NFL football started officially on Thursday night, and while this is certainly exciting on many levels, it also marks the final week of “old film” we have to run through in the Lab. By this time next week, there will be sparkling new Kansas City Chiefs film, along with film for upcoming opponents. For me, it’s almost as exciting as draft season!
But first... this pesky game on Sunday, in which the Chiefs take on the Los Angeles Chargers. Since we don’t have new film, we’ll have to do the same thing the Chiefs are doing right now: go back to film from last year. so we can look at how the Chiefs could attack — and take advantage of — the Chargers defense.
Since the Chargers last meaningful game in 2017 happened to be against the Chiefs, we’ll look at that film — plus the film from starters’ portion of the third preseason game — to draw up a blueprint to find success against the AFC West favorites.
The Chargers defense
The Chargers run predominately a Cover 3 zone, heavily influenced by Gus Bradley’s time with the Seattle Seahawks, so the majority of their coverage snaps have three deep zone defenders and four underneath zone defenders across the middle of the field. By its nature, this creates a lot of space underneath — that is, close to the line of scrimmage — for the curl/hook defenders to occupy.
Not only are they stretching sideline to sideline, they are also often passing route runners from defender to defender. The base Cover 3 zone also creates two natural holes out to the flats on either side of the defense, because the four underneath defenders all line up between the numbers.
The Chargers front is bolstered by great edge play, with stout defensive tackles between them. For the most part, they line up in an even front with four down linemen, but they will stand up either edge player from time to time, and occasionally drop to an odd front with one of the defensive ends playing more like an outside linebacker in a 3-4.
The Chargers defense is at its most dangerous when they get Joey Bosa (who may not play) and Melvin Ingram lined up on the same side of the line, from where they can run a variety of inside and outside stunts.
The Chargers are pretty quick to go to the nickel — removing a linebacker from the field — and also don’t hesitate to play a light nickel with a third safety playing like a linebacker. This has its ups and downs, because the Chargers linebackers struggle in coverage. It improves the pass defense, but it puts a lot of stress on the safeties to protect against the run.
How to attack
Generating YAC in Space
As we know, Andy Reid runs the West Coast offense, and while he’s changed plenty over the years, he’s still got a big chunk of plays designed to get the ball to players out in space. Against a team like the Chargers that runs so much Cover 3, it’s pretty simple to draw up zone-beating route combinations to take advantage of the light underneath defenders. As long as the cornerback dropping into the deep third of the field has to carry a receiver deep, there is going to be a hole underneath them — and when in doubt, hold the apex/slot defender, who is the nearest hook/curl zone in place with a third receiver.
Simple Verticals concept vs the Chargers C3 with jet motion and DAT ending up all alone as the checkdown in the flat. To carry all the verticals, the hook/curl defenders give a ton of space underneath. Backside of the progressions, but Hill roasted Heyward for peeping the motion pic.twitter.com/Ae1EOAocvG— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 7, 2018
Here is a relatively basic vertical concept with a jet motion from DeAnthony Thomas, who continues out a swing route as a checkdown receiver. While the verticals are the main read of the play, they also act as a clear out in case the Chargers defense is in position to stop all the verticals.
In this case, that’s exactly what happened. The Chargers’ hook/curl defenders carry their receivers deep enough to shrink all the throwing windows, but this left Thomas wide open with about 10 yards of free space in front of him as the ball is being thrown. On this particular play, Thomas wasn’t the designed target, but this is the kind of space that Reid uses to his advantage with his screen and horizontal passing attack.
Often, the Chargers will counter this by altering their Cover 3 assignments by playing Cover 3 cloud/saint. This is essentially like a Cover 2 zone to one side of the field, and a Cover 3 to the other. Basically, a cornerback (a field or boundary corner, depending on the call) will play a flat zone while the apex/nickel corner (or a safety) will drop to the deep third.
Looking forward to how the Chiefs can attack the Chargers defense, it's important to understand what that defense is. LAC is a heavy Cover 3 team (3 deep, 4 under zone) but they will mix up which player takes which assignment. LA runs C3 Cloud/Saint often to get a CB in the flat pic.twitter.com/XllvzKOyc6— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 7, 2018
As we see here, the boundary cornerback is actually in a flat zone — rather than dropping to a deep third — while the safety (the second highlighted player) drops into the deep third.
As the ball is snapped, the quarterback is thinking Cover 3 based on the pre-snap motion that rules out man coverage. So he immediately looks to the vertical route along the boundary to make sure the cornerback is carrying the receiver and then looks to come back underneath to the running back in the flat.
Fortunately for the Chargers, the cloud adjustment means the cornerback can now sit on the flat and be ready to break underneath because there is someone else covering deep — so the quarterback has to look elsewhere. It’s a great adjustment by Chargers to get the same deep safety net, while not allowing the flats to be exploited.
But there still are downsides to this scheme.
Here is the problem with the C3 vs the pass, as the S is dropping deep and the CB is eyeing the flat (carries the WR vertical with no flat threat), that leaves only 3 hook/curl defenders in the MOF. Kelce easily beat the guy keying on him, other hooks are occupied, free YAC. pic.twitter.com/anj0WcEl03— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 7, 2018
As mentioned above, the safety is now the deep-third defender, allowing the cornerback to play the flat but that also means there is one less defender in the middle of the field.
