This Kansas City Chiefs defense might be on to something.
For the third week in a row, a depleted Chiefs defense had to come out and make stops to help Matt Moore and the Kansas City offense. Against a Minnesota Vikings offense that was ranked in top ten in both points and yards, they did just that.
Chris Jones’ return helped to spark a terrific performance by the Chiefs defense. They were able to start (and finish) the game strong with back-to-back three-and-outs. The final stop made all the difference, allowing the Chiefs offense to get the ball back with just under two minutes left in the game.
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 victory over the Vikings.
For just the second time this year, Steve Spagnuolo’s defense had a success rate greater than 60% in every quarter of a game. The 2018 Chiefs defense didn’t achieve that even once. In 2018, the defense had a 50% success rate for an entire game only once — the Week 10 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.
The defensive transformation has come on early downs, with the Chiefs finding more and more success to put themselves ahead of the sticks. On the season, the defense has done fairly well on third down plays. But lately, they’re finding themselves in more and more of them — and finding more success on third and long. For the season, the Chiefs defense has limited offenses to a paltry 25% conversion rate on third-and-5 or longer.
Defensive formations - Week 9
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A wrinkle appeared against the Vikings in the form of the Quarters defense! We’ll touch on that more a little later.
Against the Vikings, the Chiefs were in their base defense on 56% of snaps. That’s more than usual — but it shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Minnesota leads the league in the usage of heavy personnel. What was surprising, however, was how successful the Chiefs base defense was against Minnesota’s heavy 12, 21, and 22 personnel. The 4-3 over front — which before to the Vikings game, had been one of the Chiefs worst-performing alignments — had a 74% success rate against a very good running team.
Pass rushing - Week 9
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Perhaps the biggest surprise against Minnesota was how little Spagnuolo’s blitzed. Knowing that the Vikings would lean on their screen game, Spagnuolo instead chose to rush four for the vast majority of the game, forcing Kirk Cousins to beat him after a rough start in which he missed several receivers.
The four-man rush still generated plenty of pressure, with the Chiefs sacking or hurrying Cousins on 11 of his dropbacks. With a depleted pass rush, that’s a fantastic number.
Pass coverages - Week 9
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Spagnuolo leaned pretty heavily on two-read coverage to counter the number of bubbles and flats that Minnesota ran. By and large, the strategy worked, keeping the Vikings’ passing game in check.
The Chiefs did run some split-field coverages against Minnesota, rolling a safety over the top of Stefon Diggs while playing zone underneath with the opposite side of the field playing man coverage. This wrinkle had Cousins pulling down on some of his early reads, and also forced some inaccurate passes.
KC's run D resurgence has come from good gap discipline and overall execution, but Derrick Nnadi deserves a massive amount of credit up front.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 5, 2019
Wilson mugging the A gap gets Nnadi 1v1 on the RG. Nnadi gets to half man while driving the RG back to the handoff and forces the TFL. pic.twitter.com/K71EM6qK2z
After warranted hand-wringing and discussion about the poor run defense during the first six weeks of the season, the Chiefs have posted a stellar 3.68 yards per rush from Week 7 through Week 9.
While plenty of credit can go to Anthony Hitchens for his on-field adjustments — and making sure everybody stays gap-sound — the biggest impact against the running game has come from the Chiefs’ interior defensive linemen. Derrick Nnadi, Mike Pennel, and Khalen Saunders have been a revelation against the run, anchoring against double-teams and beating singles to come up with big stops.
Nnadi was particularly dominant against the Vikings, beating the interior of the Minnesota offensive line with overwhelming power. He found himself driving the center and guards well into the backfield, disrupting plays on a regular basis — much like in this play.
When the Vikings were attempting to close out the game late in the fourth quarter, they tried to lean on their excellent rushing offense. Nnadi and the rest of the front stepped up in a big way to get the ball back to the offense and prevent the clock from running further.
One week after some questionable empty checks, the Chiefs defense shored up the call several times, including this zero blitz.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 5, 2019
21p, RBs shift out wide. Ward kicks out, Thornhill rotates over the top, and Ragland shifts down to blitz. Quick throw forced against good coverage. pic.twitter.com/cYOv2dhf0j
Spagnuolo does not take much time to adjust his game plans.
One week after the Chiefs linebackers were exposed in coverage due to Green Bay’s empty checks, Spagnuolo altered his game plan to account for the Vikings’ dynamic running backs — without leaving the linebackers on an island. This usually resulted in Chiefs linebackers being in coverage against tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith — rather than running backs Dalvin Cook or Ameer Abdullah.
