There are 24 NFL teams that will not be playing football this weekend. Four of the eight playing this weekend won’t play again. The following weekend, four more will take their place. The Kansas City Chiefs — through some absolute magic from the Miami Dolphins — are one of them.
In their Week 17 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Chiefs defense once again stood tall. It wasn’t quite as pretty as some of their other recent performances, but some timely stops — and two terrific interceptions — helped the Chiefs lock up the number two seed and a first-round bye.
As we do each week, we’ll take a look at the numbers to see where the Chiefs found success and failure. Then we’ll then take a look at something good, something bad and something you may have missed in the Chargers game.
Defensive formations - Week 17
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On a down-to-down basis, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s group struggled a little bit more than in some other recent games; the typically-good third-down defense allowed the Chargers to convert on 53% of their attempts. In the second quarter, the numbers were poor: the defensive success rate was a paltry 33%.
The defense did, however, handle their business at the end of the game. In the fourth quarter, a 62% success rate helped the Chiefs close things out — and that included an 80% success rate with under two minutes remaining.
Another week featured another game script that made heavy use of the dime alignment with six defensive backs. With the Chiefs holding the lead for much of the game, Spagnuolo was willing to put the dime on the field to keep the Chargers offense from making explosive plays. Somewhat surprisingly, he still used the dime on early downs — even after Juan Thornhill and Bashaud Breeland weren’t available.
Unfortunately, these extra coverage defenders weren’t able to limit the Chargers running backs in the passing game — something I’ll address in a little bit.
Pass rushing - Week 17
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The Chiefs four-man rush didn’t have the success it has had in previous games — but in no small part, this was due to the Chargers calling quick dump-offs that prevented Kansas City from affecting Philip Rivers. The numbers for three-man rushes were boosted by some stops at the end of the game — including a sack by Chris Jones.
Pass coverages - Week 17
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In a bit of a surprise, Spagnuolo opted to play more man coverage against the Chargers than in the previous matchup against them. The Chargers dynamic receivers were able to move the ball a little more easily than the Chiefs would have preferred; without a couple of drops, Rivers and company would have had a truly big day in the passing game. After Thornhill’s injury, Spagnuolo did adjust his coverages to play a little more 2-man coverage. I’ll get to that in a minute, too.
Great execution by the entire KC defense to come up with this big TFL.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 1, 2020
Man covg across the board, LAC clearout playside with a 9 route from the backside slot. Deep safety brackets slot, both EDGE get pressure and force QB to float backwards. DT reroutes RB, LB drives to flat. pic.twitter.com/4oBo1MuZym
This Chiefs defense is playing significantly better team football than we’ve seen in previous years. This is part of the reason why they are a top-10 unit in points allowed. This play is a great example of a team success — one that resulted in a big tackle for loss.
Every single player does their job at a high level. The cornerbacks stick in tight coverage; Thornhill is bracketing Keenan Allen. The defensive ends get pressure, forcing Rivers to float the pass to the flat from his back foot. Jones is able to re-route Austin Ekeler, allowing Anthony Hitchens to drive hard to the flat and come up with the stop.
This defense still shows plenty of individual efforts that can change games — but in 2019, their consistent team effort has made all the difference.
Fantastic four man look by Spagnuolo and Daly here. Jones as weak DE, Kpassagnon as a 3 tech. Clark aligned as a 1-tech with Niemann mugging the B gap. Suggs kicks out and chips the TE.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 1, 2020
Clark and Suggs run a TEX stunt and Suggs' lateral agility beats blocker for the sack. pic.twitter.com/ROh0oTB9vZ
Terrell Suggs’ first sack as a Chief came from a wonderful effort up front — and an interesting alignment.
During the offseason, one of our main discussions revolved around the Chiefs letting Dee Ford and Justin Houston leave Kansas City. Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly’s tendency to use their personnel in diverse arrangements necessitated players that could do so at a high level.
On this play, Frank Clark is aligned as a 1-technique — with Jones as a wide 7-technique. Suggs is even standing — head up with a tight end — chipping him before executing the stunt loop.
This grouping of personnel is sound enough against the run to keep the Chargers honest — but still has the pass-rushing juice required to execute a stunt and get a sack. Having players that can line up anywhere along the line helps Spagnuolo and Daly build a diverse pass-rushing plan that adds confusion along the offensive line.
