After three weeks of aggressive play — and pulling their weight — the Kansas City Chiefs defense laid an egg against the Tennessee Titans. Playing against a run-heavy team that lacked the talent they’d faced in previous matchups, the Chiefs found themselves gashed on the ground — and through the air — en route to a loss.
As I do every week, we’ll dive into the numbers to see where the Chiefs showed well and where they didn’t — and we’ll take a look at something good, something bad and something you may have missed from this loss to the Titans.
Steve Spagnuolo’s defense started the day hot. 1.67 yards per play and a 67% defensive success rate in the first quarter helped the Chiefs build a two-score lead over the Titans. But after that, the performance turned sour. The Chiefs struggled to close out both halves and allowed quick scoring drives; three Titans touchdown drives of 60 or more yards took four plays or less.
A silver lining from the defensive performance against the Titans? The Chiefs held Tennessee to negative yardage on third downs. Through 10 weeks of the season, the Chiefs’ third-down defense has been a bright spot.
Defensive formations - Week 10
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Spagnuolo opted to run quite a bit of the dime defense against the Titans. The Chiefs readily went to the dime on second and third-and-long situations throughout the game. In what appeared to be an attempt to make up for the struggles Chiefs linebackers have had in coverage, in the early stages of the game, Spagnuolo chose to put safety Daniel Sorensen in the box next to linebacker Anthony Hitchens. By replacing Damien Wilson with a safety in the nickel, the Chiefs had a lighter box against a run-heavy team.
That lighter box, however, wasn’t the run defense’s biggest problem of the day. The Chiefs base 4-3 defense gave up 122 of Derrick Henry’s 188 rushing yards. With the Chiefs’ heavy personnel on the field, Henry averaged 11.09 yards per carry. Even if you remove Henry’s big play — the 68-yard touchdown run — that still leaves him with an average of 5.4 yards per carry against the base defense. For a team that looked to be turning the corner against the run in the past three weeks, that’s a poor performance.
Pass rushing - Week 10
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Spagnuolo definitely brought the blitz against the Titans, rushing five or more players on 40% of Ryan Tannehill’s dropbacks. Rushing four or blitzing made little difference; the Chiefs were able to get pressure through either method. The Chiefs forced a hurry, a hit or a sack on 40% of Tannehill’s dropbacks.
Pass coverages - Week 10
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The Chiefs man/zone splits were pretty even against the Titans — which was to be expected with the receiving weapons Tennessee possesses. Interestingly enough, the Chiefs struggled in their two-man coverage, only finding success on 33% of those coverage snaps.
Jones' second sack of the day definitely came from good all-around play by the defense.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 12, 2019
Man coverage, DB's on the receiver's hips. FB chips Clark and leaks out to the flat to be picked up by LB. RB in pass pro. Clark forces QB to step up, Nnadi collapses pocket, Jones cleans up. pic.twitter.com/QgFHNqIwhK
The Chiefs have gotten after the quarterback very well over the last month. That continued against the Titans.
Chris Jones has been fantastic in the last two games. He’s played both defensive end and tackle — and hasn’t seen a dip in his pass-rushing productivity. His first sack — forcing a fumble — was phenomenal, and on Frank Clark’s sack, he destroyed an interior offensive lineman with a bull rush.
But his second sack — shown here — should be credited to the entire team. Solid man coverage and pressure from multiple spots — Clark and Derrick Nnadi on this particular snap — led to a big second-down sack. On the next play, the Titans had an incomplete pass, allowing the Chiefs to build a nine-point lead on their next possession.
As of late, Spagnuolo and Brendan Daly are getting more and more pressure with their four-man rush — something they’ll need to do against the dynamic passing teams they could see later this year.
Tough one here. Deep cross combined with a skinny post. Cross gains separation out of break as post is gaining separation. Safety has two WR's coming open along the seams. He takes the crosser, and the post has separation for a big play. If he takes post, crosser is wide open. pic.twitter.com/TOL6BXRG9r— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 12, 2019
Through the air and on the ground, the Titans were able to destroy the Chiefs defense with explosive plays. Tannehill actually averaged a higher number of yards per attempt than Patrick Mahomes did on Sunday — and a good chunk of it came on this play.