Against Green Bay, the Chiefs defense gave up 16 yards per play against empty formations with a 33% success rate. Against Minnesota, they gave up three yards per play with an 80% success rate.
Hitchens was visibly changing the calls, moving players around and making sure everybody understood which receivers defenders were responsible for covering. Spagnuolo wasn’t lying when he said he needed to put his guys in better position on those checks; the coaches obviously hammered that point home leading up to the Minnesota game.
A bit of a mix-up on the back end on this TD. Wilson bails to more of a "Tampa 2" role from the weakside over the top of Hitchens. Claiborne bites on the TE inside release. One of the two was supposed to pick up the flat, and neither does. Wide open TD. pic.twitter.com/z58aNbiHYV— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 5, 2019
As the Chiefs were running some split-field coverages this week to account for Diggs, there were bound to be some mix-ups in the calls on the field. This is one of them.
The Vikings are in a 3x1 alignment with an attached tight end to the boundary. Morris Claiborne stays in man coverage on the tight end throughout the in-breaking route, while Damien Wilson bails to the deep middle of the field. Nobody picks up the running back in the flat, and it’s an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown.
In most match coverage rules, Claiborne would be covering the tight end everywhere he goes. That would leave Wilson to cover the running back in the flat. However, against 3x1, Spagnuolo has had the cornerback sit on the flat with a safety over the top often enough that it can’t be discounted as the problem here — especially with Wilson dropping to the goal line in the middle of the field.
Either way, the Chiefs blew this one — and it cost them points. They’ll have a teaching moment in the film room during the week.
Something you may have missed
Spags countered some 21p looks on third down this week with a 4-0 quarter formation -- removing the off-ball linebackers and replacing them with safeties for their coverage ability.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 5, 2019
KC had 4 safeties (Mathieu, Thornhill, Sorensen, Lucas) on the field with 3 CB's and 4 DL. pic.twitter.com/s6GyRuQpjd
The Chiefs linebackers in pass coverage are still a concern.
In recent weeks, Spagnuolo has fielded a slower set of linebackers to help stop the run — and it’s been a very positive outcome. But he’s still tinkering with the best personnel to stop the pass in situations where a running back is likely to get the ball in the passing game.
One of the personnel groupings he put out against the Vikings was a 4-0 quarter formation like the one shown here. With four safeties and three cornerbacks on the field, Spagnuolo goes very light in a third-and-5 situation — especially since the defense is facing 21 personnel. But by keeping safeties in the box to match up against running backs, Spagnuolo is putting speed on the field to counter them.
The play itself resulted in a penalty that backed up the Vikings — and the Chiefs reverted to their dime personnel. But this might be a hint of things we’ll see in certain situations going forward.
The bottom line
After the first six weeks of the season, there were legitimate questions about this defense. They looked soft. They were disorganized. Many wondered if this was a repeat of the final Bob Sutton years.
These last three games have shown that this defense is making major strides forward. It’s not perfect — against Green Bay, it had plenty of flaws, some of which the Vikings tried to exploit — but it can hold its own when needed. After yet another deep turnover that resulted in a touchdown, the defense came up with back-to-back stops that allowed the offense to reclaim the lead. After another touchdown drive, two more defensive stops helped close out the game. When all was said and done, the Chiefs defense forced a punt on eight of the Vikings’ 12 drives. Going forward, that’ll play.
What’s even more impressive is the work Spagnuolo and his coaching staff have done during this stretch. Injuries have forced unexpected players into major roles. Khalen Saunders went from a rookie that ran with the third team — and struggled to make an impact — to an impactful defender in the middle of the defensive line. Mike Pennel went from a journeyman defensive tackle picked up from the street to a strong presence against the run. Chris Jones moved to defensive end in the base defense — and was able to make a major impact — despite barely playing in that role before this game.
The improvement has extended to the secondary as well, with Charvarius Ward playing his best game of the season against Minnesota — and rookie Rashad Fenton giving the team quality snaps. All of the sudden, the group looks more cohesive and prepared — and despite a heavy rotation, communication lapses are becoming rarer.
This coaching staff is getting more out of these players than most thought they would — and the defense is getting healthier. That alone should inspire some confidence in what they can do going forward. However, the aggression and intensity we wanted to see in this defense is very much present in the squad right now.
In Patrick Mahomes’ absence, the Chiefs might have found something on defense — and it might just be the thing that gets them over the hump moving forward.