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Week 14 defensive film review: Frank Clark, Willie Gay and a good effort despite end-of-game struggles

Let’s see where the Chiefs defense found success (and failure) against the Dolphins.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs needed a victory over the playoff-contending Miami Dolphins on Sunday to clinch the AFC West title and keep their hopes of securing the AFC’s top seed alive. They did just that, showcasing some ridiculously high moments that proved that they are arguably the best team in the NFL. They also had some head-scratching moments of poor play that ended up making this game a much closer affair than it seemed.

It wasn’t just an unsteady offensive performance, as the defense was guilty of it as well. Steve Spagnuolo’s unit played particularly well in the middle of the game but couldn’t quite close things out at the end.

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 Week 14’s matchup.

The numbers

The Chiefs once again played an exceptional third quarter, posting a 68% defensive success rate and allowing just 2.42 yards per play against the Dolphins. That makes the fifth time the Chiefs have posted a defensive success rate of greater than 60% coming out of the half this year — by far their best quarter in season-long numbers.

Last week against the Denver Broncos, the Chiefs’ base and nickel defenses played well against the run, and they repeated the feat again this week. The Chiefs allowed just 3.06 yards per carry against those fronts — and 2.67 yards per carry against the base defense. The Dolphins and Broncos offensive lines haven’t been top-notch this season, but it’s still good to see the run defense stepping up as this team approaches the playoffs.

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that the Chiefs’ dime defense was its worst performing unit on the day. The dime produced just a 36% defensive success rate, capped by an abysmal 20% defensive success rate in the fourth quarter alone. The Chiefs knew that the Dolphins needed to pass — and quickly — but couldn’t come up with the necessary plays to get in front of the sticks, let alone get off the field.

From an individual perspective, Frank Clark led all rushers this week with a 10.3% pressure rate, followed immediately up by Mike Danna, Tershawn Wharton and Alex Okafor. All three were within 1% of Clark, making it a difficult day for Tua Tagovailoa. Danna led all defensive linemen in run defense numbers this week. The defense posted a 71% defensive success rate and 1.71 yards per carry with Danna on the field. Derrick Nnadi came in second this week — at a 58% success rate and 2 yards per carry.

The good

The four-man pass rush finally came to life on Sunday.

Yes, the Dolphins were missing some offensive line help, and they consistently lost weapons from an already-depleted group throughout the day, but the Chiefs defense was able to make their four-man rush work this week.

Through three quarters — before the Dolphins went to the no-huddle quick passing game — the Chiefs defense had four different players with a sack and four above a 10% pressure rate, led by Danna at 15.4%. The Chiefs were able to throw waves of rushers at the Dolphins offensive line and still found plenty of success rushing the passer, which is what you would expect in this matchup.

Rushing the passer can be a bit of a “rhythm” scenario. Sometimes getting a couple of pressures and sacks can open the floodgates and come in waves. The Chiefs have a tough task against a good offensive line next week, so answers about the effectiveness of the rush will come soon enough. For now, it’s great to see the defensive line getting after the quarterback at this rate again.

Just because the four-man rush was more effective doesn’t mean that Spagnuolo backed off his blitz tendencies. The Chiefs defense sent five or more rushers on 32% of the Dolphins dropbacks — almost exactly his season-long blitz rate.

The Chiefs’ blitz success rate was strong against the Dolphins — coming in at a 58% defensive success rate for the game — and forced Tagovailoa off his spot multiple times. He threw some terribly inaccurate passes in the second and third quarters of the game and floated the above pass for an interception to Tyrann Mathieu.

One-third of the Chiefs' pressures on the day came from outside the defensive line, who — as stated above — had a good day rushing the passer. That’s a healthy chunk that proves the scheme is working well, especially since the Chiefs aren’t routinely getting beat deep off of the blitz. Spagnuolo really has had a strong year thus far with his blitz calls, and it’s nice to see it continue to ramp up as this team heads toward the playoffs.

The bad

It would be interesting to see the narratives coming out of this game if Juan Thornhill was able to come up with this interception near the start of the fourth quarter.

The Chiefs were carrying a 20-point lead after a ridiculous one-handed interception by Xavien Howard denied them points for the fourth time deep in Dolphins territory. After a broken-up pass — that may have been able to be intercepted itself — the Chiefs defense gave up consecutive plays of 13, 5, 23, 10 and 29 en route to this touchdown.

