On Monday night, the Kansas City Chiefs defense helped out a stagnant offense to close out a 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. When Patrick Mahomes and the offense couldn’t get things going, the Chiefs defense stepped up and won the game.
It was about time.
It wasn’t all good for the defense. There were explosive plays — the defense gave up over 300 yards of offense in the first half — and Chargers running backs that were far too open in the passing game. But turnovers and red zone defense — two of the hallmarks of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense — ended up being the difference.
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 win over the Chargers.
Spagnuolo’s defense gave up many explosive plays against the Chargers, but they did play well in between those plays. Over three of the four quarters, the Chiefs had a defensive success rate over 50%. The only outlier — the second quarter — was only 48%. They played well throughout most of the third and fourth quarters, holding the Chargers under five yards per play and posting a defensive success rate above 60%.
Third downs were one of the keys against the Chargers. The Chiefs came up with a stop on 10 of the Chargers’ 15 third-down attempts. The defense also stood tall in the red zone, allowing just one touchdown in four trips.
Defensive formations - Week 11
|Success||Wk 11 |
|Wk 11 |
|Wk 11 |
The Chargers utilized mostly 11 personnel, but mixed in some 21 personnel with Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon in the game together. Spagnuolo opted to treat that like 11 personnel, staying in his nickel defenses. When Los Angeles opted to put Ekeler in the backfield with three wide receivers and a single tight end, Spagnuolo preferred to counter with a four safety dime formation. This helped put better coverage defenders on the field, but sacrificed run defense. On the whole, it worked out for the Chiefs. Ekeler rushed for just 24 yards on the day — 18 yards coming on a reverse while Gordon was on the field.
Pass rushing - Week 11
|Success||Wk 11 |
|Wk 11 |
|Wk 11 |
Spagnuolo started with a blitz-heavy game plan, sending five or more pass rushers on 42% of Philip Rivers’ dropbacks up to their last possession of the first half. Rivers took advantage of several of these blitzes for big yardage — but as the half went along, he did seem more and more rattled.
In the second half, the Chiefs were less liberal with their blitzes, instead relying on their four-man rush to disrupt Rivers. Spagnuolo’s last blitz came on a 14-yard gain with 14:42 left in the fourth quarter. After that, he rushed four for the rest of the game. That period included two interceptions, a strip sack, and holding Rivers to 86 yards passing in four possessions — 50 of them coming on a single play near the end of the game.
Pass coverages - Week 11
|Success||Wk 11 |
|Wk 11 |
|Wk 11 |
For the first time in several weeks, Spagnuolo opted for a zone-heavy game plan against the Chargers. Rivers was able to find room to throw against the Chiefs’ zone coverage, but the Chiefs largely kept Los Angeles from moving the ball too easily. The Chiefs man defense fared much worse — which is what we would expect with the Chargers’ receiving weapons.
Rivers threw up some gimmies this week, but this one was a fantastic read by Mathieu.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 20, 2019
Spags with the slot-drop Cover 2 FINALLY catches a QB in a mistake. Double in-breaking routes stress the Niemann/Sorensen spacing. Window opens up, Mathieu drives and jumps the route. pic.twitter.com/aG1MI2qwoS
Spagnuolo has been calling this Cover 2 variant all year — just waiting for a quarterback to miss Tyrann Mathieu dropping into a middle-hook zone. He finally saw it come to fruition against the Chargers.
Rivers threw some poor interceptions. Chiefs defensive backs were in position to make the plays — or Rivers simply gift-wrapped them while trying to get out of Frank Clark’s grasp. Mathieu’s interception on this play was neither; it was just a great play to jump the route.
Los Angeles attacked the Chiefs’ hook defenders in coverage, targeting Daniel Sorensen, Ben Niemann, and Anthony Hitchens on 36% of their passing plays.
Here, Rivers sees a Cover 2 look — with widening hook defenders — against two in-breaking routes in the center of the field. Sorensen takes the slot receiver’s route and Niemann sits on the flat. Rivers has the tight end coming open behind Niemann, but is just a hair late while he’s climbing the pocket. That gives Mathieu the time he needs to jump the route and set up the offense in a goal-to-go situation.
LAC knew they could get advantageous matchups against the Chiefs heavy personnel vs their 21p with a FB.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 20, 2019
Chiefs put 8 in the box to stop the run, Rivers gets man coverage ID. Williams runs a slant/pick. Breeland and Ragland don't banjo, and Henry is wide open. pic.twitter.com/nc5TJCuOrd
Early in the game, the Chargers’ scripted plays got the looks they wanted — and they were able to stress the Chiefs linebackers in coverage.
