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Chiefs vs. Colts: How the Chiefs offense beats Indianapolis’ pass defense

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Come down into the AP Lab to find out how the Chiefs will exploit the Colts pass defense.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In a little bit of a curveball this week, our advanced scouting article is going to focus specifically on one aspect of the offense-defense matchup rather than the entire unit’s.

The Kansas City Chiefs are hosting the Indianapolis Colts this Saturday, and it has all the potential to be a high-scoring affair. The Colts gave up only seven points to the Houston Texas in their wild card matchup.

The Colts defense is catching fire in the national media for “bringing back the Tampa 2/Cover 2” defense and playing better than its individual parts. This is technically true—the Colts defense is out-performing the talent on a position-by-position basis and they do run quite a bit of split safety defense.

The exaggeration is coming with how effective it has been: looking at stats, the Colts defensive success against “good” quarterbacks and offenses has been minimal. The question thus becomes this:

Did the Colts figure something out leading into these playoffs or did they just happen to have the perfect game plan against the right team?

To find the answer, let’s go down to the basement of the Arrowhead Pride complex and slide our way into the AP Laboratory.

Colts defense

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Personnel

With the emphasis on the Colts pass defense, the focus will mostly be on their nickel (base) and dime packages rather than the base (heavy) personnel groupings. The Colts pass rush is a rotation of guys, led by Margus Hunt and Denico Autry, who both have high motors and are most effective on stunts and twists.

The Colts’ one-on-one pass-rush ability is very limited, but it’s a group that will prey on poor offensive linemen switches and communication.

At the second and third level, the Colts have an extremely athletic linebacker in Darius Leonard, who allows them to stay in a nickel package more often than dime, especially with a zone-heavy attack. Next to Leonard is Anthony Walker, who is solid in coverage and will run the deep hole in their Tampa 2 but will come off the field for the dime package.

At defensive back, the Colts are consistent in playing three corners and two safeties the majority of the snaps.

Scheme

The Colts’ pass rush is very much one that is schemed to get pressure. Whether it be overload blitzes, mush rushes (containing and shrinking the pocket), long/short stunts,or corner blitzes, the Colts avoid one-on-one pass-rushing matchups. They gave the Texans offensive line fits with these blitzes and stunts, but few teams have an offensive line as bad as the Texans.

As for their coverage, it’s no secret the Colts play a ton of Cover 2, including an old favorite in the NFL—the Tampa 2. Cover 2 is a spot drop zone that consists of two safeties playing deep halves of the field and the five underneath players in various hook/curl and flat zones. Tampa 2 is almost identical—only a linebacker (often on the strength of the passing formation) will drop into the deep hole, which is located just underneath but between the two safeties.

The Colts don’t remain exclusively in these spot-drop Cover 2 variants, like any NFL team. They still play man coverage at times, will drop a deep safety in a low-hole position and play Cover 1 Robber and will also play some 2-Read coverage (more on this later).

Game plan

Take what is given

The Colts defense operates on a simple, age-old philosophy: “Don’t get beat deep and attack downhill in front of you.”

The Cover 2 plays perfectly into this, as the Colts’ hook zones are often near the sticks, even on first-and-10. They are challenging teams to hit the short pass often, while relying on their athletic defenders to make the tackle.

Playing with a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, this won’t sound sexy, but the Chiefs should take the quick checks, slants or crossing routes early in the game. Take the four to five yards and force Indy defenders to make the tackle. Stay ahead of the sticks and force those hook defenders to start to creep up or get “paper cut to death,” Brady style.

Play-action and retreating defenders

It’s a broken record at this point, but Andy Reid is great at designing play-action screens. The Colts, with the zone-heavy and aggressive vs the run defense, have a weakness to it.

Off the run action, the Colts’ players take their run steps, then when they identify the pass, are forced to scramble and retreat to their zone. Zone coverage after the initial run steps is forcing them to recover to their “spots,” especially as receivers are flashing towards their zones.

