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Week 15 defensive preview: a massive task against the Saints

The Arrowhead Pride Nerd Squad breaks down the Saints’ offense — and a concept we might see on Sunday.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

For the second week in a row, the Kansas City Chiefs are facing a quality playoff opponent — this time from the NFC. The New Orleans Saints are one of the league’s best teams. They will give Kansas City a strong test on both sides of the ball — especially with the potential return of their starting quarterback.

With that in mind, let’s dig into the Saints’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and further their AFC West lead.

The personnel

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

After an extended absence due to broken ribs, it is reported that Drew Brees will be back in action against the Chiefs. He’s largely the same player he has been for the past few years: a smart quarterback with a quick release who is lacking true vertical arm strength. He’ll be a boost to an offensive line that had given up several sacks because Taysom Hill has been holding the ball a little too long.

Alvin Kamara leads the Saints running back group. He’s one of the best backs in the league. He and Brees haven’t been able to play together as often as they’d like this season — and he stands to benefit the most from Brees’ return. Kamara is arguably the best pass-catching back in the league — and an elite rusher as well. When they want to spell Kamara, the Saints will turn to Latavius Murray and Ty Montgomery.

Michael Thomas — New Orleans’ best wide receiver — didn’t practice this week. He was ruled out on Friday afternoon. In his absence, Emmanuel Sanders will yet again have to pick up the slack. He’s a sure-handed deep threat who is also a strong blocker in their running schemes. While filling in on the outside, Tre’Quan Smith has been effective; with Thomas out, the Chiefs can expect to see plenty of him. Deonte Harris is a return specialist that the Saints will try to get into space.

The Saints tight end room has good depth — and they’ll rotate often. Jared Cook leads the way as a do-it-all inline tight end. He leads the Saints in receiving touchdowns. He’s also a good blocker who can help spring Kamara. Rookie Adam Trautman is a quality move tight end who has become more involved as the season has gone along. If the Chiefs focus on stopping the run, he could be a dangerous receiver up the seam. While Josh Hill is not much of a receiver, he moves all over the offense as a blocker. We’ll see him line up as an inline tight end, an H-Back and a fullback. New Orleans trusts him with a lot of wham blocks — along with some isolated looks against pass rushers on the edge.

New Orleans’ best group might be their offensive line. Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are arguably the best combination of tackles in the league; they regularly wipe out pass-rushing duos. The Saints are also strong in the middle, with Erik McCoy and Andrus Peat holding down the middle-left of the offensive line. Nick Easton is arguably the weakest link on this excellent offensive line — and he was ruled out on Friday afternoon. So Cesar Ruiz — the Saints 2020 first-round pick — will fill in at right guard. That could be a spot where the Chiefs can find success.

The offensive concept: Split Zone 12 personnel

Even with Brees at the helm, the Saints are a run-heavy team. But that doesn’t mean defenses will line up in their base against their heavier personnel; the Saints are still plenty dynamic when they have two tight ends on the field. So defenses tend to treat 12 personnel more like 11 personnel, trotting out their nickel defenses to keep speed on the field.

Unfortunately, that makes things even easier for a good offensive line and an elite running back.

The Saints often like to run outside zone, using Kamara to attack the edges of the defense. A nickel defense can use its speed to help slow down some of these runs by having safeties aggressively fill the alleys — or by using slot defenders who can help force cutbacks into the teeth of the defense. The Saints will also mix in plenty of split-zone looks that can take advantage of the expectation they will run outside zone — and Kamara is the perfect back to optimize the effectiveness of these looks.

On this play, the offensive line fires off the ball, combo-blocking the defensive tackles while the receiver motions back across the formation. Kamara takes the handoff and feints to the front side gaps, causing the linebackers to fill aggressively — and the safety to step up toward the alley. Kamara then uses his phenomenal agility to plant his foot and cut to the back side, hitting the cutback lane and following the blocks of his receiver and tight end.

The combination of all these variables — nickel defense, Kamara pressing the line to force the read and phenomenal blocking — make this an incredibly explosive play. As the defense is lacking an extra-big body in the box, Kamara goes into the secondary untouched.

Against the Saints, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could opt to leave his base defense on the field against 12 personnel; in Damien Wilson’s absence, both Willie Gay Jr. and Ben Niemann will be on the field. Spagnuolo trusts Niemann to handle some tough coverage responsibilities in the dime defense — and he knows that Gay’s athleticism will be needed against a dynamic front. That, however, could put a lot on both player’s plates in coverage against the Saints’ good tight ends. It will a tough ask for the second level of this defense — and it may be where the game is decided.

The bottom line

On paper, this is a really tough matchup for the Chiefs defense. This year, they’ve struggled against quick-passing offenses and dynamic running backs. With Brees back in the fold, that’s exactly what the Chiefs should see on Sunday.

Brees has seen every coverage and blitz in the book, so sending extra rushers — as Spagnuolo did against Tua Tagovailoa and Drew Lock — likely won’t have the same success. The majority of Brees’ passes will be short and quick, so longer-developing blitzes — like the ones Kansas City has relied upon — will likely be ineffective.

Even worse, the New Orleans offensive line is extremely good — especially with Brees behind it. Kansas City’s four-man rush looked better last week, but an offensive line of this quality will likely give them trouble. Even when the Chiefs pass rush can get things to go their way, Brees’ quick timer may nullify pressure; Chris Jones, Frank Clark and the rest of the Chiefs’ defensive line will have the deck stacked against them.

But the Chiefs defense may find some success pressing Saints receivers, thereby disrupting their quick timing. Charvarius Ward, Bashaud Breeland and L’Jarius Sneed are all long cornerbacks who can be physical at the line of scrimmage. Brees’ downfield struggles should also allow the Chiefs to play more single-high coverages behind their press corners. This could lead to some exposed man-coverage reps downfield, but it’s a chance that Spagnuolo might be willing to take in order to keep Brees out of his comfort zone.

Speaking of Brees’ comfort zone... with Thomas out, Kamara should get volume touches. The Chiefs don’t have an ideal matchup against him — very few teams in the league do — so I expect lots of aggressive downhill fills from Chiefs safeties to support Gay, Nieman and Anthony Hitchens in coverage. Tyrann Mathieu, Daniel Sorensen and Juan Thornhill will all have to aggressively rally to the catch point so they can avoid one-on-one matchups against Kamara in space. If the Chiefs struggle with tackling, that aggression could lead to some explosive plays, so pursuit-by-numbers will be imperative for the Kansas City defense.

Facing a good offensive line, a strong running attack and a quick passing game, the Chiefs may have to rely more on their second and third-level defenders to make plays. That’s a bit of a scary proposition — but prior to their playoff run, it could answer some major questions about this defense. A good performance rushing the passer — and stopping the run — will go a long way toward shifting the expectations for this defense in January.

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