The cornerback is not replacing the safety between the numbers but rather defending outside the numbers which equates to (now) three defenders covering the middle of the field from numbers to numbers. Partially thanks to a great route by Travis Kelce and partially due to the other hook/curl defenders being occupied by the backside routes, there is no chance for LA to stop Kelce on the slant.
What makes it even better for the Chiefs offense is that with the nature of the defense, there is still a ton of open field to run through, and with athletes like Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill, that can spell trouble for the Chargers.
Another weakness of this adjustment in assignments is now a safety is turning and running downfield with vertical routes. They should be in good position to stay over the top but safeties are typically a step below cornerbacks in terms of tracking a ball and turning to run.
A team with the speed the Chiefs have could easily get Hill or Watkins isolated on a safety downfield.
Dominating “light” personnel
The Chargers were very willing to go into their nickel package against 11-personnel by the Chiefs, and on downs that favored the pass, they didn’t hesitate to go with a dime package. Like the Chiefs last year, they tried to assist iffy linebacker play in coverage by using a safety as a linebacker, and the Chiefs were able to take advantage of that in both matchups.
Another way KC found success attacking LA last year was with 11 and 12 personnel. LA was often kicking into the nickel against both personnel groupings, sometimes even dime. With 1-2 Safeties in the box the Chiefs took advantage of this through the run game pretty consistently. pic.twitter.com/XaGEWVdu1s— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 7, 2018
This play is actually against 12-personnel, and the Chargers technically are in a dime sub-package just with two safeties playing like linebackers.
The box already favors the Chiefs blockers, seven blockers to six defenders, but then accounting for the types of players out there it wasn’t even fair. In order to handle the athletic tight ends like Kelce and Demetrius Harris, LA felt uncomfortable sticking with its “base” defense and using LBs to cover or man the zones against them.
Their solution was to run out safeties, but when you have tight ends that can block as well as Kelce and Harris (and potentially Alex Ellis) that spelled trouble.
Showcasing the tight ends as weapons in the passing game over the years should be enough to already introduce this adjustment by LA in Sunday’s game, but if not it, it’s a true pick-your-poison for LA because handling the Chiefs tight ends with linebackers is not a simple task.
Find the space vertically
While a Cover-3 defense’s main goal is to prevent the deep pass and keep everything in front of them, there are still windows both in the intermediate and deep areas.
The first method, which works when a team plays a little more stagnant of a defense like LA does, is to call up route combinations specifically designed to attack their preferred coverage.
For a Cover 3-heavy defense, it’s become quite common to attack a single third defender with multiple vertical routes while occupying the closest help defender.
There are quite a few different route combinations that attack the defense in different ways and a good overview of them can be found in this prelude to the Atlanta Falcons’ preseason game earlier this year (yes, the Patomic Bomb game).
The second way the Chiefs should look to attack this Chargers defense is through play-action.
Everyone knows how special the Chargers’ edge rushers can be, and due to their talent level, they are often green-lighted to attack the quarterback. While good run defenders, they specialize in terrorizing quarterbacks, so they often get upfield quickly and play the run second.
This is what they should do, but it also places a ton of pressure on their linebackers and safeties to fill run gaps that may be widened.
If a team can establish the run or even just flash the big play ability like KC was able to do last year, then those linebackers become trigger-happy to take their read-steps forward without fully reading the entire triangle (offensive line-running back-ball).
LA let's their EDGEs get aggressive after the QB which puts extra pressure on the ILBs to fill vs the run. Establish run game and play-action can easily draw them forward a step turning small windows into big ones. Pair that with the over-nine combo and the boundary CB was done. pic.twitter.com/tCQGX2sAW1— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 7, 2018
That’s exactly what happens here on this completion to Michael Thomas for the Saints. Coming off the play-action, all three linebackers step forward multiple times before identifying the pass and having to scramble back into proper depth. The outside wide receiver runs a clearout seam while Thomas comes from the backside of the formation on the over route to the vacated area.
It’s a similar result to the 7-9 concept in the aforementioned route combo article leading up to the Falcons game that works because there are three potential receivers, including the running back in the flat, attacking two possible defenders.
The bottom line
Intermediate passing lanes like this should be available for the Chiefs (as well as the deep shots to some extent) that weren’t taken advantage of as much last year.
We’ve already seen how deadly the Mahomes-Kelce connection can be on the over/dig and corner routes. These windows should be attacked pretty heavily. As long as the Chiefs can establish a competent run game by abusing the lighter boxes LA will show them, these windows should become pretty apparent and easy to target.
With the inaugural 2018 game just a few days away, one can’t help but overcome with excitement and yet a little bit of nervousness knowing this is the beginning of a new era for the Chiefs.
The good news is that even with a new quarterback at the helm, the Chiefs have found plenty of success attacking this Chargers defense in the past and the addition of Mahomes’ arm should help exasperate that outcome.