Don’t look now, but your Kansas City Chiefs have the league’s second-ranked scoring defense.
Through the first quarter of the season, the Chiefs defense has held up their end of the deal, not allowing any of their opponents to score more than 20 points in a game. The New England Patriots were the latest foe to drop a game against the Chiefs, this time with a stellar defensive effort to capitalize on the opponent’s mistakes.
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 from a turnover-heavy defensive performance against the Patriots.
The Patriots came into this matchup with two goals: to run the ball with heavy personnel and to get the ball out of Brian Hoyer’s hands quickly. They succeeded in both avenues. The Patriots lined up in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers) 44% of the offensive snaps on the day. Naturally, that forced the Chiefs into their base defense more often, where they allowed five yards per play.
The Patriots also got the ball out lightning-quick this week, with Brian Hoyer the quickest quarterback in time to throw at 2.39 seconds. That made it difficult for the Chiefs pass rush to get to the quarterback quickly — especially one that was missing Chris Jones. Despite a concerted effort to take the rush out of the game, Taco Charlton still led the Chiefs with a 20% pressure rate on the day. Frank Clark — with significantly more pass rush reps — came in second on the team at a 15% pressure rate.
The run defense is typically better with Mike Pennel on the field, but it was especially stout with him this week. The defense had a 65% success rate against the run with Pennel on the field on the week, allowing 3.81 yards per rush.
Steve Spagnuolo continued to play a more man-heavy coverage scheme against the Patriots — which makes sense, given the matchup on the outside — trusting his secondary in man coverage over 57% of the passing snaps. Spagnuolo chose to send five or more rushers on 36% of the Patriots dropbacks on the day, bringing his yearly blitz total to 33.5%.
Rashad Fenton had a DAY on MNF.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 7, 2020
The INT was a great read, but this sequence earlier -- two plays apart -- helped completely stall a long Patriots drive.
Fearlessly takes on a pulling tackle to submarine and get a TFL on toss sweep, then comes up huge at the catch point for PBU. pic.twitter.com/a9ErtRwAoU
The Chiefs’ coaching staff has done more with less at the cornerback position than any team in the league, and the Week 4 matchup was a prime example of that. Despite being down fourth-round rookie L’Jarius Sneed, missing Bashaud Breeland due to suspension and Charvarius Ward playing through an injured hand, the Chiefs are third in the league in passing defense — allowing just 195 yards per game. They lead the league in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA ranking, largely because of the play of Rashad Fenton — who had a terrific game on Monday.
Fenton is the epitome of a Sam Madison cornerback: he’s smart, he’s strong at the catch point, and he’s fearless in run support. He was targeted on 26% of the Patriots passes this week and allowed a stingy 3.64 yards per target — good for a 63% defensive success rate. Fenton had multiple pass breakups and an interception on the day, but his willingness to attack a pulling tackle in space resulted in an early tackle for loss, as shown above. He followed the play up with a pass breakup and helped stall an early Patriots drive short of the red zone.
The Chiefs will get their full complement of cornerbacks at some point this season, but with guys like Fenton playing the way that they are, the Chiefs don’t look like they need to rush anybody back ahead of schedule.
Through the first 1/4 of the season, Taco Charlton has had a major impact as a pass rusher, leading KC in pressure rate.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 7, 2020
This two-hand skip-swipe caught Chiefs' fans eyes, but the tight corner is what makes this sack happen. Result is a massive turnover to help stop a deep drive pic.twitter.com/YAJbHPaywq
Taco Charlton was not active in Week 1 for the Chiefs defense. Many had questions about how long he would be with the team and what his real role on the defense would be in 2020.
The last three weeks, he’s been on a tear as a pass rusher.
Charlton leads all Chiefs pass rushers on the season with a staggering 25% pressure rate. He’s mostly filled a dime rusher role, meaning he gets to pin his ears back and attack the quarterback without much in the way of a running threat. There is significant value in that, especially with the Chiefs playing their dime defense almost 37% of the year.
