The Kansas City Chiefs defense is on a hot streak.
Fresh off two divisional wins, the Chiefs traveled to face the New England Patriots in a chance to close the gap on a first-round bye. For most of the day, the Chiefs defense played good football and had a great game plan to slow down a limited Patriots offense.
It’s nice to see this defense growing under Steve Spagnuolo, and it’s always nice to beat Tom Brady at home. Each week, I typically break down the numbers and show success rate for various scenarios. However, I’m changing it up this week. Instead of the normal format, I wanted to dive deeper into some of the things I saw and talk in more depth about the plan on the field this week.
I still have the numbers, and I’m willing to share with anyone who wants them, so feel free to ask. With that said, let’s get right to it!
This series of blitzes in the second quarter were phenomenal by Spagnuolo. Overloading the left side of the line and forcing the RB to block two rushers on 2nd down, sim pressure double stunt on third down, and slot overload blitz on 4th down. Fantastic rhythm and disruption. pic.twitter.com/7oh76HsavP— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 10, 2019
Spagnuolo made Brady very uncomfortable in the pocket all day with his pressure packages. He brought heat from everywhere, simulated pressures and ran games up front with his lineman to get free looks. The Patriots offensive line was reeling for most of the day, and that resulted in inaccuracies and poor play from Brady.
The stretch of plays shown above is a microcosm of Spagnuolo’s work in the blitz game against the Patriots. In the second quarter, with the Chiefs protecting a 10-point lead, the Patriots were in Kansas City territory. The three consecutive plays — second, third, and fourth downs — had Spagnuolo bringing blitzes from three different spots on the field. This varied pressure had Brady hearing footsteps for most of the day, and it resulted in some inaccurate throws and forced throwaways that got the defense off the field.
Early in the season, I fielded several questions about when Spagnuolo was actually going to put his stamp on the defense. There were some that thought he was no better than 2018 Bob Sutton. The last several weeks should help show one of Spagnuolo’s hallmarks — dynamic pressure and forcing mistakes by the quarterback. He put on a show against the Patriots, and that pressure is arguably the reason why the Chiefs were able to win the game.
The 4th down Brady scramble at the end of the game was because Spags had White and Edelman both doubled, leaving a 3 man rush. Coverage is great on the back end, but hard to keep rush lanes with three rushers. Brady sees the opening and is able to pick up the first. pic.twitter.com/ubqeHnNmJn— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 10, 2019
The Patriots moved the ball through trick plays and some pass interference calls, so the Chiefs defense didn’t have too much to highlight in the “bad” section this week. Even the above play is more of a nitpick than a truly poor performance.
On fourth-and-7, Spagnuolo made sure to double Julian Edelman and James White — Brady’s best weapons. Doubling Edelman with a safety was common throughout the game, but Spagnuolo released Alex Okafor into the flat with Ben Niemann to double White. This left a three-man rush on a “gotta-have-it” down in the middle of the field. Chris Jones got outside of his rush lane and left an opening — very easy to do with a three-man rush — and Brady was able to step up through the pocket to run for the first down.
I saw a lot of anger directed at this play in the moment. It was lacking in execution up front, and Spagnuolo’s choice to drop Okafor can certainly be questioned. However, the coverage was good on this play and Brady was still able to leak out and make something happen with his feet. Sometimes, the offense is simply able to counter a small mistake on an otherwise good play.
Something you may have missed
Breeland INT was 6 SKATE, not man coverage.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 10, 2019
Skate call on motion to 3x1 means weak CB is MEG on #1, strong CB is man ONLY on vertical. Edelman releases under LB depth. Hitchens collisions #3 and works back to #1. Ragland collision #2. Breeland zone over #2 to jump the route. pic.twitter.com/ht2JMNeo3i
While we all remember Bashaud Breeland’s interception off of Brady, the broadcast team identified it as a misplayed coverage and a “lucky” interception. While Tony Romo is typically very good at identifying what he’s seeing, he unfortunately misdiagnosed this one in real time — an understandable situation, given that he likely only saw the wide view of the play once.
