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The Chiefs defense adjusted to shut down the Raiders

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Steve Spagnuolo opened the playbook in Week 2 — but also adjusted the defense to make it effective against the Raiders

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After the first quarter of Sunday’s game, there was cause for worry among Kansas City Chiefs fans. The Oakland Raiders offense had easily moved down the field against Steve Spagnuolo’s defense.

Then, something magical happened: Spagnuolo adjusted his scheme.

The result was three scoreless quarters for the Chiefs defense, allowing the offense’s single-quarter output to pace them for the rest of the day. Spagnuolo mixed things up a lot more than in Week 1 — but where were the differences?

Let’s dive into the numbers — and some examples — to see where the Chiefs defense showed some new wrinkles.

The numbers

Quarter/Down/Distance - Week 2

Situation Avg Success
Q1 4.94 50%
Q2 4.94 59%
Q2-Under 2:00 3.56 56%
Q3 8.58 42%
Q4 2.15 62%
Q4-Under 2:00 N/A N/A
1st Down 6.88 46%
2nd Down 1.89 63%
3rd Down 5.79 57%
4th Down 8.00 0%
Yds remain 0-3 2.70 50%
Yds remain 4-6 4.67 56%
Yds remain 7-10 6.43 46%
Yds remain 11+ 1.67 100%

The Chiefs came up with their first stop of the game with a three-and-out with a minute left in the first quarter. By itself, that drive pushed the Chiefs to a 50% success rate for the quarter. Up to that point, the Chiefs had a 40% success rate and gave up 5.87 yards per play.

The third quarter — featuring a 51-yard Josh Jacobs run — was also not an ideal snap-to-snap performance. The Chiefs were able to come up with two big turnovers to keep the Raiders off the board, but coming out of the half, the Oakland game plan definitely got the better of the Chiefs.

However, Spagnuolo was able to adjust in both the second and fourth quarters to limit the Raiders offensively. Limiting the Raiders to 2.15 yards per play and succeeding on 62% of the snaps in the fourth quarter? That’s exactly how a defense should close out a game.

Once again, the Chiefs were at their best on second down, limiting the Raiders to under two yards per play. The 57% success rate on third down also reflects what most felt on Sunday: the Chiefs were getting off the field on third down.

My favorite stat of the week was allowing a stingy 1.67 yards per play in situations of 11 yards or more to go. When the Chiefs knew they could tee off on the Raiders passing game, they found success.

Defensive Formations - Week 2

Formation Pct Avg Success
4-1 21% 5.54 62%
4-2O 42% 5.27 50%
4-2U 11% 0.85 50%
4-3O 15% 5.11 44%
4-3U 11% 3.86 67%
4-3S 0% N/A N/A

With the Raiders operating out of heavier personnel, the Chiefs had to implement their base 4-3 defense for 26% of the snaps. They also readily switched to their 4-1 dime defense on third-and-long situations. In these dime situations, Ben Niemann and Daniel Sorensen replaced Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson.

Pass Rushing - Week 2

Players Rushing Pct Avg Success
2-3 5% -1.00 100%
4 75% 3.85 56%
5-6 20% 7.89 33%

The biggest difference I noticed from Week 1 to Week 2 was the pass rush plan.

Spagnuolo blitzed on 20% of the passing snaps — a high number, to be sure. However, Spagnuolo showed pre-snap pressure, ran a stunt, or blitzed on a whopping 50% of the passing snaps.

Spagnuolo brought zone blitzes, looped defensive ends over multiple gaps, and overload-blitzed from the slot against the Raiders condensed formations. He put a lot of looks on tape; opposition coordinators will have plenty to sort through.

The defense even mixed up their coverage drops, with Frank Clark dropping into coverage on almost 12% of the passing snaps. The Chiefs even had a snap where they showed a seven-man pressure and only ended up rushing two players.

The plan was definitely not for the pass rushers to just pin back their ears!

But it made sense to try to drop defensive ends and try to get free rushers, because Derek Carr got the ball out in a staggeringly fast average of 2.09 seconds. The Chiefs pass rush will certainly be salivating to get after a quarterback who has a longer drop.

Pass Coverages - Week 2

Coverage Pct Avg Success
Man 30% 4.38 62%
Zone 70% 4.48 48%

Against the Raiders, Spagnuolo allowed the Chiefs secondary to run a bit more man coverage — much to the benefit of Charvarius Ward. Ward allowed just 2.5 yards per target for an 88% success rate just one week after being beaten like a drum by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Part of the reason Ward performed well this week was because Bashaud Breeland followed receiver Tyrell Williams around the field. Ward got consistent matchups against Ryan Grant and Darren Waller — both of whom are significantly better matchups for what Ward brings to the table.

The Chiefs implemented even more of the split-safety look I mentioned last week — with Kendall Fuller dropping out of the slot to cover the deep half of the field next to Juan Thornhill. When Tyrann Mathieu drops into a hook zone in the middle of the field, it gives the Chiefs a dynamic defender against crossing routes; at some point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a quarterback miss Mathieu spinning down and throw a ball his way.