Even the smallest hint of pressure on this play from Clark collapsing the pocket forced Tagovailoa to drift away and throw the ball a little bit behind the receiver, where Thornhill could make a play on it. Eager to make a game-altering play, Thornhill went for the interception and missed, allowing Mike Gesicki to catch his second touchdown of the day.

I don’t fault Thornhill for trying to make a play. If he comes up with that interception, the Dolphins’ next drive — taking nearly six minutes — still leaves a two-score game with under five minutes to play. Miami likely doesn’t call timeouts, and the Chiefs would be more likely to run out the clock with a 13-point lead. However, a play like this shows how much the narrative of “closing out the game” can hinge on a single missed opportunity.

Late in the game, the Chiefs defense attempted to stop Miami’s passing attack with several coverages, blitzes and stunts. None of them were particularly effective, and Tagovailoa was able to quickly attack the middle of the field through simple in-breaking route combinations.

As a defensive coordinator, allowing the offense to run the clock through passes to the middle of the field can be an effective strategy — if you are able to shore things up in the red zone. However, the Chiefs currently have the worst red-zone defense in the league, giving up a touchdown on 75% of the opponents’ visits.

The defense tried to alter the looks that they were giving Tagovailoa late, but the execution was poor. They struggled to check to empty coverages, couldn’t stick tight in man against Miami’s backups and gave open windows so fast that the four-man rush couldn’t get home. It didn’t cost the team this week, but with Spagnuolo’s propensity to go to these dime looks late and protecting a lead, the defense will need to execute much better than it showed on Sunday moving forward.

Something you may have missed

Everybody wanted to see Willie Gay Jr. get more nickel snaps with Damien Wilson missing this week’s contest. While that did happen (eventually), Ben Niemann got the initial nickel reps, as well as taking Wilson’s base SAM linebacker reps.

Gay kept his base WILL linebacker spot and eventually got to alternate series with Niemann in the nickel fronts, showing that Spagnuolo is trying to ease him into that role rather than throwing him out there with the full gameplan on his plate. That certainly will frustrate some Chiefs fans, but Gay was able to make several impact plays in his limited role once again.

Plays like the one above showcase his range, explosion and strong tackling ability — something that the Chiefs have lacked this season on the second level. When he’s on the field, he showcases the ability to make plays routinely and the athleticism jumps off the tape. Unfortunately, he can get pulled out of position a bit too often, and it’s clear that he’s still learning the playbook with how much on-field help he gets from Anthony Hitchens.

Spagnuolo and Matt House obviously prefer the player that knows the system better and allows for a more unified front. However, the impact that Gay makes cannot be denied, especially with the focus that offenses put on parts of the linebacking corps. It’s getting more difficult to keep that athleticism off the field right now, so let’s hope he earns the staff’s trust down the stretch.

The bottom line

Spagnuolo, Mathieu and several other members of the Chiefs defense have repeatedly talked about finishing the game. Against the Broncos in Week 13, the Chiefs defense did just that, putting the final nail in the coffin to ensure a victory. This week, they weren’t quite able to do the same.

The Chiefs' run defense seems to have improved throughout the back half of the year, affording Spagnuolo more opportunities to bring the house on exotic blitzes. That pressure has allowed this Chiefs defense to weather the storm and keep quarterbacks uncomfortable when the four-man rush isn’t as effective as they’d like it to be.

That said, it was good to see the pass rush find some success on Sunday. The production of the defensive line will be necessary for this team to replicate a Super Bowl victory this season. Getting after the quarterback this week — even against a shaky offensive line — could be the jumping-off point for this defense to get back to their early-season pressure rate.

The Chiefs defense was once again ruing some missed opportunities on Sunday, giving the Dolphins a small avenue back into the contest. Similar to Tampa Bay and Carolina, they weren’t quite able to put the clamps down on the opposition and see the game out. However, it was still a largely-comfortable win in which the defense played well in their base and nickel looks.

At this point in the season, that’s a good foundation to build upon. If this defense can replicate their run defense and pass-rushing performance against the New Orleans Saints next Sunday, there’s reason to believe they’re finishing this season much like the last.