers left guard is able to seal off Bailey from any backside pursuit.
Even though outside linebacker, Justin Houston, is able to shed the tight end blocking him and dive inside, the right tackle, right guard, center and left guard for the Chargers have all executed their blocks perfectly and eliminated any other Chiefs defender from being able to make the tackle.
The running back has an easy cutback to pick up yardage into the third level of the defense.
The opposition is bad
No quarterback wants to take a sack and cost their team yardage. But sometimes it’s a smart move to eat a sack and save yourself from a potential turnover that could be backbreaking for your team.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers didn’t subscribe to that philosophy against the Chiefs in 2017.
Phillip Rivers decision making goes completely out the window when he sees pressure. Here, the Chiefs secondary shows good coverage, and Chris Jones beats his blocker inside. Rivers can see Jones in front of him and feel Ford on the outside, and he chucks an easy INT to Mitchell. pic.twitter.com/I1e6noyIuQ— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 7, 2018
I don’t know how to say it any other way: Rivers will absolutely gift you an interception if you pressure him. It’s repeatable, sustainable and absolutely a problem for the Chargers when they come up against a team that can rush the passer, especially from the inside.
Here, we see the Chiefs defending a bunch formation out of the Chargers 3x1 alignment.
Every member of the secondary does well, not allowing Rivers to get a throw off at the top of his drop. When Rivers switches his read to the opposite side of the field, he sees Chris Jones beating his man inside, and Dee Ford bringing pressure outside.
Rather than eating a sack on an early down in his own territory, Rivers decides to throw to a covered receiver 20 yards downfield while moving out of the pocket. The result is a duck that is short and behind the receiver that Terrance Mitchell easily collects for a big interception.
Another example of Phillip Rivers making a poor throw instead of taking a sack. This one is ALL Chris Jones, who executes a perfect swim move to get by the left guard. Rather than eat the sack, Rivers rolls to his right and misses a covered receiver for a dropped INT. pic.twitter.com/oje5cuYFp3— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 7, 2018
Here we are again, with pressure forcing Rivers to make a questionable decision. Chris Jones has the Chargers left guard grasping at air with a swim move before Rivers is even at the top of his drop.
As he hits it, Jones is free to the quarterback, and none of the receivers have come out of their breaks yet.
Rivers rolls to his right to buy some time as the running back starts to break into his out route. Jones is bearing down on him, but rather than try to throw the ball away (a smart decision), Rivers again risks an early down off-axis completion to a covered receiver that goes wide of its mark and should have been intercepted.
What the Chiefs should do
In the run game, the Chiefs need to be sound in their gap discipline, first and foremost. The understanding between the first and second level defenders of who has which responsibility will help corral avenues for the Chargers running backs behind an athletic offensive line.
The Chiefs should also continue to embrace the two-gapping looks that they’ve shown in the preseason from their nose tackles. Both Xavier Williams and Derrick Nnadi have blown up runs this preseason by being strong at the point of attack and not letting offensive linemen transition to the second level with their combo blocks. Nnadi especially kept linebackers Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens clean with good technique in the Chiefs third preseason game. That attribute alone could have helped the Chiefs stop the two runs shown above from gaining big yardage.
In the passing game, it’s simple: Keep bringing the heat.
Rivers has shown a propensity to let his generally good decision making fall by the wayside as he sees pressure in his face, throwing easy interceptions and making very questionable reads. Chris Jones showed a knack for splitting blockers and getting after Rivers last year, and a lighter, more nimble 2018 version should result in some interior pressure for the Chiefs. Sutton should be telling the Chiefs coverage team to keep their head on a swivel for ducks off of Rivers’ shotput delivery from pressure.
The bottom line
Sutton has faced Rivers more times than any other quarterback in his tenure as the Chiefs defensive coordinator. Sutton has also handled Rivers better than almost every other quarterback this side of Derek Carr.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that Sutton knows how to rattle Rivers. He did it routinely last year, forcing Rivers into poor decisions, and ones that both Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn and Rivers himself acknowledged in their pressers this week.
If Sutton can get the new group of players to execute a game plan similar to those of the 2017 Chiefs defense, and add some of the new run-stopping personnel to complement that game plan, the Chiefs might already have a blueprint for success this weekend in place.
Either way, we’ll dig down into it in next week’s trends and tabulations to find out if the Chiefs defense was able to get it done against the Chargers in Week 1.