Kansas City Chiefs fans got their first look at Steve Spagnuolo’s new defense in Week 1. A 26-point outing by a rookie quarterback — 13 points of which were scored in the final 7:40 of the game — may not have been the performance some were hoping to see.
However, this is Week 1. The defense continued to use some vanilla play calls against an average offense and a patchwork offensive line. While the Jacksonville Jaguars did put up 428 yards of offense, the Chiefs defense forced two turnovers and maintained a two-score lead from the middle of the second quarter onward.
Let’s dive into the numbers and see where the Jaguars had success — and where the Chiefs defense was able to counter — in this first game of the 2019 season.
Quarter/Down/Distance - Week 1
|Situation||Week 1 |
|Week 1 |
|Yds remain 0-3||6.50||33.33%|
|Yds remain 4-6||7.50||50.00%|
|Yds remain 7-10||11.24||36.00%|
|Yds remain 11+||5.38||84.62%|
For those new to my charting, I like to use defensive success rate, a base formula utilized by Football Outsiders to look at each play from a situational standpoint. For a defense, a successful play is defined as holding an offense under 45% of the yardage to gain on first down, 60% of the yardage on second down or 100% on third or fourth downs.
As we can see, the Chiefs defense had success 50% of the time (or higher) through the first three quarters of the game. The first two quarters had some explosive plays by the Jaguars — hence the high yards-per-play average. In the third quarter, the defense put the clamps on a little more regularly, allowing the Chiefs to get the stops needed to extend the lead to 24 points.
After that, the Chiefs went to soft coverages, protecting the lead through the majority of the fourth quarter — which allowed the Jaguars to dink and dunk their way down the field.
The Chiefs were excellent in long-distance situations, posting an 84.62 percent success rate. But going forward, they’ll need to clean up their play in the 7-10 yard range, the short-yardage ranges and their first down situations.
Defensive Formations - Week 1
|Form||Week 1 |
|Week 1 |
|Week 1 |
With all the talk of over and under shifts within Spagnuolo’s defense, I decided to chart them in this year’s tabulation. The 4-2-5 over nickel front saw the largest majority of the snaps this week, followed by the 4-1-6 dime defense — boosted by seven straight dime snaps on the Jaguars’ last drive of the game.
These numbers show the sub-package defenses were on the field for 82.76% of the game; the base defense made up the remaining 17.24% of the snaps.
The Chiefs found significantly more success in an under front — with the three-technique opposite of the strength of the formation. We’ll see if that trend continues — and if its usage increases in the coming weeks.
Pass Rushing - Week 1
|Week 1 |
|Week 1 |
|Week 1 |
Spagnuolo is known as an aggressive blitzer but this week’s maximum protection blocking scheme — and poor coverage by the secondary — meant there was little success to be had through blitzing. The Jaguars’ first touchdown came on a blitz — as did the 69-yard pass over Charvarius Ward.
Even still, Spagnuolo’s small percentage of blitzes (for him) equaled the mark Bob Sutton put forward last year. I would expect that if the cornerback situation improves — and when the opponent is less concerned with protecting a patchwork offensive line — we’ll start to see more of the blitz packages as the year goes along.
The Jaguars also focused on getting the ball out quickly — averaging just over 2.4 seconds per throw. Before leaving the game with his injury, Nick Foles was averaging 2.8 seconds per throw. Backup Gardner Minshew got the ball out more quickly — just under 2.4 seconds per throw.
Pass Coverages - Week 1
|Coverage||Week 1 |
|Week 1 |
|Week 1 |
Perhaps the biggest change from Sutton to this first week of Spagnuolo’s defense are the coverage schemes. Where Sutton would use a more man-heavy defense, Spagnuolo leans very heavily on zone schemes.
While the team closed out the first half (and the end of the game) in some static Cover 2 looks, the majority of their coverages were pattern matching Cover 3, 2-read, and 4-read designs. There’s still room to grow (and wrinkles to implement) in their coverage shells, but they certainly weren’t predictable this week.
Juan Thornhill had a great game on Sunday, showcasing good range deep and great click and close underneath. The Jet Sweep gets Westbrook to the edge. Breeland slips the blocker's outside shoulder and forces cutback. Thornhill explodes downhill and blows up the play for no gain. pic.twitter.com/oyVRPp9z9C— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 10, 2019
Rookie Juan Thornhill got the starting nod this week — and the stage didn’t look too big for him. He showed excellent range deep and was a willing run support defender — as this play shows.
The Jaguars tried to get the ball in Dede Westbrook’s hands to utilize his speed in space. This time, with the Jaguars in 12 personnel, they motion Westbrook tight to the formation and run a jet sweep. The two tight ends are able to seal the edge, and Westbrook is in space with only cornerback Bashaud Breeland in his path.
Breeland plays this very well, slipping under the outside shoulder of the blocker and forcing Westbrook to cut back. However, Thornhill’s downhill explosion allows him to shoot the alley quickly and stop the play before it got started.