Something good

One of the most visible changes in the 2019 Chiefs defense is their gap discipline against the run. This example is a perfect showcase of the front doing their job: building a wall against the run.

With the Raiders in 13 personnel, the Chiefs are in a 4-3 under formation. Alex Okafor and Wilson get to half-man quickly and help to shut out the back side gaps. Derrick Nnadi collects a double team and gives no ground, delaying the center from climbing to the second level.

Tanoh Kpassagnon initially gains width — which causes the left tackle to find work, blocking down on defensive lineman Joey Ivey. All of the gaps are closed as the back approaches the line, forcing him to attempt to bounce the run outside — where Kpassagnon is waiting.

A unified, gap-sound front makes it very difficult for an offense to impose their will in the running game. There may be an occasional burst for a bigger run against this Spagnuolo defense, but against a wall like this one, most offenses will struggle to play ball control like they did against the Chiefs last year.

Tyrann Mathieu has had a quiet run during the first two weeks of the season, which has made some fans question the team’s investment in him. While Mathieu hasn’t made the splash plays that some have been expecting, thus far, he’s been a consistent performer in coverage.

Ward is significantly more comfortable when he is able to get his hands on the receiver — but that’s not always feasible within the coverage call. So on this play, rather than trying to to have Ward jam and bail to his deep zone, the Chiefs utilized Mathieu from the apex defender spot.

Mathieu locks up Waller and carries him into the secondary while keeping his eyes on the backfield. When the running back releases out of the backfield, Mathieu passes Waller to Ward and drives on the back — his original coverage assignment as an apex defender.

Something bad

Juan Thornhill has been very good so far, but I’m sure he’d want this play back.

For the second week in a row, the Chiefs struggled to cover the deep man on a sail concept — this time with Thornhill biting on the deep out and leaving Williams to run wide open. Ward and the linebackers get good depth — and have taken away the deep out — yet Thornhill drives on it instead of staying on top of the deep vertical.

Mathieu recognizes Derek Carr loading up a deep shot and does well to close on the catch point. He doesn’t play the ball, which draws a 43-yard pass interference penalty that puts the Raiders in great field position.

If Thornhill runs with his man here, it’s likely a checkdown to the flat for a gain of seven or eight yards, which would have allowed the Chiefs to try to come up with a stop on second down and kill the drive.

Thornhill has been exceptional for a Week 1 rookie starter. Mistakes like this are going to happen — but he’ll only continue to grow. We’ll see how he responds when he sees something like this again.

Something you may have missed

Spagnuolo put this play on tape midway through the fourth quarter.

Wilson attacks the B gap, with Hitchens looping around to the C gap — almost like a crossfire blitz that normally occurs in the A gaps. Emmanuel Ogbah loops all the way over the two linebackers to the A gap while Chris Jones crosses the face of the center to the opposite A gap one-on-one.

On the opposite side, Okafor and Frank Clark line up next to each other and execute a tackle/end stunt. Okafor attacks the tackle’s inside shoulder with Clark looping behind him to try to get a free look.

It’s not executed sharply all around — and the Raiders do well to not take the bait, staying in their lanes to block the defenders. But it’s a fun look — something we were promised with the addition of Spagnuolo and Brendan Daly. If they can get this one cleaned up, it’s got the potential to do damage.

Jones’ third-and-one stop to force a field goal on the Radiers’ opening drive was a fantastic play that helped minimize damage early. However, that play doesn’t occur without Hitchens’ effort on this play.

Hitchens shoots forward to press the A gap on the handoff, forcing the back to bounce to the open C gap between Clark and an edge-setting Darron Lee. He showcases great agility to move along the line of scrimmage and explode into the gap. The back tries to plant to square Hitchens up, but loses his footing and goes down short of the first down marker.

On a mental level, it’s easy to see how much faster Hitchens is playing the game this year. Last season, this play probably doesn’t happen — but thus far, it’s one in a crowd for the 2019 version of Anthony Hitchens.

The bottom line

Sunday’s stat line looked good: ten points allowed, two turnovers, and three sacks. Most people were hoping for at least an average defense from the Chiefs this year — and through two games against quick-passing offenses, the defense appears to be slightly better than that.

After the Raiders’ second drive — which resulted in a touchdown — the Chiefs defense only took seven snaps in their own territory. That means that for the rest of the game, 85% of the Chiefs defense comfortably shut down the Raiders offense.

While Chris Jones was the standout player this week — six pressures, a sack, a pass breaskup and a tackle for no gain — the defense largely played well as a cohesive unit. Praise should be directed at Spagnuolo and his staff, who appear to have the ability to influence the game far more than we ever saw under the previous staff.

It’s still very early in the season; there’s not much in the way of tendencies or tape to utilize when building a defensive game plan. So at this early stage, making adjustments in-game is paramount to success. Both the eye-test (and the numbers) show that Spagnuolo did just that against Oakland.

It’s a welcome change from the stagnant game plans of the last five years.