The Kansas City Chiefs defense had built up goodwill with its fans during the first four weeks of the season. The unit appeared to continue with the strides they were making to close out their 2019 Super Bowl run — and there was a lot of hope the defense would be just as good as the offense.
In Week 5 against the Las Vegas Raiders, all of that goodwill was undone.
In an overall poor performance, the Chiefs defense had blown coverages, missed tackles and a severe lack of pass rushing. Historically, the Chiefs have had dominant performances against Raiders quarterback Derek Carr — but in this matchup, the Raiders were able to move the ball and score at will.
Let’s take a look at where the Chiefs showed well — and where they didn’t — and then we’ll find the good, the bad and something you may have missed during a poor defensive performance against the Raiders.
After weeks of positives, the Chiefs didn’t have many of them against the Raiders. They allowed a catastrophic 14.79 yards per play on third down — by far the worst of the season. Even worse, when the Raiders had 4-6 yards remaining to gain a first down, the Chiefs defense allowed 15.43 yards per play. Kansas City had a 0% defensive success rate in those situations.
If you felt like the Chiefs struggled to pressure the quarterback, you were correct. Kansas City’s duo of highly-paid defensive linemen — Frank Clark and Chris Jones — managed just one pressure (from Jones). Tanoh Kpassagnon was the only other lineman to get pressure.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo tried to ratchet up the pressure through blitzes, sending an extra rusher roughly 30% of the passing snaps. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, Carr was able to find success in these situations, averaging 13.6 yards per throw.
Hitchens was especially vocal -- calling out the LV runs & adjusting the front (Jones on the play below) -- and was able to get downhill with some power. Nnadi with the excellent anchor holds the double, Hitch beats the LT while plowing through the LG and shuts down cutback. pic.twitter.com/FOM1EL5cXD— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 13, 2020
Arguably the two bright spots on the Chiefs defense were returning cornerback Bashaud Breeland and much-maligned linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Hitchens has been significantly better in 2020 than we’ve seen him in Kansas City. Sunday’s game may have been one of the best in his career.
Hitchens is a smart player. His value is largely found in his ability to set up the fronts, get everybody on the same page and help others to succeed. But on Sunday, Hitchens was the player to do the damage. He made some impact plays.
Hitchens has seemed especially aware of the offensive audibles this season; he’s been able to make great adjustments when the offenses shift. On this play, Hitchens changed the run fit — even directing Jones to the gap — and gets downhill to make a play.
When Hitchens was on the field, the Raiders averaged just 3.86 yards per rush — and despite playing through an injury, he didn’t allow a reception in coverage. That’s a significant improvement from what Chiefs fans have been used to seeing from Hitchens in the last three seasons.
The difference in the game was blown coverages and explosive passes for the Raiders.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 13, 2020
KC came out ready to cut every shallow middle throw, leaving their CB's to handle deep shots against Carr. Time and time again, the Chiefs blew the read and Carr made good throws to space. pic.twitter.com/nqkL2ZIHOe
The Chiefs came into this game daring Carr, Henry Ruggs III, Darren Waller and Nelson Agholor to beat them deep. Carr hasn’t stretched the field vertically very often in his career, so the original concept was sound: flood the shallow and intermediate routes, have the safeties play downhill and stop the run.
But Carr didn’t just take those opportunities to throw downfield; he maximized them. Charvarius Ward had an especially poor game — leading to his demotion in favor of Rashad Fenton after the half — struggling to run with the Raiders receivers in man coverage and having some poor late rotations in zone. Ward gave up 24.5 yards per target, leading to some big gains (and scores) for the Raiders offense.
Ward wasn’t the only culprit, though. Waller victimized Daniel Sorensen on an important third-and-medium man-coverage snap. The late throw to Hunter Renfrow found Sorensen in no-man’s land in his zone curl/flat responsibility, leading to a mix-up with Ward that allowed the completion.
But singling out those two players doesn’t mean that the rest of the secondary played well; that’s far from the truth. There was an overall lack of focus (and apparent lack of communication) on the back end that we haven’t seen from Kansas City in almost an entire calendar year.
The good news is that this was an atypical performance for the Chiefs secondary. They’re usually not this disorganized — and normally play with better effort than they did against the Raiders. Hopefully, the back-end players will remember this game as an example of how not to play.
