For a full quarter, it looked like the Kansas City Chiefs were in trouble against the Houston Texans. The defense allowed a big play on a blown coverage, special teams gaffes allowed two more touchdowns, and the Texans were driving to make it a four-score game. Some timely stops by the defense, excellent offensive production, and big special teams plays swung the pendulum back in the Chiefs direction in a hurry.
With so many things that I wanted to talk about this week, we’re foregoing the “numbers” section that I normally implement and highlighting more of the major beats that occurred throughout the game. We’ll cover some of the positives, touch on some negatives, and highlight a play that helped turn the tide early to get the Chiefs back on track.
When KC last faced HOU, the Texans run game got after the Chiefs defense. That was not the case this week.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 14, 2020
21 personnel, TK and Nnadi work across the face of their blockers. Saunders fights to absorb the double team while Clark pinches backside and Hitchens free to scrape. pic.twitter.com/Kb8H3lODiy
In the Week 6 matchup against the Texans, Carlos Hyde racked up rushing yards — and let the Chiefs know about it. In this matchup? The Chiefs defense held their own.
Good gap discipline and the ability to beat one on one blocks made the difference in this encounter. Hyde averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry on his way to 44 yards rushing, due in no small part by the effort along the defensive line. The above play shows a fantastic job beating blockers to gain penetration, setting the edge to prevent a play from bouncing outside, ultimately allowing Derrick Nnadi to make a play in the middle of the field.
The run defense will see its biggest test in the upcoming matchup against the Tennessee Titans. Playing well up front — like they did against the Texans — can go a long way toward ensuring a Chiefs victory.
Spags had implemented Ragland as a dime rusher/spy on a handful of occasions near the end of the year -- and O'Daniel got some reps in Week 17. He got more against HOU.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 14, 2020
3 man rush, Cover 2 on the back end. Suggs beats his man inside, forcing Watson up into the DoD in spy role. pic.twitter.com/hG5UukZHHd
I had mentioned several times on the AP Laboratory Podcast that Steve Spagnuolo had opted to utilize Reggie Ragland as a dime rusher/quarterback spy late in the year. Dorian O’Daniel got to see some reps in that role in the Chiefs Week 17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, largely mirroring the running back in man coverage. This week, Spagnuolo leaned on O’Daniel as a way to spy Deshaun Watson in some of the Chiefs dime snaps.
Spagnuolo used his three-man rush the most of the season against the Texans, and it still created some pressure — as shown on the play above. The Chiefs have good coverage on the back-end, which allows Terrell Suggs time to dip underneath the left tackle and force Watson up and out of the pocket. O’Daniel is patient in mirroring Watson and is able to step up and come up with a sack to help the Chiefs get off the field.
Many have called for O’Daniel to get a larger target share, as the Chiefs linebacking corps lacks the speed that he has to get out to the flat and keep the quarterback in check. However, he had struggled to grasp the playbook under Bob Sutton, and his complete lack of usage defensively throughout this year raised more questions than answers. That said, Spagnuolo definitely found a good fit for him against Houston and was able to put a little more speed on the field in a singular role — a great marriage of the player’s ability and the team’s need on that given day.
Tyrann Mathieu is on a tear, and he showed up big again in the playoffs.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 14, 2020
3x1, Mathieu as the hook. He opens his hips to the boundary, allowing him to read 3-to-2. He sees #2 breaking back inside, and passes the #3 vertical, opening to break up the pass.
Too smart. pic.twitter.com/lajqaeqxb8
Tyrann Mathieu has been Spagnuolo’s biggest weapon on the 2019 Chiefs defense. Mathieu’s play has just gotten better and better as the year has gone along, and his performance against Houston was a continuation of that growth.
Mathieu jumped two routes that should have been interceptions, was involved in several big stops and made the phenomenal play above. Reading the route distribution from trips, Mathieu seamlessly passed the vertical route to the deep safety while breaking to the middle of the field. A route combination designed to put DeAndre Hopkins open for a chunk play on a crucial down is sniffed out immediately and broken up due to Mathieu’s exceptional football IQ.
Mathieu has spent several weeks now reminding the opposition that he is “too smart” after every play he makes. That mentality and preparation has definitely rubbed off on his teammates. Daniel Sorensen — who played a phenomenal game against Houston — has even taken up the gesture after making plays. This team has embraced Mathieu and everything he brings to the table, and that’s making them a better squad.
On the final defensive snap of the game, Spags got 'em with the numbers game.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 14, 2020
Cover 0 on the backend, with Harris dropping on the RB if he comes out. RB doesn't pass pro, and OL is 5-on-6. They work inside-out, leaving Clark as a free rusher to collect his 3rd sack of the game. pic.twitter.com/uJuRvHhXHI
In the lead-up to the Texans matchup, I pointed out that Watson and the offensive line struggled to shift protections and pick up blitzes. Spagnuolo exploited this multiple times on the day, and the final one came on Frank Clark’s third sack of the day.
On fourth and goal, Spagnuolo brings the house on a cover zero blitz. Watson doesn’t shift protection or call for the back to pick up the free rusher, instead leaving him on a route. That sends Clark as a free rusher off the edge for the last defensive snap of the day.