Clark, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Alex Okafor and Danna are all going to — and should get — the majority of the base and nickel defensive end reps. However, Spagnuolo and Brendan Daly have Charlton in their back pocket as a ridiculously effective late-down pass rusher right now, and it’s one of the reasons the Chiefs are knocking on the door as a top-ten third-down defense early this season.
The KC run D had some up and down moments this week.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 7, 2020
Short trap catches #91 off balance, and #98 and #92 get sealed by single blockers, creating a huge rushing lane. A climbing tackle and FB insert takes out LB's and this is a huge gain.
Good design, but KC made it too easy. pic.twitter.com/nwdU24hlur
The Chiefs run defense is the only spot where they seem to have a consistent problem to this point. While the secondary is holding its own and the pass rush is getting home at the fifth-highest rate in the league, the Chiefs run defense is among the league’s worst.
Whether it be from poor run fits, missed tackles or simply a lack of speed to rally to the edge of the defense, the Chiefs have allowed teams to drag games out a little longer than they’d like through the run game. Monday was no exception, as the Patriots were able to rack up 185 yards rushing — the biggest rush on the play above.
However, it wasn’t all bad for the Chiefs run defense this week.
Something you may have missed
Here's an "up" moment for the Chiefs run D and good linebacker play.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 7, 2020
Motion kicks #54 down as the EMOL and pushes #50 into the B gap. Great stack by #50 of the LG and collects the FB, forming a wall. #53 fills the gap and #54's pursuit result in a good stop for KC's front. pic.twitter.com/mQSdiBPSDP
The Chiefs defense allowed a rush of 2 yards or less on 31% of designed run plays against the Patriots in Week 4. The previous high this season was 20% — against the Los Angeles Chargers. While there is definitely still room for improvement, strides were made this week against New England.
Some of those strides came because the Chiefs were forced into more four-down sets with Pennel and Derrick Nnadi on the interior. That’s a lot of run-stuffing ability in the center of the defense. Clark also played an exceptional game against the run, making it very difficult to gain significant yardage to his side of the field.
However, the major improvement for the Chiefs came from Spagnuolo’s run blitzes. Willie Gay Jr. got the first start of his young career and Spagnuolo opted to insert him into the B gap pre-snap often, asking him to stack the guard and close the open gap in the front. Gay performed this task well when asked and helped to free up the other linebackers to make plays, as shown above.
The Chiefs defense may never be particularly great against the run. The remaining 69% of the runs that weren’t stuffed short went for 8.5 yards per carry — and 6.6 yards per carry if you removed the 41-yard long run above. However, they’re beginning to come up with more stops of short-yardage, forcing the opposition to go against their stellar pass defense on later downs. It still may come back to bite them at some point this season, but right now it appears to be a winning formula.
The bottom line
The Chiefs defense was arguably the biggest part of why the team came out with a win in Week 4. We haven’t been able to say that much — if at all — since Patrick Mahomes took over as the starting quarterback for this team.
The Patriots were down a starting quarterback, lost a right tackle, and generally looked out of sorts on offense. Clearly, a Cam Newton-led offense changes this game in approach and execution. However, the Chiefs maximized their opportunities against the Patriots and made them pay for their mistakes, despite absences of their own.
It was an opportunistic performance — but not one that should be ignored or minimized because of the opponent. This was a three-point game in the fourth quarter, after the Patriots had driven into the red zone twice without getting points. The Chiefs defense proceeded to tack on a touchdown of their own through Tyrann Mathieu and came up with a late, game-sealing interception to put the nail in the coffin.
There are going to be many instances of the Chiefs dealing with changes in the opponent gameplan, opposing personnel shifting in and out of lineups, and injuries/absences of their own this season. The team standing on top will likely be the one most able to adjust and capitalize on the ever-shifting landscape.
Through four weeks, the Chiefs defense looks able to do just that.