LAC was able to take advantage of KC's 2-man coverages to move the chains on third downs this week.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 1, 2020
Slot drops to opposite deep 1/2, man across the board up front. Keenan Allen's drag gets separation on Ward, easy pitch and catch with space in the MOF to convert the 3rd and 12. pic.twitter.com/JnqDmq9T0k
The Chiefs struggled in both man and zone coverages against the Chargers. But at the end of the game, the man coverages on third down were especially rough.
With Thornhill out of the game, Spagnuolo leaned heavily on split-safety looks to minimize the amount of ground that Armani Watts and Kendall Fuller had to cover on the back end of the formation. As we see in this play, this meant that when Spagnuolo wanted to play man coverage, there was be no middle hook defender to take away crossing routes.
Allen beats Charvarius Ward on the drag route — and the middle of the field is wide open. Rivers has the time to sit back and wait for the window to open — and Allen has an easy pickup on third-and-12.
2-Man again, this time taking advantage of Hitchens in the flat.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 1, 2020
Clearouts deep push the safeties deep, Gordon with a flat route through the A gap. Acres of space on third and nine, and LAC is able to move the sticks against man. pic.twitter.com/hqYOF024qF
The exploitation of 2-man coverage happened with the linebackers, too.
On this third-and-9, Melvin Gordon releases through the A gap and takes a sharp cut to the flat. Hitchens can’t hang with Gordon, so it turns into a 15-yard gain for a first down.
While the Chiefs won’t often see the type of weapons the Chargers have, it still raises some concerns for the postseason. Without having a true centerfield safety, Spagnuolo will be relying on more split-safety coverages, taking a player out of the low/high hole and allowing more space through clearout route concepts. That will make some of the Chiefs poorer-transitioning coverage defenders — and the slower linebackers — far more exploitable for explosive plays.
Something you may have missed
Fenton looks so much more comfortable as a boundary CB , and he had a good game out wide.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 1, 2020
Opens hips 45 while feathering and reading the receiver's release. Opens hips and reads through WR to the QB to see throw coming. Drive through inside hip to attack ball at the catch point. pic.twitter.com/joNTVwHdfc
With Bashaud Breeland leaving the game — and Morris Claiborne inactive — Rashad Fenton was forced into boundary duty against the Chargers. Fenton finally got to play more of the role in which I feel he is more comfortable — and he looked pretty good doing it.
On this play — while playing with outside leverage — Fenton is comfortable in his shuffle. He’s light on his feet, feathering well to gain depth while still matching the receiver’s release. On the turn, he’s able to fully open his hips, looking through the receiver into the backfield so he’ll know when to drive on the receiver’s hip for the breakup.
Fenton isn’t the most fluid defender — and he doesn’t have exceptional long speed — but none of the Chiefs cornerbacks are particularly strong in either of those areas. He does, however, play with good technique as a zone cornerback on the boundary. I’d like to see him get more repetitions there — and continue to develop in Spagnuolo’s scheme.
The bottom line
The Chiefs defensive performance may have been better than it was in the Week 11 matchup against the Chargers — but there were still some concerns that they’ll have to address in the playoffs.
Chargers running backs beat the Chiefs through the air and on the ground. Ekeler and Gordon again proved to be very bad matchups for Chiefs hook defenders — and the Chiefs will face more players like them in the AFC playoffs. Spagnuolo has attempted to counter with coverage linebackers and extra safeties — though results have been mixed.
Thornhill’s absence will definitely be a major storyline. No other safety on the Chiefs roster has earned Spagnuolo’s trust to play in single-high alignments regularly. If the Chiefs have to rely on split-safety looks through the playoffs, the lighter boxes may allow opponents more success in the running game.
Still, to close out the season, Spagnuolo has his defense coming up with ways to keep the opposition guessing — and out of the end zone. As of late, the Chiefs’ defensive line has played very well. Outside of the Chargers game, the cornerbacks have been key down the stretch.
There’s reason for optimism entering the postseason. This isn’t like Bob Sutton’s 2018 Chiefs defense, which had a good Week 17 performance and a terrific game in the divisional round — and then couldn’t meet the challenge of the AFC championship. Spagnuolo has been unpredictable, aggressive and logical in his approach to the game; when the defense is asked to step up, it feels like they’re able to hold up their end of the deal.
And in this final push toward a championship, they will repeatedly be asked to step up.
Spagnuolo has been here before — and his defense is locked in to his mentality and approach to the game. It already feels like Spagnuolo has been a slam-dunk hire as defensive coordinator — and his best might be yet to come.