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Week 12 defensive film review: Fast start, slow finish

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

Kansas City Chiefs v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs entered Week 12 facing a stylistic matchup nightmare against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In previous weeks, the Chiefs had struggled to get consistent pressure with their pass rush and had some lapses in coverage — a situation that could be badly exploited by a team with Tom Brady at quarterback.

The result? A mixed bag of good play and great blitzes — along with some explosive plays allowed — making this a tighter affair than it could have been.

With that said, 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 the Week 12 game against the Buccaneers.

The numbers

The Chiefs defense came out of the gate hot in the first quarter, holding the Buccaneers to 3.14 yards per play and posting a 71% defensive success rate. That tied (with Week 7’s first quarter) for the team’s best quarterly success rate this season. This performance was integral to the Chiefs immediately building a three-score lead.

The second quarter was a bit different — albeit in only one Buccaneers drive. The Chiefs allowed 12.57 yards per play and a 14% defensive success rate. To put that number into perspective, the Steve Spagnuolo-led Chiefs defense hadn’t had a quarter that poor since 2019’s Week 5 game against the Indianapolis Colts.

On Sunday, the name of the game was pressure — and Spagnuolo brought the blitz in a big way. He sent five or more rushers on 42% of the Buccaneers’ passing attempts. Typically, when Spagnuolo gets into a heavy dime game script — the Chiefs were in dime for 64% of the game — the rush numbers skew heavily towards a four-man rush. Spagnuolo may have realized that he has to bring the blitz if he wants to consistently affect the passer.

Speaking of the four-man rush, Sunday’s game had the defensive line’s second-worst pressure rate of the season, behind only the Week 5 game against the Las Vegas Raiders. The Chiefs usually have multiple defensive linemen with a pressure rate at or above 10% — but on Sunday, only Chris Jones’ 12% mark crested that figure. Frank Clark was second with 9%, followed by Mike Danna at 8%. Jones and Clark are both still above 10% for the season.

The Chiefs obviously had no problem getting pressure on Brady — but lately, the pressure from four-man rushes is an area many have been watching closely. They’re going to keep watching.

The good

Throughout the season, we’ve seen Brady struggle against pressure; it’s helped create some blowout losses on incredibly poor performances. Spagnuolo definitely wanted to make Brady uncomfortable. When he did, it caused some crucial mistakes — like this interception.

Brady had been under a constant barrage — and this pressure came when the Chiefs needed it most. An explosive play had just put the Buccaneers in Chiefs territory; Tampa Bay is rushing to get off a play against single-high man coverage. Brady is trusting his man to make a one-on-one play on the outside, knowing that the chance of a turnover is low.

But just before the snap, Tyrann Mathieu takes a walk into the box. Timing the snap perfectly, he slips past the running back in pass protection, forcing Brady to rush the throw. The quarterback leaves it short, allowing Bashaud Breeland to come up with the interception. Mathieu’s terrific blitz transforms a presumably-safe play into a turnover.

The Chiefs defense came up with two interceptions deep in their own territory, but the final piece of the “big-stop triumvirate” came on this tackle-for-loss in a goal-to-go situation.

The Buccaneers use jet motion to try to get the second-level defenders flowing away from the play. The offensive line slants toward the motion, so the defensive end is left unblocked. Brady bootlegs away from the motion and the running back leaks out into the flat. The slot receiver runs a rub route in case the linebacker diagnoses the play. Theoretically, this should be an easy pitch and catch to the running back for a touchdown.

But Tanoh Kpassagnon reads the bootleg and stays home, colliding with the running back and slowing his release to the flat. Anthony Hitchens isn’t fooled by the jet motion. He immediately breaks to the flat, slipping the rub route along the way. Brady checks to the flat, where Hitchens immediately blows it up for a three-yard loss.

The Chiefs defense largely struggled after the first quarter, but the two interceptions — and this tackle for loss — were massive, tide-turning plays that helped keep the Buccaneers from closing the gap in the second half.

The bad

The Chiefs gave up a lot of explosive plays on Sunday, either through good offensive schemes — like recognizing a mismatch between Rob Gronkowski and Alex Okafor — or through defensive miscues. The defense’s five most explosive plays of the season had been against the Raiders in Week 5 — but the Buccaneers now hold the third and fifth spots on that list.