KC largely did better than expected against LV on the ground, but gave up a massive run here.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 13, 2020
#53 out, #56 at the MIKE. #95 gets blown off the ball by the double, and #56 misreads the puller, ending up late to the gap. #54 swallowed up by puller, #49 misses tackle. Big gain. pic.twitter.com/NabDD5gHQV
The Chiefs linebackers, however, played above their usual baseline. Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Willie Gay Jr. led a formidable base defense that only allowed 3.47 yards per rush against a good rushing offense.
But for the second week in a row, we’re having to take a look at Ben Niemann. The Chiefs’ dime linebacker is in charge of setting the fronts in that formation; the Chiefs ask him to read the offense and make adjustments. He’s a smart player who has earned the coaches’ trust.
Niemann is also the Chiefs backup MIKE linebacker. While Niemann may have the IQ for the position, he lacks the instincts and explosion to play the way Spagnuolo wants. When Hitchens has had to leave the field due to injury — in Week 6 of last year and for a stretch of the Raiders game — the front struggles to maintain the same sort of discipline. Sometimes that’s due to Niemann’s inability to process quickly and get to the spot.
This play shows an example of just that. The situation obviously isn’t ideal for Niemann — Jones gets blown off the ball by a double team — but Niemann is taking a shallow angle to an interior gap, rather than reading the path of the pulling blocker and cutting off the runner’s angle. By taking this angle, he puts himself in the path of the right tackle — who simply has to throw his back side in the path to spring the runner.
Niemann isn’t going anywhere. He’s a good special teamer who has earned the trust of the staff as the Chiefs’ dime linebacker — and he can play multiple spots. But that also means that the Chiefs trust him as their backup MIKE linebacker — which has been a problem when he’s been asked to take that role.
I have previously complained that the Chiefs did not bring in competition for Hitchens at MIKE linebacker — and this is the result. Hopefully Niemann can make strides, turning around his poor start to the season, which has led to the loss of his base WILL linebacker spot and his struggles as the backup MIKE. If not, the Chiefs may have to prioritize the position in 2021.
Something you may have missed
Spags dropped something he doesn't use often this week with a dual 3T, dual wide 9 DL.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 13, 2020
Reduced depth from the linebackers -- shooting the A gaps -- allow the 3T's to control the B and the DE's to hold the edge. Condensed receiver splits allow the slot/safety to fill inside DE. pic.twitter.com/np3JHRuhVz
The defense stuck out like a sore thumb, so there wasn’t much to miss against the Raiders. However, Spagnuolo did bust out of some of his tendencies against certain personnel to put some non-traditional (for him, at least) things on tape.
With the Raiders in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends two wide receivers) and Devontae Booker at running back, the Chiefs adjusted their formation to prevent the stretch running game. Spagnuolo typically implements an “over” or an “under” look with a nose tackle and a three-technique shading the strong or weak side of the formation. This typically shifts the defensive ends to a five or seven-technique.
But the alignment we see here has two three-technique defensive tackles and both defensive ends in a two point stance, aligned in a wide-nine position. The off-ball linebackers are at a reduced depth, preparing to shoot the A-gaps normally filled by a nose tackle in case the play doesn’t go to the outside. The run is to the outside, the defensive end sets the edge and the reduced splits of the receivers allow the safeties to participate in the run fit. The result is a short gain.
The bottom line
There’s no two ways about it: on Sunday, this Chiefs defense was poor.
The defense made major coverage mistakes, struggled to tackle in the open field, lacked the physical ability to run with the Raiders’ weapons — and on some plays, displayed a shocking lack of effort. As I said before: for some fans, the goodwill the defense had acquired is all but gone.
The Chiefs’ pass rush — which had been dominant through four games — completely disappeared. Frank Clark was nowhere to be found against Kolton Miller and Trent Brown. The two pass-rushing specialists — Taco Charlton and Alex Okafor — also struggled to make an impact. Even Chris Jones — who typically finds success against Gabe Jackson and rookie offensive linemen — only made one play in the passing game. With a shaky secondary behind them, the impact up front was sorely missed on Sunday.
There is a light at the end of this tunnel, though. This Raiders game bucked nearly all of the trends that the Chiefs defense had set to date. The pass coverage was chock full of mistakes — and the pass rush was non-existent. If these issues continue going forward, it will be truly worrisome — but they are fixable. There’s reason to believe that this defense can right the ship; as soon as Monday against the Buffalo Bills, they could get back to playing the way they started the season.
Another performance like this one, however, might be cause for some panic.