On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs were facing an overhauled Denver Broncos team hoping to get back in the mix of the AFC West. Even though the Chiefs offense did not have a particularly sharp day, the defense made sure to get it done. A stifling, turnover-heavy performance naturally led to plenty of positives to discuss — and a few negatives, too.
Let’s take a look at where the Chiefs defense showed well — and where it didn’t — and then we’ll find the good, the bad and something you may have missed during a dominant defensive performance against the Broncos.
Denver utilized heavy personnel, which meant the Chiefs defense was in their base 4-3 for 39% of the game — leaving plenty of snaps for rookie Willie Gay Jr. Later in the week, our Matt Lane will be doing a full film breakdown of Gay’s day.
Despite holding a lead throughout the game, the Chiefs only spent 19% of their snaps in their dime defense. But since the Chiefs opted to give some backups extra snaps, they spent the end of the game — typically dime-heavy — in their nickel defense, giving Gay, BoPete Keyes, Armani Watts, and Khalen Saunders valuable repetitions.
Prior to seeing Drew Lock and the Broncos, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had brought blitzes on over 30% of opponent’s dropbacks. With the team short on defensive ends, I expected a few more blitzes on Sunday. But somewhat surprisingly, Spagnuolo only brought 5 or more rushers on 13% of Lock’s passing attempts, relying mostly on the Chiefs’ four-man pass rush. Nonetheless, they were able to rattle Lock, forcing inaccurate throws.
For the second week in a row, Chris Jones led all Chiefs rushers with a phenomenal 28% pressure rate. He was — by far — the best pass rusher on the day. He’s really gotten into a rhythm the past two weeks. With the Chiefs normal pass-rushing rotation out the window due to injuries, Jones has been stepping up in the moment they need him most.
The story of the game for KC was turnovers by the defense, and this was the best of the bunch.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 26, 2020
Cover 0 Crossfire blitz over the RG against DEN's empty alignment. Lock throws hot to the flat, but blitz causes him to float, and Sorensen jumps the out route for the pick six. pic.twitter.com/zkdqx2R2aQ
The story of the game against the Broncos was turnovers — specifically, turnovers that ended four Denver drives.
While Spagnuolo didn’t bring a lot of heavy blitzes, when he did, they were extremely effective. When bringing five or more rushers, the Chiefs had a 83% defensive success rate — including this Daniel Sorensen pick-six.
Spagnuolo has gotten more and more aggressive in his blitzes. Here, he pulls out a Cover 0 blitz on the Broncos’ 45-yard line. A crossfire blitz over the right guard makes Anthony Hitchens a free rusher with a clean shot at the quarterback. For the second week in a row, Hitchens lays a big hit on the the quarterback, who floats a pass to the flat. Sorensen makes a terrific read, undercuts the route and takes it the distance.
KC's coverage was excellent early against DEN.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 26, 2020
Motion to 3x1, KC rotates to split safety on 3rd and long. Apex presses lead WR in bunch, then ID's whip route quickly to break back outside, passing #2 to hook. Safety takes #1 vertical, and #21 splits vert and flat at sticks. pic.twitter.com/z5qBqlcqfv
It wasn’t just blitzing that got the job done; the secondary was terrific as well. Outside of the Las Vegas Raiders game, this Chiefs secondary has largely been good. Bashaud Breeland’s return has sparked some quick communication in the secondary, preventing late motions — like the one shown here — from putting the Chiefs in a disjointed state.
The Broncos motion sets the defense to defend a 3x1 bunch set; they quickly transition to a Cover 7 In-Out call. This is a two-deep zone with the outside cornerbacks in a trail (or dog) technique, with the Apex defender responsible for the first of the #2 or #3 receivers to the flat.
As Lock flushes to the passing strength, he finds that solid coverage from Tyrann Mathieu in the middle of the field, Rashad Fenton in the flat and a combination of Juan Thornhill and Breeland on the vertical route have taken away all of his options for a first-down throw. Breeland in particular has positioned himself at the sticks — midpointing the vertical and the flat — making himself ready to undercut the deep pass or fly up to make the tackle short of the sticks.