When blitzing as heavily as Spagnuolo did on Sunday, some of these explosive plays are to be expected. The Chiefs were placing extra pressure on their cornerbacks — and dropping linebackers and defensive linemen in coverage with little protection. As we see in this play, however, Spagnuolo dialed up some of his late-rotating coverages with a blitz. That exacerbated some of the coverage asks in the secondary.

Under Spagnuolo, the Chiefs haven’t invested heavily in their secondary — which has led him to get creative with his coverage calls. I certainly don’t want him to stop bringing exotic looks, because they’ve been working. But it’s a big ask for Rashad Fenton to bail to a post-safety position — and for clearly-recovering-from-injury Juan Thornhill to carry Chris Godwin vertically. Here, Brady throws up a prayer that likely would be picked off by a safety who is aligned deep — or by a little more-dynamic player who is dropping from the slot.

Something you may have missed

The Chiefs blitz packages often got home in Tampa, but you may have missed the fantastic execution by some of the players up front to get others free.

Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly love their assignment-sound players — and this play is a strong example of why this is so. Tershawn Wharton and Clark widen the B-gap for Daniel Sorensen, who carries the pass-protecting back across the formation, giving Hitchens a free shot at Brady. Hitchens grabs the headline for the bone-crunching hit, but his partners in crime deserve a hat-tip.

This game was — by far — the best blitzing execution we’ve seen from the Chiefs’ defense this season. In no small part, this was helped by this kind of play in the rushing lanes. Coming out of this performance against the Buccaneers, that’s definitely something on which Spagnuolo can hang his hat.

The bottom line

For the first quarter of this matchup, the Chiefs defense was dominant. They came up with big stops, got pressure on the quarterback and helped build a three-score lead. Even the second-quarter drive — highlighted by some explosive plays at the end — had moments where the Chiefs were able to come up with some stops.

But the game turned in the second half; the Buccaneers were able to consistently move the ball. Spagnuolo leaned on his dime defense to keep the Tampa Bay passing offense in check — and it struggled to do so. Timely plays deep in Kansas City territory kept the Chiefs at arm’s length for much of the day, but failure to close things out in the fourth quarter led to a tense final offensive drive.

After 12 weeks of the season, it’s pretty clear what this Chiefs defense is: a blitz-happy, turnover-centric pass defense that will try to force the offense to play a near-perfect game. Thus far, only the Raiders in Week 5 have been able to do that — which was, not coincidentally, the Chiefs’ only loss of the season. But don’t misunderstand: that’s not a slight to Kansas City defense. The Raiders offense is simply well-suited to play against the high-octane Chiefs offense.

Every week, this defense is going to get every single team’s most aggressive and finely-tuned game plan. It’s so rare to slow down Patrick Mahomes that teams are going to throw everything they can at Spagnuolo’s defense, hoping to sneak through a victory on that side of the ball. That’s led to increased focus — and criticism — from analysts and fans alike; the prevailing thought is that the only way to beat Kansas City is to hang a large number of points on the Chiefs defense.

Throughout the game, Tampa Bay made adjustments to attack the Chiefs’ known weak spots — and succeeded. They made plays against linebackers in coverage, threw deep in man coverage against single-high looks and stayed patient in the pocket against a less-than-ideal four-man pass rush. If teams want to exploit it, the blueprint is there for the taking.

The problem with that blueprint is that Spagnuolo throws enough variation at offenses to make their lives difficult until the Chiefs can build up a big lead; this season, the defense has played nearly 40% of its snaps defending a lead of two scores or more. That’s led to more soft dime coverages — and extended drives — than Chiefs fans would like to see.

The true test will likely come in January. Offenses will be pulling out all of the stops — and will have a full year of tape they can use to attack the unit’s major weaknesses. Right now, those flaws are making for some tense moments, but they aren’t costing the team games. Unfortunately, that could change. They could be signaling some issues the Chiefs will have to face when they get to those make-or-break moments at the end of this season.

This Chiefs’ defense turned it around in 2019, putting together some terrific performances to help close out the season with a Super Bowl victory. We’re waiting to see if the defense can do it again.