Los Angeles rarely lined up with heavy personnel, but on this play, they lined up in an I-formation. Spagnuolo countered with his base 4-3 personnel — and the Chargers were in business. Reggie Ragland is picked in man coverage; Hunter Henry is wide open beyond the first down marker when Ragland and Bashaud Breeland don’t banjo their coverage responsibilities.
As a game goes along, Spagnuolo will change things to counter offensive tendencies. If the Chargers had gone to this well time after time, adjustments would have been made. But out of the gate, the Chargers knew they could get (and exploit) the looks they wanted — namely, the Chiefs poor coverage linebackers.
Even in light personnel, the Chiefs struggled to limit TE's and RB's this week.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 20, 2019
KC with four safeties on field. LAC once again with the slant/pick, targeting the LB. Chiefs double A gap blitz and kick Kpass out to the flat. Pick gathers Kpass and Ekeler gives Rivers a hot route. pic.twitter.com/ybGy69gQsF
Defensive coordinators don’t send blitzes just to get pressure. They also utilize them to try to keep a running back in the backfield as a pass protector — which means there’s one less route to cover. For a team with linebackers who are poor in coverage, that’s a win. But against the Chiefs blitz, the Chargers didn’t take the bait very often.
On this play, with Ekeler in the backfield, the Chiefs have four safeties on the field. Spagnuolo sends a double A-gap blitz from Hitchens and Sorensen, while dropping Tanoh Kpassagnon into the flat in coverage. It’s a five-man rush that either needs to force the running back to stay in pass protection or get home. Otherwise, the defensive end in coverage becomes exposed.
Unfortunately, another pick play — originally targeting Sorensen, but instead collecting Kpassagnon — lets Ekeler release on a hot route with space to run. A poor tackle by Jordan Lucas allows extra yardage and the Chargers easily make their way into the red zone.
Since the Spagnuolo was hired, I’ve repeatedly stated that he is a gambler; his defenses may allow explosive plays while sending pressure. There were too many of those against the Chargers. Even more disconcerting, the Chargers’ running backs were able to move the ball through the air far too easily against the Chiefs’ lighter personnel. Spagnuolo is still tinkering to try to find the best combination of personnel to match up with running backs in coverage, but hasn’t found much success. He’s beginning to run out of personnel combinations to try.
Something you may have missed
Frank Clark was a monster this week. The plays he made against the pass garnered the majority of the attention, but he showed the return of his power in the run game.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 20, 2019
Time and time again, Clark dominated his tackle, TE's, and wham blocks. Aggression and power in full display pic.twitter.com/DQ8ZhwY7YM
We saw another version of Frank Clark on Monday night. It was the one the Chiefs front office was expecting when they traded for him — and paid him top money. On several occasions, Clark absolutely wrecked Chargers passing plays — and Rivers was hearing Clark’s footsteps throughout the second half.
But what I found most exciting was his ability to utilize strength and power — with both arms — to dominate blockers in the run game. Early in the season, Clark showed he could set a solid edge, but wasn’t showing the same ability to drive blockers (and dominate blocks) that he had in Seattle — which warranted questions about his value in Kansas City.
After a two-week rest, Clark looked significantly closer to the player he was in Seattle — particularly in the run game. Against the Tennessee Titans, he was able to use more of his power to set the edge and stack blockers while also being an effective power pass rusher. But against the Chargers’ poor offensive tackles, he put on a show.
A small handful of times — such as on this play — the Chargers tried to block Clark with a tight end. But each time, he overwhelmed the blocker en route to making the play. Against a tackle, Clark regularly drove the blocker three yards into the backfield before shedding and attacking the ballcarrier.
The Chargers’ blocking may have been poor, but Clark was dominant against them. That’s what good defenders do: dominate a lesser opponent. In the last two weeks, he’s been a different player — and coming off a bye week against a divisional opponent, he has a chance to keep these positive plays rolling.
The bottom line
The Chiefs red zone defense and turnovers won the game over the Chargers.
The Chiefs also gave up far too many yards to the Chargers running backs — along with coverage lapses against Keenan Allen and Mike Williams that racked up big yardage. The Chargers had multiple explosive runs. If they had been been using the run to close out a win, it’s unlikely the defense could have come up with the plays to stop it.
Some feel like this victory is a bit tainted by the overall poor play of the Chargers’ quarterback — and there’s no disputing it: Rivers was bad on Monday night. But the Chiefs defense has played several offenses that weren’t clicking, giving up far too many points in those contests. That didn’t happen on Monday.
With their backs against the wall, it was nice to see the Chiefs defense killing off a game while protecting a one-score lead — not just once or twice, but four times.
Most will remember this game for the
five four interceptions Rivers threw. But I’m hoping that the Chiefs defense will be able to hang their hats on some of the little things they did right in the second half — little things that kept the Chargers at bay on multiple drives.