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How the Chiefs defense beats the Colts rushing offense

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Come down to the Lab to find out how the Chiefs can stop the Colts rushing offense this week.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It’s finally here.

We finally get to see if Patrick Mahomes can lead the Kansas City Chiefs to their first home playoff victory in decades — and of course, it’s against the Indianapolis Colts. It’s time to get the proverbial monkey off the Chiefs’ back.

Most of the angst and concern among Chiefs fans this week comes from their worry about the Chiefs defense. Since the Chiefs had a bye, I’m changing the usual routine for my Advanced Scouting article. This week, we’ll cover the rushing attack and the passing attack in two separate posts, so we can get into a little more detail about what the Colts do, and what the Chiefs can do to stop them.

So let’s dive into the Colts rushing attack and see what the Chiefs can expect this week!

The personnel

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

Leading the way on the ground for the Colts is second year running back Marlon Mack. Mack is a big-play back that can cut on a dime. He’s good at sorting through traffic, and he can explode into his second gear quickly. The Colts do a good job keeping him clean, but his agility and shifty hips can make anybody miss — as shown below.

Nyheim Hines has been the Colts’ primary pass-catching back this season. However, against the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round, he wasn’t targeted and didn’t get a carry. Instead, the Colts leaned on Mack and Jordan Wilkins — a good pass blocker — to shoulder the load.

The Colts utilize two blocking tight ends regularly. With Eric Ebron struggling as a pass blocker this season, Ryan Hewitt and Mo Alie-Cox have seen plenty of snaps on running downs. Alie-Cox is an excellent blocker, and the Colts trust him on the edge to single-block many of the edge setters they’ve faced. Hewitt has been an effective blocker out of the backfield — particularly as a H-back.

In the rushing game, the vaunted Colts offensive line is every bit as good as advertised. Getting center Ryan Kelly back in the lineup last week gave them a big boost in the run game. First-round pick (and first-team All-Pro) left guard Quenton Nelson has garnered most of the accolades for the line this year — and rightfully so. He’s lined up opposite right guard Mark Glowinski, a Seattle Seahawks castoff from a year ago that has resurrected his career on the Indianapolis line. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo has been a constant for the Colts over the last eight years, and Kansas City native Braden Smith — a second-round pick in this past year’s draft — anchors the right side of the line.

How to defend

Zone rushing attack

Every team in the league runs inside zone, but not every team runs it as effectively as the Colts. With powerful straight-line blockers that are athletic enough to climb to the second level — and smart enough to understand the leverage needed in the gap — Indianapolis can boss the center of the field and blow open huge holes for Mack and the Colts running backs to hit.

This play shows us the left guard and center doing a fantastic job to combo-block the two defensive tackles in an over front. Sealing the tackles with the guard/center allows the left tackle and right guard to get inside leverage, and the interior blockers can disengage or drive to the second level to occupy the inside linebackers.

With effective zone blocking like this, the defensive tackles have a tough job trying to help stop the play. Firing off the snap quickly to attack their assigned gap can reduce the ability for offensive linemen to scoop and reset their blocks. This can throw off the timing for the climb to the second level — or in some cases, force a dedicated double up front, leaving the inside linebacker clean — and make it easier for the linebacker to fill the gap and take away the run.

The defensive front can also confuse the blocking scheme by executing stunts and gap exchanges.

The outside zone rules for this play state that the left guard will be responsible for the nose guard, with the center combo-blocking the three-tech. The left tackle will climb to the second level to block the back-side linebacker, giving the running back the option for the cutback to the center of the field.

However, the nose guard works back across the face of the left guard, and the blocking rules fall apart. Nelson is stuck between two minds — simply a rookie mistake — and backup center Evan Boehm doesn’t recognize the gap exchange to down-block on the linebacker. The result that is the back-side linebacker is able to shoot a clean gap to stop the play.

Forcing the issue — and keeping the offensive line on their toes with a few exchanges sprinkled in — can cause half a beat of delay in executing the blocking scheme. If the linebackers can play downhill against the run this week, that small delay can be the difference between a stop and a nine-yard run.