It was great start for the rookie safety — and it showcased his range on the back end. It’s no surprise that Spagnuolo wanted him on the field to start the season.
Damien Wilson played the majority of the nickel snaps and showcased a high motor. Blitz from slot & the A gap forces the QB to go to his hot route in the flat. Wilson not only does well to track the RB and stop him short on third and 2, he punches the ball out for a big turnover. pic.twitter.com/TrckVpigjs— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 10, 2019
Damien Wilson was somewhat of a surprise this preseason, taking most of the nickel defense reps with the first team. That continued in Week 1. Wilson got all of the nickel linebacker reps and played SAM linebacker in the base defense; Darron Lee was the WILL linebacker in the base.
On his biggest play of the day, I definitely liked Wilson’s burst and acceleration to the flat.
The Chiefs dial up a Cover 0 blitz on third-and-two — Thornhill is in man in the slot — and the Jaguars leak Leonard Fournette into the flat to try to beat it. Minshew gets the ball to Fournette but Wilson is on top of him, bringing him down short of the first down marker. That alone would have earned praise, but he manages to knock the ball loose and keep three points off the board.
Wilson and Thornhill have added a level of tenacity to the team that we haven’t really talked about; we’ve focused more on the aggression of Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu. This overall mentality from the Chiefs defense could end up being the biggest storyline of 2019.
Ward didn't have his best day on Sunday, and this rep shows some of the zone understanding he's missing. Deep curl by the #1 with a backside crosser, Ward doesn't peel off quickly enough to get to the boundary 1/3 zone in C3. Mathieu has to keep the flat honest, and the gap opens pic.twitter.com/cGkEnzuVtZ— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 10, 2019
Charvarius Ward needs a hug.
A press-man corner brought into Sutton’s scheme last year, he’s been asked to play in a zone-heavy scheme that doesn’t exactly suit his strengths. Ward allowed 15.1 yards per target for a 40% success rate on Sunday — and never forced an incompletion.
This touchdown shows a lapse in zone responsibility.
The Chiefs are in a Cover 3 shell, and Ward does well to press the route and disrupt the receiver’s release. However, as the receiver turns on the deep curl, Ward gets sucked inside and is late to transition on the deep crossing receiver in his zone. Mathieu has to honor the receiver in the flat — and there’s a wide-open receiver in the end zone.
Ward is likely to continue getting reps as the starting cornerback over rookie Rashad Fenton until Mo Claiborne’s suspension is lifted. Let’s hope he’s able to turn things around before then.
Something you may have missed
Spags ran a neat zone blitz against a condensed formation with the SAM and the boundary CB. Mathieu spins down to replace CB, Thornhill rotates to the backside, and Fuller bailing to deep 1/2. Well-called sail concept lets Minshew hit the honey hole between Fuller/Breeland. pic.twitter.com/UJ6Tee7fD8— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 10, 2019
While Spagnuolo didn’t run many blitzes this week, he did put a couple wrinkles on tape.
With the Jaguars in a condensed formation to the boundary, Spagnuolo blitzes the boundary corner and the SAM linebacker. Mathieu spins down to the apex to replace the blitzing cornerback, while Thornhill rotates to the boundary deep half of the field. Kendall Fuller bails to the field deep half next to Thornhill, and defensive end Alex Okafor drops into coverage as a hook defender.
Fortunately for the Jaguars, they have a nice sail concept dialed up, forcing Breeland to read the fade/out combination. Fuller is attached to the hashes and rotates late, leaving Minshew with a hole to hit in the zone.
While it may not have been a successful blitz, the concept of pulling the slot cornerback to the deep half is a nice wrinkle to their split safety looks; it keeps the offense guessing in the film room. Against a different route combination, this might have found some success. Going forward, i’s something worth watching.
The bottom line
Steve Spagnuolo’s defense wasn’t great this weekend. It didn’t need to be against this particular opponent; the Chiefs offense was scoring at will.
Obviously, we’d like to see more out of the pass rush. Frank Clark was chipped for large portions of the game — helping to negate his rush — but we still expected more in the one-on-one reps he did get. We also expected Alex Okafor and Chris Jones to make more of an impact than they did in the passing game; they didn’t turn in bad performances, but they weren’t the dominant ones we expected against a patchwork offensive line.
The cornerback position is clearly in need of improvement, with both Fuller and Ward struggling to find the ball or maintain their zone responsibilities. Even Breeland — largely playing well on the day — gave up back-to-back completions after CBS lost their feed at the end of the game.
And yet, with 7:40 left in the game, Spagnuolo had held the opposition to 13 points and let the offense open up a 24-point lead. Vanilla coverage shells and dime defenses allowed the Jaguars to still score twice in the remainder of the game — but also forced a Frank Clark interception.
Spagnuolo has his work cut out for him; there’s plenty of work to do to clean up this defense. However, even in the vanilla game plan, I saw some positive signs that can give this defense a chance to make strides before some of the scarier offenses come to town.