Upon seeing the run action, all three second-level players are moving toward the run but read their keys properly and recognize a pass. The issue is all three have to turn their back to the ball to retreat to their zone. When the ball is being thrown to the running back on the screen, there is zero pursuit from the middle of the field or back side of the formation.

The Chiefs don’t even have to establish the run for play-action to work (shoutout to anyone that got to read the fun Bucky Brooks and PFF Steve Twitter showdown) but especially dialing up these play-action screens to running backs or tight ends should catch the Colts off balance.

Formations to beat the Cover 2

The two alignments the Chiefs could use to pressure the Colts coverage preference are the tight alignment and 3x1 sets.

The tight alignments are just referencing having the receivers lined in close to the offensive line. This is something you see often against man coverage, as it creates natural rub routes.

What they can also do against split safety coverage is give the option to flood deep zones from the strong and weak side of the formation. I’m not a fan of the two-and-a-half-man route concept, but the seam with the deep over route is pressuring the same half of the field deep. The play side safety is conflicted, having to decide roll down to protect the over or stay deep and squeeze the seam route.

A poor throw affects the success of the play, but the Chiefs can use less max protection and hold the underneath defenders better resulting in the same conundrum for the Colts safeties.

Whether Tampa 2 or Cover 2, the 3x1 formations (also called Trips) pressures zone defenses by prematurely flooding one part of the field/zone coverage.

A spread offense staple is attaching a “choice” route to the back side of this formation, which means the X wide receiver on the back side of the play is reading leverage of the defensive back and running either a Comeback, Nine, or Post route.

Against Cover 2 variants, if the middle of the field is pressured from the strong side of the formation, the back-side post will almost always be open. That is, unless both linebackers drop into the deep hole.

The Colts will adjust and have the deep safety play closer to the line of scrimmage at times on the backside of these 3x1 sets to take away that post route, but the glory of the “choice” concept is that the WR reads that and takes the route vertical.

It’s not all static.

The Colts do mix up their Cover 2 at times and run two-read variants and even that is more of a combination of match and spot-drop zone. The linebcakers and apex defenders often still play to spots while the outside cornerbacks are reading the No. 2 wide receiver to their side of the field. The concept is the outside cornerbacks are playing the hook/flat on the boundary unless the nearest slot wide receiver goes vertical, in which case they transition to man coverage (MEG) on the outer-most wide receiver.

This is more precautionary rather than something to specifically attack, but every time the Chiefs want to run a Cover 2 beater it won’t always be wide open despite it playing out like Cover 2.

On this play, since the No. 2 receiver goes vertical, the outside cornerback is in man coverage on the No. 1 receiver to his side. The No. 2/slot receiver takes the safety away on a post route and the cornerback has the entire half of the field to defend against the receiver.

It is essentially pure man coverage at this point, but with the process of having to read the slot receiver, the cornerback doesn’t get to focus purely on his man until mid-way through the route stem. The cornerback bites on the double move and is beaten over the top with no help in sight.

Colts will disguise coverage

It’s been going around late in the week but the Colts’ most complex aspect of their defense is how well they fooled the Texans by disguising their zone coverage.

They gave man-to-man keys pre-snap by following receivers in motion and placing safeties and linebackers out wide only to run zone.

All the keys pre-snap are indicating man coverage, yet the Colts drop into a basic Tampa 2 coverage and it results in an interception.

Instead of focusing on the play that occurred, the focus is on two route concepts the Chiefs could use to exploit the coverage.

Both routes have Tampa 2 beating concepts, as well as man-beating concepts rolled into one play, and both force the boundary linebacker to play a perfect hook/flat zone in a Cover 2.

The theme with both plays is a middle linebacker in man coverage or carrying the No. 3 receiver—Travis Kelce, perhaps—vertically with minimal help. This isn’t a staple for the Colts, but rather just something to note, and the Chiefs should be expected to have something ready for it in their back pocket.

The bottom line

At the end of the day, this Colts offense is set up for the Chiefs to find success based upon their skill players and Mahomes talent.

The hangup will be the Chiefs’ 100 percent commitment to attacking the Colts’ rare (in today’s NFL) defensive tendencies and not relying purely on skill and talent.