Power rushing attack

As effective as the Colts are in their zone rushing attack, they might be equally as impressive in their power rushing attack. If you have fleet-of-foot maulers that can easily pull and eliminate defenders, you need to take advantage of them — and Indianapolis definitely does it regularly.

As mentioned above, Alie-Cox is a terrific blocking tight end, and the Colts will use him to create some unique matchups against the defense. Here, Allie-Cox is lined up where the left tackle would typically be, and the left tackle is lined up outside the right tackle. This almost assuredly means a run to that side of the field — and sure enough, the Colts pull Nelson from the left guard spot. Allie-Cox just has to seal the bac- side edge.

The offensive line demonstrates fantastic awareness on this play. The linebackers read the pulling guard and both react to step into the gap. Nelson kicks the first linebacker out of the gap, and the inside tackle is able to peel off and clear the other linebacker from the hole — even though the linebacker read it correctly. This leaves a narrow gap for Mack to squeeze through for big yardage.

The Colts do a great job of using a jet motion fake to keep the defenders from attacking quickly on this counter run. The back-side edge has to contain the jet motion, and the linebacker in the A gap has to wait for the handoff to react and attack downhill. This allows the right guard to scoop the linebacker in the A gap and the right tackle to scoop the back-side defensive tackle. Those blocks free up Kelly and Nelson to pull into space while Alie-Cox climbs to the second level. After Nelson seals the edge, Kelly is able to pancake the safety and allow Mack into the third level untouched.

That half-second delay is everything to this play. The blocks take time to develop — and leave an excellent pursuit defender J.J. Watt unblocked — but that extra moment of confusion because the Texans must respect the jet motion allows the Colts to get the job done.

Unlike the zone rushing attack, the power running game leaves natural gaps behind — and attacking players can exploit them. While Watt destroys this play by beating the extra offensive tackle, Jadeveon Clowney’s back-side pursuit in the evacuated A gap likely would have made a play on Mack in the backfield.

Attacking the evacuated space is paramount to the success of the Chiefs defense this week. That’s easier said than done, because the Colts will mix in zone rushing plays, so attacking too aggressively can lead to misdiagnosed gaps, easier reach blocks for the offensive line, and bigger holes for the backs to run through. So identifying the power run and the pulling guard early in the development of the play will be necessary. On top of that, the inside linebackers will have to play more like the players we saw in Week 17 than in Weeks 1-16 — reading their keys quickly and attacking to fill, shoot, and pursue the running back.

The Colts rushing attack is greedy, and I mean that in the best possible way. They know they have a very good line, and they can count on players winning their matchups more often than not. That leads to linemen firing off the snap quickly to get to the second level and counting on pulling blockers to eliminate front side pursuit.

The Chiefs, of course, have good defenders on the edge in Dee Ford and Justin Houston. Longer-developing plays that require a back side offensive lineman to block them are going to be risky for the Colts. Ford’s speed to collapse and slip blocks — as well as Houston’s quick play identification and strength to stack and shed — will challenge the Colts. But the Texans also have good defenders on the edge in Clowney and Watt, and the Colts still ran plenty of power runs to try to seal the edge. We’ll see if they continue that this week, but this is one of the few advantages the Chiefs will have in the run game.

In conclusion

When their offensive line is fully healthy, this Colts rushing attack is quite good. That doesn’t bode well for a struggling Chiefs run defense, but there are still ways that the Chiefs can find success on Saturday.

Mack is very dangerous in the open field, so gaining initial contain will be crucial. Easier reads by the linebackers can help fill the gaps and try to force Mack to take an extra step or two behind the line, allowing the Chiefs superior defensive line and edge players to collapse on the back.

The key word in the run game this week is attack. The Colts’ athletic linemen and nimble backs will destroy any amount of hesitation up front and on the second level. Avoiding hesitation hasn’t been the Chiefs’ forte thus far, but come Saturday, we’ll see if they’ve got a trick or two up their sleeves.

Check back later this week for the Advanced Scout on the Colts passing game!