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Tyrann Mathieu is actually creating a new position on the Chiefs defense

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Mathieu has been excellent for the Chiefs this year — and now has the highlights to show it.

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs 2019 season has barely started — so making broad, overarching conclusions may be a little premature.

But sometimes... you just have to let it happen.

After the first two weeks of the season, there were a fair number of questions being asked about contributions being made by the Chiefs’ higher-priced offseason additions: Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu. While it’s fair to be critical of players that are presented as important to the team, being in a new defensive scheme that everyone — players and fans both — are trying to understand gives reason to be cautious about making bold claims.

It’s important to understand something about Tyrann Mathieu: he is essentially creating a new position in the defense — and he’s playing a role that can change on any given snap. Identifying where he is supposed to be (and what he’s supposed to be doing) on any particular play is hard enough. Determining whether or not he was effective on that play — especially when he isn’t targeted — isn’t an easy task.

Through the first two weeks of the season, Mathieu’s role was often slanted towards assisting in the run game and playing in the curl/flat zones. Playing against two run-heavy teams that emphasized quick passing (and the run) basically forced Mathieu into this role — and he played well in it.

But Mathieu was generally occupied by a receiver or the ball went elsewhere; he was easily avoided by opposing passing attacks as he was forced into one-third of the field. He was playing well in his specific role, but there weren’t many plays that could highlight this in an easily-processed way.

Against the Baltimore Ravens, all of that all changed.

While the Ravens also emphasize the running game, their passing attack has been successful both downfield and over the middle. So Mathieu’s role was adjusted from covering the curl/flat zones to playing a robber-type role in the deep hole in the middle for the field. Not only did this place Mathieu directly in the part of the field that the Ravens wanted to attack with their tight ends, but it also put him in a position to be more reactive and attack more plays.

Route recognition

Baltimore Ravens vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Mathieu’s biggest asset to the pass coverage so far this year has been his ability to identify and adapt to what the offense is trying to do.

On this play, the Chiefs are in a match-3 coverage with Mathieu in the curl/flat zone.

As the play develops, the only receiver on the weak side of the field is a wideout who immediately drives on a drag route. Mathieu quickly redirects him and passes him off. With no other player threatening his zone, he reads Lamar Jackson and the tight end working up the seam. He quickly works underneath the post route at the last second — saving a touchdown.

If the pass had been on target — instead of behind the receiver — Mathieu likely would have had an interception, too.

Watching the play in real-time, it looks like Mathieu is just drifting underneath an obviously open player. But understanding the zone rules of the defense make the play special. The ability to identify that he isn’t being held in his zone, quickly pass off the only receiver and then read the quarterback so that he can drop in a purposeful manner are all excellent. There was no reason for Jackson to expect Mathieu to be sliding under that post route.

Here’s another example of veteran route identification.

On a fourth-and-2, Mathieu identifies the potential speed out with the pick play. Bashaud Breeland makes this play by jamming the wide receiver into the tight end — but even if the speed out is successful getting outside, Mathieu is already closing over the top to make the tackle instantly.

Even if there isn’t a major highlight to take away, it’s Mathieu’s ability to recognize the down and distance — along with quickly identifying the route concept — that make plays like this impressive.

Click and close

An important trait in any defensive back — especially a safety — is how quickly you can read a play, react to it, and get the spot on the field you need to be. We call this the ability to click and close.

Here, Mathieu is lurking a little deeper than the hook zone defenders — protecting the space between them and the deep safety — but he’s keeping his eyes on everything over the middle of the field. Mathieu is reading the play the entire time, but he never shows his hand to the quarterback as he slowly sinks down — waiting to accelerate forward.

The timing is perfect, because by the time Mathieu commits to coming downhill the quarterback has already decided to throw the ball; there is nothing left to do. Mathieu would most likely want to have this interception opportunity back — but nonetheless, after baiting the throw, it’s a big play to break this pass up.

Here is another great example of that click and close ability.

This time, Mathieu is working in a hook zone but identifies the pass across the formation. He hits his top gear quickly and uses that momentum to carry into the tackle — stopping the receiver just short of the sticks on this third-down play.

Blitzing

Another underappreciated part of the Honey Badger’s game is his ability as a blitzer off the edge. He maintains the same level of quickness whether he’s in coverage on the back end or attacking the quarterback as a rusher.

On this play, he is unblocked. The running back is responsible for him, but leaks out into the flat. Mathieu quickly realizes that, placing himself in the throwing path to the running back while continuing his pursuit of the quarterback. When Jackson tries to float the ball over his head to the running back, Mathieu is able to react instantly and bat the pass down.

Even outside of free rushing plays, Mathieu shows great body control to reduce his surface area and slide around bigger offensive tackles — something to keep an eye on in coming weeks.

Man coverage

Compared to years past, the Chiefs are running very little man coverage — but in some situations, they utilize it to help break tendencies and limit predictability. Mathieu is more than capable of playing man coverage — and we saw examples against the Ravens.

Here — despite giving up a lot of size — he’s able to get a good position on the tight end’s hip and ride him all the way to the back of the end zone. Then he plays the ball extremely well — something for which Chiefs fans have been clamoring. He turns to locate the ball — rather than waiting for the receiver to indicate the ball is coming — and then locks down the tight end’s inside arm with an armbar.

This technique simply gives the quarterback nowhere to throw the ball — and makes it extremely difficult for the receiver to work back to any pass that may come.

The bottom line

Tyrann Mathieu has been good in every single week of the season. Just because there haven’t been highlights of major plays flooding the Internet doesn’t mean the Honey Badger hasn’t been a productive defender. Against the Ravens, Mathieu was finally challenged (and in position) to make plays.

He hasn’t been perfect — like many other Chiefs, he has had some missed tackles — and that could continue; Mathieu and rookie Juan Thornhill isn’t the biggest (or best) tackling safety duo in the NFL — but what they lack in hitting power they make up for in range and coverage.

As long as a team is willing to try and attack the middle of the field, Steve Spagnuolo will continue to spin Mathieu down and allow him to play these robber roles which highlight his high IQ and closing ability.

So if a couple of weeks go by and he’s been quiet, don’t fret. Instead, look to his usage to see whether he’s getting chances to make plays.