The Titans run a fantastic 3-match beater concept, carrying two routes up the seam, breaking in front of (and behind) the single-high safety. This forces the safety to choose the route for which he will give help, leaving the other deep route one-on-one with a cornerback. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, both cornerbacks allow separation on the break — and both routes need safety help.
Jordan Lucas sees Morris Claiborne’s receiver on the deep crosser in front of him with plenty of separation, so he begins to drive on that route — around the same time Charvarius Ward’s receiver breaks to the middle of the field and creates a lot of separation. Lucas sees Tannehill loading up and tries to get deep to help Ward, but he’s unable to assist.
It’s a concept designed to stress an inexperienced deep safety, but the stress is compounded when both cornerbacks allow far too much separation. If Lucas stays on top of the skinny post, the deep crosser is wide open — possibly for a touchdown. Unfortunately, Lucas is sitting square without enough depth; even if he had tried, he might not have even been able to stay on top of the post.
It was a lose-lose situation that needed all three defenders to show better than they did.
The giant TD run. Line slant takes full advantage of linebacker overpursuit. Frontside defense of Clark, Wilson, and Nnadi builds a wall. Ivie gets sealed while Jones is watching for a PA bootleg and can't squeeze. Ragland and Hitchens sucked in, Thornhill misses the tackle. pic.twitter.com/qQvnb1jjWq— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 12, 2019
After three consecutive weeks of gap-sound run defense, against the Titans, it all came crashing down.
For large portions of the game, Chiefs linebackers and defensive linemen struggled to maintain their run fits. Over-pursuits were common, as were shallow angles to the gap. Defensive linemen were once again getting blown off the line; linebackers were once again too patient at the second level. To make matters worse, the unit’s tackling reverted to what we saw during the rough patches at the beginning of the year.
Defensive tackle Mike Pennel was made inactive in favor of Joey Ivie — a decision likely made based on an expectation the Chiefs would hold a bigger lead, and would therefore need more pass rushing from the defensive line. Instead, one of the Chiefs’ better run defenders during the last two weeks was left standing in street clothes as the Titans ripped off big run after big run.
There’s not much to say about Sunday’s run defense that wasn’t said during the first six weeks of the season; it was poor in a matchup that required it to be anything but poor. This team has to hope that the Titans game was an anomaly — not a reversion.
Something you may have missed
Good combination of concepts late in the game here.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 12, 2019
Cover 2 by dropping Fenton deep with Mathieu as the robber to take away the boundary vertical. Up front, Tanoh and Jones execute a TEX stunt and Clark beats his man inside. Lots of pressure forces air under the ball for an INC. pic.twitter.com/u06swqrbHz
I’ve highlighted the Chiefs defense dropping their slot cornerback into a deep zone before, but the Chiefs haven’t run it nearly as much in Kendall Fuller’s absence. In a late-game situation where they needed to come up with a stop, Spagnuolo called for it once again — this time with a TEX stunt up front between Jones and Tanoh Kpassagnon.
Due to the secondary rotation, Tannehill has to hold on to the ball an extra beat to wait for the coverage to shake out so he can find the opening in which to throw. That extra beat allows the stunt to get home, forcing Tannehill to put a little extra air under the ball — which allows Rashad Fenton to locate it in flight and make a play.
A special shout-out to Titans right tackle Jack Conklin, who gets away with holding Clark, which likely saved a sack — and potentially a fumble — on this crucial play late in the fourth quarter.
The bottom line
The Chiefs defensive performance against the Titans was simply not good enough. A run-heavy team with a backup-level quarterback and mediocre weapons beat up the Chiefs.
Which team is the real Chiefs defense?
There really isn’t much to break down for the Chiefs defense on Sunday. They just weren’t the same team we’d seen over the past month of the season. They lacked the aggression, intensity and discipline we’d come to enjoy. If they can’t rekindle that intensity with Patrick Mahomes at the helm, then Sunday is likely to be a preview of what’s to come for the end of this season.
We’ll see if the looming Monday Night Football game against the
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers gives us any more answers. But in the meantime, we’ll all be wondering: will the real Chiefs defense please stand up?