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How Tyrann Mathieu impacts the Chiefs defense: versatile to the highest degree

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The Honey Badger fits everywhere in Kansas City’s defense.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Veach landed a big defensive fish on Monday — signing free agent safety Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million dollar. Coming off of a good year with the Houston Texans, Mathieu was coveted by his former team, reportedly losing a bidding war with the Chiefs.

Entering his seventh year in the league, the 26-year-old safety they call “Honey Badger” has been a playmaker for the Arizona Cardinals and the Texans. He’s chalked up 49 passes defensed, 7.0 sacks, 33 tackles for loss and a whopping 13 interceptions in his six-year career — three of which have ended prematurely due to injury.

He’s been quite the leader on and off the field for both of the organizations of which he has been a part. His most recent stint with the Texans earned him praise as both a football player and a leader, as this article from the Houston Chronicle details:

Simply mention Mathieu to Bill O’Brien and the Texans coach acknowledges that the sixth-year defender “means the world to me.”

“I just think that the guy — in addition to being a really good, tough football player — he’s a very bright guy, he cares about his teammates, he’s been through a lot in his life,” O’Brien said. “He has no fear. He brings a great attitude every single day to the locker room, and he’s been a great addition to our team.”

In the span of a few months, he went from a free agent looking for a one-year deal to a crucial part of a locker room and an exemplary leader on a defense that (don’t forget) already boasts JJ Watt.

The Texans wanted him back, but he wanted to play for a ring.

What does he bring on the field? Namely, versatility, speed and aggressiveness that has been sorely lacking for the Chiefs defense over the past two years. Let’s walk through some of the things Mathieu does well and how he can match up with Steve Spagnuolo’s defense.

Run defense

One of the immediate questions I saw upon the signing announcement was whether or not Mathieu had lost some of his athleticism through injuries and age. I’m here to tell you that he decidedly has not.

With the Indianapolis Colts in 13 personnel, Mathieu drops into a split-safety look as the Colts get some pin and pull blocking on the outside zone run. After getting depth on his pedal, Mathieu reads his keys and attacks downhill from 15 yards deep. The run gets strung along, and as the back finally clears the defenders, Mathieu has taken a great angle with speed to meet him at the line of scrimmage.

The Chiefs defense sorely lacked this range in 2018, as too often, the safeties would wait for the play to come to them or seek out blocks. This attacking mentality and range will be a huge boon when Mathieu plays deep.

Despite his size — 5 feet 9, 190 pounds — Mathieu is a good box safety against the run. His high football IQ, speed and lateral agility help him to slip blocks and attack the back from intelligent angles.

On the above play from two years ago, Mathieu is directing traffic pre-snap and identifies the toss sweep immediately. He attacks upfield as a force defender and pushes the running back to attempt to cut back into the teeth of the defense. Mathieu shows the ability to stop on a dime and explode laterally toward the running back for a tackle for loss.

He wasn’t just content to force the back into the defense; he attacked and made a big play. Spagnuolo’s scheme in the past has featured the box safety, putting him in ideal positions to make plays and impact the game. In the run game, Mathieu shows an outstanding ability to make that impact despite his atypical size. His ability to get to the spot and make life more difficult on blockers will be a boon to Spagnuolo’s run fits when doing game preparations each week.

Coverage

With how poorly the Chiefs safeties performed last year, everyone should be happy to know that Mathieu is a more than capable coverage defender. Starting in the box, Mathieu has a quick trigger and good instincts.

After initially robbing the clearout from the tight end, Mathieu spots the fake and moves laterally to kick out into the flat. As the screen begins to develop, he clicks and closes toward the running back — well before the offensive linemen can disengage and get out into space as blockers. He beats the blocker to the spot and absolutely lights up the back. This dislodges a bobbled pass, resulting in an incompletion. It is a very physical reminder that Mathieu isn’t afraid to get downhill in a hurry to make the ballcarrier pay.

Mathieu’s physicality doesn’t just show up coming downhill in the flats. He will make you think twice about coming over the middle with him in a robber role.

On third down, the Texans are in a Cover 1 Robber look with a post-snap rotation into the robber by Mathieu. As the slot receiver runs a dig just short of the sticks, Mathieu sits on the route, sees the pass coming and drives on the ball at the catch point. He bodies the receiver off the route, forcing an incompletion and a physical play.

While Mathieu can get high-pointed by bigger receivers, his leaping ability helps him to play bigger than his listed size. It shows up in a big way on this snap, with the Texans in a Cover 2 look and Mathieu playing as a weak apex on this fourth down play.

He showcases a low, quick backpedal to gain depth to the sticks. Upon identifying no underneath route in his zone, he flips his hips to rob the tight end underneath. Baker Mayfield attempts to drop a pass over the shorter defensive back, but Mathieu is up to the task and gets a hand on the ball to force a turnover on downs.

Mathieu isn’t just a zone defender — he’s a quality man coverage defender as well. Against Eric Ebron, one of the NFL’s best tight ends in 2018, Mathieu showcases the speed and route awareness from man to make this play.

From off-man, Mathieu reads not only Ebron’s stem, but also the boundary receiver and the running back’s releases as well. Even before the tight end breaks on the out route, Mathieu is driving on it. He stays in phase all the way to the sideline, making for an easier pass breakup at the boundary.

From a coverage standpoint, Mathieu shows a fantastic ability to read the route distribution and react to it quickly. His speed and nose for the ball compliment his ability to put himself in the right place. Furthermore, he’s got the agility to play in the box, the footwork and instincts to play in the slot and the range to play deep. That makes him a supremely versatile coverage defender for Spagnuolo in 2019.

Blitzing

If you’re a defensive back for Spagnuolo, you’re going blitz. It’s just a fact of the defense, and it will happen regularly to generate pressure from unconventional areas of the field. Fortunately for the Chiefs, Mathieu is an exceptional blitzer.

With his quick acceleration, he waits until later in the play clock to blitz. That limits the quarterback’s ability to identify the blitz pre-snap and shift protection and also prevents the offensive line and running back from being able to kick out to pick him up on the blitz.

As often as Spagnuolo likes to utilize his defensive backs as blitzers, he has to be salivating at the chance to implement Mathieu into his pressure packages next year.

NFL: Houston Texans at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The bottom line

The name of the game for Mathieu is versatility.

The ability to play all over the Chiefs secondary will open up the playbook for Spagnuolo. Pattern matching coverages requiring high IQ safeties that can carry a receiver all over the field are in play. Run fits that need an agile, quick safety to help funnel back inside are definitely in play.

And a tone-setter and leader on and off the field? Oh yeah, Mathieu fits that mold.

If the Chiefs do decide to retain Eric Berry, Mathieu has the range to fit on the back end as a free safety and he can still kick down into the slot on a matchup-by-matchup basis. If the Chiefs decide to part ways with Berry this offseason as a June 1 cut to free up some extra 2019 cap space, Mathieu would fill into that playmaker box safety role admirably. Either way, they could address the opposite position in the draft and know that they’re getting a leader and a mentor in Mathieu that they can entrust a young player to develop behind or alongside.

Whatever direction this team decides to go in 2019 and beyond, they’re in good, versatile hands.

KC Draft Guide

Speaking of safeties coming out in the draft, we are releasing the first ever edition of the KC Draft Guide on April 8! We’ll have over 200 prospect write-ups, specifically about how prospects fit the Chiefs. There will be big boards, more than 300 grades on players, mock drafts, positional rankings and features all specific to the Chiefs. To celebrate the Chiefs’ new #32 you can get the guide for $3.20 off, or $6.79, by clicking here!