After Week 10 of the regular season, the discussion surrounding the Kansas City Chiefs defense was about their inability to stop the run and how it would cost them in January. The Tennessee Titans had beaten up the Chiefs’ front and created extended drives that could prove fatal in the playoffs.
This past Sunday, the Chiefs defense faced that same Titans offense — this time with a significantly different result.
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 discuss what helped the Chiefs defense perform well on the way to their first Super Bowl performance in 50 years.
KC did a fantastic job staying assignment sound late in the game against TEN.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 23, 2020
Sorensen kicks out into the flat, taking away Henry initially. He drops to take away the shallow zone, and Clark beats his man to flush Tannehill. Wilson drives on the receiver for a negative play. pic.twitter.com/FeRq6Z4vkU
After a rocky start to the game, the Chiefs defense settled in and started playing more assignment-sound football. This showed up in the way that they handled some of the play-action passing that killed them early in Sunday’s matchup.
Daniel Sorensen has been a revelation to close out the year, and he’s helped to make up for the loss of Juan Thornhill. His quick-play identification and aggression have showed up in the playoffs, and the above play is good example of it.
Sorensen sniffs out this play early, then drops into a shallow zone when Damien Wilson rotates over to the flat. Frank Clark holds the edge, identifies pass, and is able to shed, forcing Tannehill to throw to the back in the flat — despite being covered. Tannehill wanted to go there early or hit the deeper receiver if the defense broke on the flat. Sorensen’s ability to take away both forces the pressure and the negative play, despite him not getting credit for any of it.
Spags got creative with his blitzes, dropping Kpassagnon from 3 tech to cover the seam route.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 23, 2020
Slot and LB blitz, box safety drops to deep 1/2. LB mugging the A gap drops to boundary and TK carries up the seam, gets his head around, and breaks up the pass. pic.twitter.com/AbH55aPdHB
Last year, the discussion coming out of the AFC championship Game was Bob Sutton’s inability to put something unpredictable on the field. The New England Patriots got the look they wanted for much of the day and were able to take advantage of it. Just one year later, the on-field product was significantly less predictable, and it resulted in a few key stops like the one above.
Spagnuolo has always been an aggressive blitzer, and he sent the house early and often to force Tannehill out of his comfort zone on Sunday. He’s aligned Ben Niemann in the A-gap — something common throughout the day — showing a five-man pressure. Niemann drops into coverage while the box safety and slot blitz off of the condensed splits to the boundary. The offense has a good play call on, and gets some curls at the sticks that should be open before the blitz gets home.
Spagnuolo drops Tanoh Kpassagnon — who had a phenomenal game on Sunday — into coverage from his 3-technique alignment. Tannehill sees a defensive lineman in coverage and takes the best look, but Kpassagnon’s athleticism and length allow him to carry up the seam and take away the route for the breakup.
It’s not an easy task to go up against the unpredictable fronts and blitzes that Spagnuolo brings on a week-to-week basis, and we see offenses struggle with his in-game adjustments. Compared to the situation this Chiefs team was in last year, Spagnuolo has been a revelation — and one of the major components in this Super Bowl run.
Early in the game, TEN found success with their PA passing game.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 23, 2020
PA forces the three second level defenders up while the deep safety gets depth in single-high. This leaves a massive hole in the middle of the field that makes for an easy pitch and catch for giant yardage. pic.twitter.com/WA7iMEPIh6
While the Chiefs largely bottled up Derrick Henry on Sunday, their commitment to stopping the run meant that they gave up some easy throws to Tannehill off of play-action.
Tannehill had a great year, but his numbers were definitely helped along by defenses stacking the box, like in the play above. Tennessee is operating out of 21 personnel, and the receivers have condensed splits. The Chiefs counter with their 4-3 defense and roll a safety into the box for an eight-man front. All three of the second-level defenders step forward off of the snap and bite on the run action, and that leaves a massive hole in the middle of the field for Tannehill to throw into.
This is a good play design to get the receiver into space, but with the deep safety getting depth, that front biting on the play-action leaves it up to just the cornerback to make the play here. Bashaud Breeland opens up to shuffle and doesn’t feel the route break, leaving an easy pitch and catch for the Titans.
Even when the PA wasn't as evident, the space was still there in the secondary early. Bootleg from Tannehill on a flood concept sees the boundary defenders in conflict. The flat, drag, and out-and-up are wide open, and the QB hits Smith to set up the goal to go. pic.twitter.com/HhFy06CB4Z— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 23, 2020
The play-action didn’t even have to sell hard in the early going to catch the Chiefs front with eyes locked in the backfield. The Titans like to run these flood concepts with the shallow drag off of play-action, particularly with an attached bootleg.
The second-level defenders bite on the run-action, then shift toward the flat. Their depth is poor, leaving both the flat and the out open — as well as the drag in the middle of the field. The receiver turns the out route upfield, and Tannehill makes the wise throw up the boundary to set up a goal-to-go scenario.
It’s very clear that the Chiefs weren’t going to let Henry beat them early on. They put extra numbers in the box and forced the Titans to lean on their play-action passing game. That strategy worked in the Titans favor early, but some adjustments helped take it away later in the first half. By the time the Titans got the ball back in the second half, they were losing and couldn’t lean heavily on the run or the play-action anymore.
The bottom line
Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense came out with the intent of stopping Derrick Henry and the Titans rushing attack. They knew that if they could take the run out of the equation, they could get to Tannehill through blitzing and good coverage on the back-end on obvious passing downs.
They were right.
When the Titans offense was forced to become more one-dimensional with their passing attack, the Chiefs were able to stop them on three consecutive drives to take and keep the lead. A clearly-defined plan — take away the run until the offense clicks — worked to the Chiefs’ advantage and earned them deserved praise.
I’ll talk more about Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu, and the Chiefs defense in the upcoming week. They’ve helped to revolutionize the culture in the locker room and changed the way this team responds to challenges and adversity. It cannot be overstated how important that change is for this defense.
However, this week is Spagnuolo’s to wear the crown. A good game plan, great adjustments and unpredictable aggression helped to shut down the offense that made them look “soft” in Week 10. The defense that many were “worried about in January” just walked through January with strong performances en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
Spagnuolo was built for the challenge of re-making the Chiefs defense. Through 20 weeks of the 2019-20 season, he’s passed that challenge with flying colors.