Clark was a monster against Houston, logging 10 pressures and three sacks. He won with power, speed, and pure effort for most of the day. Paired with Spagnuolo’s excellent rush plan, Clark had Watson uncomfortable and bailing from the pocket far too often.
This is one that Ward will want back.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 14, 2020
3x1 vs Cover 0 blitz, TE stays in. Bubble from #3 gets sold by the point man from the bunch. Both Sorensen and Ward break on the bubble, and Ward lets his man get behind him for six. pic.twitter.com/apYufk5FQm
Charvarius Ward has played far better than projected this season, but Sunday was a day for Ward to forget.
The play that broke open the floodgates for Houston came on the above busted coverage. The secondary is in cover zero, putting Ward in man coverage against the boundary receiver. The point man in the bunch sells a block, coupled with the slot receiver selling a bubble screen. Ward’s aggressive tendencies see him triggering downhill to attack the bubble, but he loses sight of his coverage responsibility. Watson loads up and hits a wide-open receiver for an easy touchdown.
This is atypical from the Chiefs secondary this season. The unit has played much better than the sum of its parts, and these blown coverages have largely been absent. Ward found himself targeted often against Houston, with a lot of success. He’ll look to rebound and finish the playoffs stronger than he started.
I've highlighted the slot-drop Cover 2 several times this year, and this is one of the instances where it was beaten.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 14, 2020
Empty set from HOU. CB carrying strong #1, looks back and sees underneath route. The slot doesn't have the range to get over the top for CB to pass off. pic.twitter.com/GKET8alczx
Spagnuolo has found all kinds of ways to rotate the secondary and get different looks this season, especially through his slot cornerbacks. Unfortunately, that late rotation can result in some disadvantaged positions by the members in the secondary.
This huge pass play on second and 24 came in large part because Rashad Fenton was asked to cover a large amount of ground to stay on top of a speedy receiver’s vertical route. Fenton’s responsibility is the deep half of the field behind him, with three receivers aligned to that side. Ward begins to carry the vertical, but the underneath route makes him pause. Normally in Cover 2, Ward would be responsible for the route in the flat, releasing the vertical to the deep safety. Unfortunately, Fenton is unable to get enough depth for Ward to safely release the receiver. He hesitates, and the result is an open receiver and a massive gain.
Fenton had a great day, coming up with a breakup and a sack on the play immediately before this. However, he’s put in a tough spot with a lot of ground to cover by Spagnuolo. Ward’s hesitation is understandable, given the Cover 2 assignment, but it exacerbates Fenton’s inability to get on top of the route.
Something you may have missed
This was a big play that flew under the radar.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 14, 2020
KC down 21-0 with HOU driving. 2nd and long, KC brackets Fuller. Hitchens collisions the slot and carries, taking away Watson's second read. Settles into zone and all are covered. Allows TK to force INC and helps stall drive. pic.twitter.com/pgz4V06CXw
It’s not flashy, but this is one of the plays that helped start the momentum swing back in the Chiefs’ direction. Just outside of the red-zone, the Chiefs were facing a second and long while down 21-0.
Sorensen and Bashaud Breeland bracket Will Fuller — Watson’s first read. Watson moves to his second read, who has been rerouted by Hitchens, allowing the linebacker to stay in the throwing lane. Hitchens sits in the hook zone and waits for Hopkins to come across the field, keeping good depth and spacing to make Watson pull the ball down.
That delay gives Tanoh Kpassagnon enough time to beat the tight end blocking him and get to Watson, forcing the errant throw and a third and long. That third and long came up a yard shy and the Texans took a field goal.
Allowing a touchdown may not have been the end of the game, but holding to a field goal certainly changed the mood in the stadium. The lead was still four scores, but the red-zone stop allowed some of the momentum to begin flowing back toward the Chiefs in the second quarter.
The bottom line
Chiefs fans may have expected the full collapse after the way Sunday’s game started. We’ve seen it happen before, and the snowball turned into an avalanche. But this team is wired differently than previous iterations.
Yes, Patrick Mahomes makes a significant difference. We’ve seen that when push comes to shove, Mahomes is going to step up and make the big plays. It happened all of 2018, and for the large majority of the 2019 season. The real difference between the two squads comes on this defensive side of the ball.
Spagnuolo, Mathieu, Clark and numerous other players and coaches on the defensive side of the ball seem to have the same gene as Mahomes. They’re not going down easily, and they’re not rolling over when times get tough. Mahomes led them back on Sunday, but he’s not able to do it without a full team effort — determined to erase the deficit and dominate their opponent.
The defense isn’t perfect. The players do make mistakes, and there are some spots that are being cobbled together with a little bit “lesser” talent. However, what they lack in top-end ability, they make up for in cohesive play and determination. They’re able to pick each other up, right the wrong, and make the play when they need to do so. There’s just no quit in this group, and that mindset is the real difference in this run.
That mindset is also the reason why us Chiefs fans have a reason to be very optimistic over the next three weeks. I’ve seen a lot of growth in this squad throughout the season — particularly after the Titans loss earlier this season. I don’t think we’ll see the same issues that plagued them next Sunday when they line up against Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill again.
They say this Chiefs defense is too smart for that. Frankly, I believe it.