KC got beat up by backside cuts in the run game this week, really missing DE's in their rotation.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 26, 2020
Inside zone, RB presses the line. #95 does well to cut the frontside gap, but the backside DE gets blown off the ball by a TE, allowing the RB to cut back for huge yardage. pic.twitter.com/DagdRRVVox
The Chiefs’ biggest struggles against the Broncos came in the running game — particularly against back side cuts. The Broncos largely tried to avoid Frank Clark, but had many inside-zone or split-zone looks that had blockers flow to him — with the back then cutting to the opposite defensive end.
It was a smart move by Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, taking advantage of the depleted defensive end rotation and the Chiefs’ less-agile linebacker corps. Phillip Lindsay was especially potent in these split and inside-zone looks, forcing the Chiefs to try to make pursuit tackles outside of the tackle box.
The Chiefs defense needs significantly better play from their defensive ends against the run. Tanoh Kpassagnon and Demone Harris struggled this week, but Taco Charlton and Alex Okafor have also struggled to set a hard edge against the run. Even Clark — typically a brick wall in rushing snaps — was caught out on at least one of the Broncos’ bigger runs. With Chiefs linebackers lacking true pursuit range against a back like Lindsay, it was paramount that the defensive ends contain stretch runs. Unfortunately, the Chiefs struggled to do just that.
Something you may have missed
"SPADE" call here by Spags.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 26, 2020
Slot, WILL, and open side CB involved in the blitz. MIKE mugs A gap and DE's engage to sell an 8 man pressure. DE's drop to flat and RT doesn't kick out on CB. Big sack just before half to kill the drive. pic.twitter.com/Pvx1UrWHwK
Perhaps Spagnuolo’s most interesting alignments this week came with Niemann on the field — including this creative blitz that helps stall out a Broncos drive just before the half.
Jim Johnson (and his coaching tree) call this a Spade blitz. As we see, it brings the WILL linebacker, slot cornerback and open-side corner on a blitz — while the MIKE mugs the A-gap. For the offensive line, this is effectively an eight-man pressure. But the MIKE drops out into coverage — and both defensive ends simulate pressure before they also drop into coverage. The confusion leads to a free rush for Charvarius Ward off the edge — the easiest sack of his career.
Chris Jones has been asking to play DE, and he got a handful of reps in the dime this week.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 26, 2020
3 down lineman with Gay pressing the LOS. Jones with the bull rush to push the LT into the QB's lap. Rips through and lays a hit on Lock to force an inaccurate pass to the flat. pic.twitter.com/tkKOAX0oZZ
With the Chiefs rotation depleted, Andy Reid hinted at Jones playing some defensive end against Denver — and Spagnuolo used him there in some dime snaps. You may remember that when Jones had defensive end snaps in base against the Tennessee Titans during last year’s regular-season matchup, they weren’t great — but his dime reps at defensive end on Sunday were quite good.
Spagnuolo has also taken to putting some creative linebacker pairings on the field this season, placing Gay on the line of scrimmage as a rusher/spy — or even putting Damien Wilson next to Niemann in the nickel. Against the Raiders, we also saw Hitchens get some early-down dime linebacker snaps next to Sorensen.
Spagnuolo is obviously experimenting with these looks early this season — and that versatility should help in the long run.
The bottom line
Early on, the Chiefs defense took the ball away — and that made the difference in the game. They made nearly every single Broncos mistake count against them. That in itself is difficult to do.
But this is not your typical opportunistic defense. Spagnuolo and his coaching staff have done a terrific job organizing the secondary to take away the pass from some good passing offenses. They’ve gotten after the opposing quarterbacks well — Jones in particular — and their diverse blitzing schemes have made it difficult for offenses to make their protection calls.
The Chiefs are lacking in two major areas: run defense and the dime bend-but-don’t-break scenarios we often see because the Chiefs also possess a high-powered offense. The run defense may always suffer — Spagnuolo is willing to give it away to prevent quick scores — and the dime scenarios are usually the things players like Mathieu and Clark want to talk about after the games.
This has been a tough stretch of offenses to begin the Chiefs’ season; on average, things will get easier from here. But we’ve seen a well-rounded defense thus far. We might just see this defense really get into a rhythm against some of the less-than-stellar opponents on the horizon.