Romo called it man coverage, but it was actually a Cover 3 pattern matching shell called by Spagnuolo that Nick Saban classifies as “Cover 6 Skate.” Saban uses the terms Cover 3 and Cover 6 to identify which side of the field the safety is rotating down toward. In Cover 3, the safety is rotating toward the passing strength of the formation. Cover 6 — as shown above — has the safety rotating down away from the passing strength of the formation against a 2x2 formation.
Another wrinkle occurs when the offense lines up in an unbalanced formation, such as the 3x1 formation that the Patriots motion into before the snap. In that situation a “Skate” or “Mable” call occurs. These calls tell the defense to push zone coverage to the passing strength of the formation, leaving the weak-side cornerback in man coverage against the isolated receiver. A “Mable” call signifies to rotate a safety to the passing strength, while a “Skate” call signifies rotation away from the passing strength — similar to a Cover 3/6 call against a balanced formation.
With the zone coverage pushed to the passing strength, the rules change for the coverage defenders on that side of the field. The apex defender — in this case, Reggie Ragland — is responsible for carrying the No. 2 receiver vertically to a deep zone defender. Anthony Hitchens is the hook defender, and he is responsible for outside releases from the No. 3 receiver, passing off anything underneath to the backside hook defender.
Meanwhile, the cornerback is responsible for carrying anything the strong No. 1 receiver releases vertically. If the No. 1 receiver releases inside in front of the linebackers, the cornerback gains depth in a zone taking the No. 2 receiver vertical. That’s precisely what Breeland does on this play. As Edelman releases underneath, Breeland opens to carry the No. 2 — undercut by Ragland — up his corner route. Brady misidentifies the coverage call and lofts the ball on the corner route, thinking his tight end has easily beaten Ragland. Breeland undercuts the route and comes up with the interception.
We simply didn’t see this level of communication in previous years with the Chiefs secondary. Whether it be predictable coverage schemes or defenders not holding their correct responsibilities, there were far too many receivers that were wide open for easy yardage. I’ve stressed all year that Spagnuolo is placing his secondary in the right spots and giving them opportunities to make plays — like the one Breeland made above. Spagnuolo has done a phenomenal job of getting the most out of his secondary this season, and his secondary has done a phenomenal job of executing the game plan.
The bottom line
This game really felt like the culmination of the efforts of Spagnuolo’s Chiefs defense. Throughout the year, there’s always been a “yeah, but” to the games that the defense played well. Whether that be the quality of opponent, the run game letting them down or allowing explosive plays that let the opposition hang in the game, there was always something that was a major concern in each outing.
This performance wasn’t like that. Sure, there were some penalties that need to be cleaned up. They also bit on some of the trick plays that New England pulled out of their proverbial hats. But that’s what the Patriots needed just to hang in the game — despite an interception, a fumble and a blocked punt going their way. The opposition pulled out all of the stops, and they still weren’t able to sustain drives or put points on the board.
It’s not just the execution, either. This defense has found their identity over the past three games, and they’ve fully embraced it. Tom Brady stood face-to-face with Chris Jones, trying to show the Chiefs defense that New England wouldn’t back down. The result was Brady lying on the field at Gillette Stadium time and time again — and Jones, Frank Clark, and Tyrann Mathieu letting him know it. This attitude that the defense is carrying is a reflection of those three, the leaders in the Chiefs locker room. They don’t want to play second fiddle to an Andy Reid offense, and over the past month, they haven’t.
The quotes and pictures that came out of the locker room that night were not sighs of relief for clinching a playoff berth or the division. Sure, there was excitement that they came in and snapped the Patriots’ 21-game home winning streak. But there was confidence and swagger brimming from that locker room. A 10-pound-lighter, flu-ridden version of Frank Clark held court, reminding everyone that this wasn’t the goal. They still weren’t satisfied with where they were as a team. Chris Jones and others echoed that sentiment.
Reid pulled out his AFC West Divisional Championship shirt that read “The West Is Not Enough.” He threw it up into the air and let it hit the floor. It’s not enough, and Andy wants more. And for the first time in a little bit, it feels like his defense has an aggressiveness and attitude that can back that up.
After Spagnuolo’s game plan against the Patriots, maybe we should all feel that sort of confidence.