The Kansas City Chiefs started off the 2019 season with a bang, as they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 40-26.
This upcoming Sunday, they play the Oakland Raiders, who had been the laughing stock of the NFL over the past couple months but came out with a strong game — or a half, at least — against the Denver Broncos. They won, 24-16.
The Raiders defense came out strong and shut the Broncos out in the first half. With the Chiefs currently battling a fair amount of injuries and the Raiders defense perhaps playing above expectations, this matchup might be a little more intriguing than we initially thought.
An area of the Raiders defense the Broncos were able to exploit — especially in the second half — was the linebackers and safeties in coverage. The Broncos were able to flood in the middle of the field with numerous receivers and continuously get open pass-catchers in the intermediate zones.
The Raiders play a combination of man and match zone coverage which, places a fair amount of emphasis on the linebacker and safety groups to hold down the middle of the field. With most outside and slot cornerbacks playing with outside leverage, they are forcing receivers into the middle of the field and the defenders have to be up to the task to squeeze the throwing lanes. Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton was able to take advantage of that space, and the Chiefs will be looking to replicate that success for an entire game.
The Raiders defensive line was one of much criticism last year and all offseason, especially as it related to their pass rush. Second-year EDGE rusher Arden Key is now paired with rookie Clelin Ferrell, and together they were able to bring a solid amount of pressure off the edge against the Broncos’ struggling offensive tackles.
The interior defensive line rotation has talent with Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall but their only legitimate presence on the inside is Jonathan Hankins. The linebacker group for the Raiders is led by Vontaze Burfict, who was often the player falling victim to the zone manipulation by the Broncos.
The Raiders secondary is young and has some talent, but the season-jeopardizing injury to Jonathan Abram and uncertainty of Gareon Conley’s health weakens the group. The addition of Lamarcus Joyner added some veteran leadership alongside Karl Joseph to secondary.
While the talent level continues to improve, the lack of size in the safety group and the lack of experience and top-end talent of the cornerback group leaves them susceptible to the passing attack.
Attacking soft coverage
The Chiefs upcoming opponent, Raiders, had some difficulty closing down the middle of the field against the Broncos. The Broncos did a good job flooding the area and were able to consistently get open throwing windows.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 14, 2019
- Hold S deep with the post
- LB opens far side
- Free slant pic.twitter.com/YyJknh8naP
The easiest way to create open space in the middle of the field is to flood multiple routes into one area, forcing the underneath zone defenders to take one of them away.
The post keeps the safety deep and eyeing the far side of the formation while the quarterback’s eyes and hitch route get the linebacker tilted that direction as well. This opens up the near side slant — or double slant — as the cornerbacks have to play with outside leverage given all the outside space.
Both slants are open and unobstructed by any defender based on the leverage they have to play and their zone rules.
Flood the MoF while defenders are holding outside leverage and make the LB dictate where the ball goes.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 14, 2019
- LB carries TE up the seam
- WR cuts the post in vacated zone
- No obstructions between QB and WR pic.twitter.com/nliZ9Ts1sO
This is an example of flooding the middle of the field again match zone.
Both outside cornerbacks are playing a potential vertical route while the slot corners have to play the first route to break. On the near side, as both receivers flash vertical stems, the post gets lost behind the slot cornerback as he eyes the out route. The linebacker that would normally be in position to hold off the throw is carrying the tight end vertically, leaving the post uncontested.
A linebacker highly adept in zone coverage or a nickel defensive back that has seen similar plays in film study may be able to force this throw into a tighter window, but it’s going to be hard to defend without altering the base coverage rules for the cornerbacks.
Play after play in the second half there was no defender obstructing the throwing lane across the MoF. As the DBs play with outside leverage routinely, the LBs and slot DBs aren't quick enough to pick up the in-breaking routes. pic.twitter.com/zpNvdwBSUf— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 14, 2019
Here are four more examples showing how open the middle of the field was for the Broncos. Some of the throwing windows are tight as a player works horizontally into another zone, but the depth behind and underneath the intermediate routes was stretched far too wide.
Against a receiving group that has the team speed of the Broncos, this is a wide of space allowed for quarterbacks to work the ball into. The Chiefs, having fantastic team speed, should only be able to maintain this disparity and back the safeties up.
The other major factor is the lack of athleticism and comfort in coverage in the Raiders’ linebackers, which doesn’t allow them to cover a ton of space in the middle of the field.
From eyeing routes coming into their zone or reading the quarterback’s eyes, they are easily manipulated out of space as other routes flow in behind them. They were also very susceptible to being drawn forward by play-action, and the Chiefs were the most effective team in Week 1 using the play-action passing game.
The bottom line
The Raiders look to be fielding an improved defense from last year.
The talent level is building for the Raiders, but players are still adapting a new system and the lack of experience in the system shows. The Chiefs have to attack these zone mesh points, challenging the Raiders to pass off routes at the right times and locations across the field.
As the Raiders get a handle on the basic pass-offs, the Chiefs can incorporate the flood concepts, forcing the linebackers to take away one player leaving another one.
The Chiefs have the added bonus of utilizing the size and speed nature of Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins across the middle. Both players have had success in the past working across the middle and have the athletic advantage over the Raiders defenders.
Even more importantly, they are fantastic route runners that know how to read and utilize leverage. As Watkins and Kelce identify that outside leverage of defensive backs, they should be able to create easy separation into the middle of the field on their breaks.
As long as a banged Chiefs offensive line and a potentially-hobbled Mahomes have the time to drop back and attack these intermediate zones, the Chiefs should have another big offensive output this week.