Last postseason, the Kansas City Chiefs were in a similar situation: coming off a bye week, staring down a home playoff game and having a familiar foe — then the Indianapolis Colts — coming into Arrowhead.
Last year’s playoff game was prefaced by countless stories of bad luck and history of the Chiefs and the Colts in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Colts, this wasn’t the same old Chiefs team — they now had Patrick Mahomes.
Fast forward to 2019-20, and the Chiefs find themselves once again hosting a familiar AFC South opponent with the Houston Texans lining up across from them in Kansas City. The Texans beat the Chiefs 31-24 earlier this year, but similar to last year’s matchup with the Colts, the history doesn’t have any weight on this game.
The offensive lineup is entirely different from the first matchup. Patrick Mahomes was extremely hobbled from re-injuring his ankle against the Colts, Tyreek Hill was in his first game back and on a snap count, Sammy Watkins and Eric Fisher missed the game and Martinas Rankin was starting at left guard. The Chiefs and Texans’ Week 6 matchup holds as much water as the Chiefs and Colts previous playoff meetings did on the 2018 NFL Divisional Round game.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the Texans defensive personnel and a concept the Chiefs can use to attack the Texans defense.
Watt started slowly in the game against the Buffalo Bills last week, but he was still able to pick and choose his plays and make a major impact on the game. Across from Watt, Whitney Mercilus provides a good running mate as a pass rusher and applies the most consistent pressure for the Texans. D.J. Reader has quietly become one of the best nose tackles in the NFL.
The second level of the Texans defense gets a ton of snaps from Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney, but they aren’t the best combination of coverage players over the middle of the field. The two make a quality second level unit against the run — along with Brendan Scarlett — but they can be taken advantage of when asked to cover running backs or tight ends in man coverage or drop into deeper zones.
The secondary of the Houston Texans has a lot of mismatched pieces with talent that are still trying to all gel. They are led by cornerback Bradley Roby, who has done a good job this year. Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves were mid-season acquisitions for the Texans that clearly have talent and make their fair share of good plays. Rookie Lonnie Johnson was often used against Travis Kelce in the first matchup. The safety room for the Texans does have a high-end, all-around player in Justin Reid, but they are without his running mate Tashaun Gipson, so Jaheel Addae and Mike Adams are filling in.
All of those new pieces are where the Chiefs can exploit the Texans defense.
One way the Bills were able to find success against the Bills in the passing game by using bunch formations.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 9, 2020
- Nub formation and the Texans opt to bring pressure
- Single DS has to rotate MoF leaving the ins CB to cover the corner
- Bills flood the numbers pic.twitter.com/EzaHtAKHPx
Bunch formations — or three or more receiving options in a tight group — are designed to generate mismatches for the receivers against the secondary.
Defenders have to no longer worry about where their man is going or which player is pressing into their zone. Instead, they have to identify all three players, where they are going and which defender is taking which player. Processing all the information can take time and hesitating for even a fraction of a second in the NFL can mean everything.
The Texans are running Man Free and with the tight end on the nub side (where he is the last man on the line of scrimmage) being covered by a linebacker, the deep safety has to rotate to the middle of the field. This means that when the Bills flood the bunch side of the formation with all three routes, it puts pressure on the defensive backs to cover every player. The point defender is trying to press and create traffic so the wide receivers can’t switch on their releases, and the outside cornerback is taking the first wide receiver to come outside. When John Brown runs vertical and Cole Beasley runs to the flat, the cornerback has to take Beasley and release Brown vertically.
The Bills are running Snag, which most often presents an issue for zone coverage but will make it a long day for man coverage if the defenders aren’t perfect at picking up their assignment. With the outside cornerback having to drive down on the flat route, Brown is able to get a completely free release into his corner route without having to even fight for outside leverage, as it was given to him out of the bunch formation. The result was a wide-open receiver working vertically and no defender with a chance to make a play on the ball.
Man Free vs the bunch but the TE blocks and releases late— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 9, 2020
- Bills run levels to to the weakside
- The two crossing routes initially draw 3 defenders
- With no help outside, the deep over gains separation
- TE on the late release wide open as all 3 DBs followed the crossers pic.twitter.com/g43BrUlYC9
The Bills show a more traditional bunch formation here run another flood/levels concept, only this time to the weak side of the formation. Like the corner route above, the Texans don’t play the releases very well. The point wide receiver gets a free release and is able to press vertically, and the cornerback picking him up has to maintain outside leverage against a receiver that is moving at full speed and on time. When he makes his inside break, there is simply no chance for the cornerback to make up the ground across the field. The deep safety is having to stay on top of the sail route on the backside of the play. Josh Allen makes an excellent throw, but the deep cross was going to be open based upon the receivers release.
As open as the wide receiver may have been on the deep cross, that wasn’t even the Texans’ worst blunder on the play. When the tight end blocks down out of the bunch and a wide receiver runs a shallow drag, two defenders follow the drag to start. As both defenders take the in-breaking wide receiver, the tight end is able to late release out into the flat with no one within 10 to 15 yards of him. Miscommunications happen in football, so one would assume that the Texans fixed this quickly.
Bills came back to the levels concept out of the trips on a later 3rd down against Cover 3 this time— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 9, 2020
- 3rd down and the Texans underneath def sit on the sticks
- Only thing open is underneath & the defenders have slid frontside with the crossers
- Late TE leak is open again pic.twitter.com/QcABd9NfT3
...except the Bills ran the exact same play later in the game on a third down. This time, it was run against Cover 3, which handled the deeper aspects a lot better and purposefully left the underneath drag open below the sticks. Against the Chiefs’ speed — even on third down, this may be a dangerous decision, and if the linebackers are forced to sink into that hole or cover the deep cross, that should be exploited by the Chiefs. The important aspect to note here is the TE once again wide open on a late release in the flat, as no one from the Texans identified. Only when Allen rolled his direction did the underneath defender start to follow, but it just goes to show how a secondary still getting used to one another may not fix things as quickly as one would expect.
The bottom line
The Chiefs and Texans are primed to be a high-scoring, offense-driven football game, and the Chiefs are going to need to put up points.
While a generic talent-against-talent approach, one would give the advantage to the Chiefs offense over the Texans defense, but once you consider Andy Reid off the bye week and some of the Texans’ woes in the secondary, it may not even be close.
The Chiefs have utilized more Y-Iso looks (Kelce on one side of the formation split out by himself with three receivers to the other side) later in the season. I would expect more of that Sunday.
Not only is Kelce a match-up nightmare but the bunch formations really challenge a secondary that has a ton of new pieces playing together and as recently as last week, a team was able to take major advantage of that scenario.