The Kansas City Chiefs’ defense came up against a New Orleans Saints team that was a bit of a schematic nightmare. The Saints get the ball out quickly to nullify the pass rush, run the ball well behind an excellent offensive line and have a smart quarterback that wouldn’t be confused by Steve Spagnuolo’s diverse coverage scheme.
The Chiefs not only held their own, but they also went through some incredibly dominant stretches en route to a victory over a potential NFC Super Bowl team.
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 15’s matchup.
The Chiefs came out of the gate firing on all cylinders this week, holding the Saints to 1.78 yards per play in the first quarter. That was good for an 89% defensive success rate — the best of any quarter this season. The defense forced four straight drives with three offensive plays to help build a 14-point lead. Like last week, the Chiefs also had an excellent third quarter, posting a 68% defensive success rate and allowing just 2.42 yards per play.
Spagnuolo threw a major wrinkle into the game plan this week, rushing only three players on 19% of the Saints' dropbacks. The Chiefs’ season-long average is just 4% — a true rarity for an aggressive defense. We’ll cover the reasoning behind that below. Spagnuolo sent five or more rushers on just 11% of the dropbacks, knowing the ball would come out quickly from the veteran quarterback.
Spagnuolo dropped defensive linemen into coverage often this week, and Alex Okafor led all of them in coverage snaps. When he was on the field, Okafor dropped into coverage on 23% of the passing snaps. Tanoh Kpassagnon was second in coverage rate at 13% and Frank Clark was third with 10%. Despite a lot of coverage snaps, the defensive line was effective rushing the passer when it had the opportunity. Clark led all players with a 14% pressure rate, as he rushed the most snaps of any player on the defensive line. Mike Danna came in second at a 12.5% pressure rate, albeit on just eight rush snaps. Okafor continued a string of strong performances with a 12% pressure rate to come in third on the team.
Expecting volume Kamara touches and quick passes, Spags instructed his DE's to chip the RB's out of the backfield often, which took away a lot of NO's early down go-to plays.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 21, 2020
Pass rush may have suffered a bit, but it kept the KC D ahead of the sticks for most of the day. pic.twitter.com/t4VT8fxTAC
With Michael Thomas out of the game and Drew Brees the starting quarterback, Spagnuolo knew the Saints would turn to Alvin Kamara to shoulder the load. His plan may have hurt the pass rush a little bit, but it kept the Chiefs ahead of the sticks for most of the day.
When one of the Saints running backs leaked into the flat, the defensive end on that side of the field regularly stopped his rush to chip the back or take the flat away entirely in coverage. This allowed quick passes to be taken away — as shown on two of the plays above — and the chips allowed the Chiefs' second-level defenders to take away the backs in coverage easier.
Brees started the game attempting to check down to the backs often on early downs, and the pass simply wasn’t there. It took several drives for the Saints to make adjustments, but by then the damage was done. Spagnuolo deserves major kudos this week to throw New Orleans off its game early and give his squad a chance to build a lead.
KC's run fits have been quite strong in their nickel for 3 weeks now, and that continued against a good NO OL/Run game.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 21, 2020
#91 and #98 absorb the double, clearing the path for #53 to shoot the gap, forcing a cut. #55 is held trying to set the edge, and #32 shoots alley for TFL. pic.twitter.com/kO2AfzQgTz
Kansas City has spent the last three weeks with a strong base and nickel run defense. While the Chiefs were barely in their base defense this week — just over 5% of their snaps — they did spend the majority of the game in their nickel. That gave us plenty of time to see that run defense against a good offensive line, and plenty of time to see if it was legitimately good.
The nickel front allowed just 3 yards per carry, down from their season-long average of 4.52 on the season. This was an excellent run-blocking line and an elite running back, yet the Chiefs defense was able to lock the Saints up for most of the day. The game script definitely forced the Saints to a little more pass-heavy script than they would have probably liked against the Chiefs defense and only logged 17 carries as a team. However, the Chiefs were very strong on those 17 carries.
This is a streak of games now where the Chiefs’ base and nickel defenses have played well against the run. There’s reason to believe that they can keep this up to finish out the season, and that could lead to more fast starts, more three-and outs and more times that Patrick Mahomes gets the ball in January.
NO just caught KC a bit out of sorts on this play, going quick and throwing deep.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 21, 2020
Brees snaps early while dime defense is still communicating the playcall. KC rotates to Cover 2. Fade-Out combination sees #32 step toward out route. Brees goes against tendency and throws fade. pic.twitter.com/PirqpbqsjK
The Chiefs were once again caught out by a small handful of plays prior to the end-of-the-game dime touchdown drive. Tyrann Mathieu dropped an interception at the goal line that would have wiped seven points off the board. The Chiefs defense gave up 32 penalty yards on that same drive. The Chiefs offense gave the Saints the ball at the 25-yard line late in the game. Then there’s the play above.
Brees and the Saints rushed to the line to take advantage of the Chiefs’ personnel switch. Ben Niemann and Mathieu are still getting the call communicated to the rest of the team, and Brees snaps the ball, looking for a deep completion on third-and-10. Mathieu sees the fade-out combination and plays the odds. Brees has the second-lowest intended air yards in the league behind Alex Smith, so Mathieu jumps the out route. Brees goes against his tendency, throwing the deeper route and catching Mathieu biting on the play.
Mathieu is a smart player and knows the odds of Brees even attempting the fade, let alone completing it. If Brees throws the ball where he normally would in this situation, Mathieu likely comes up with an interception or a breakup to force the Saints' offense off the field. However, Brees made the low-percentage throw and made Mathieu pay for his aggressiveness.
Something you may have missed
The quick passing game may have made it difficult to pressure Brees, but Clark made him uncomfortable with a variety of rush moves throughout the day.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 21, 2020
Flexibility to avoid the chip, a strong bull rush, an inside spin, and a terrific dip had Brees a bit rattled this week pic.twitter.com/Vt3WsrF5hY
With the Chiefs' defensive line dropping into coverage at an unprecedented rate for Spagnuolo, there naturally weren’t many chances for the Chiefs to pin their ears back and get after Brees. Coupled with a quick passing game and an excellent offensive line, it was going to take quite the task to rattle Brees this week.
That didn’t stop Frank Clark, who looked more like himself than we’ve seen since the beginning of the year. It wasn’t just Clark leading the team in pressure rate — and forcing two holds (one of them declined), it was how he did it that should have Chiefs fans excited.
Clark displayed strength, flexibility, and a full arsenal of pass rush moves that gave fits to one of the league’s best tackle combinations. While not all of the plays shown above were classified as pressures, the effect that Clark — and other pass rushers — had on Brees is undeniable. He was throwing off his back foot often, throwing too early in the route, and his overall accuracy was diminished.
Some fans may look at the box score of this game — or even think back on what they saw live — and think that Clark struggled for most of this matchup. I argue that it was quite the contrary, and Clark caused a fair number of inaccurate throws because he was beating two top-tier tackles, especially early in the game.
The bottom line
The Chiefs defense has struggled with dynamic running backs and quick-passing games for the last two regular seasons. That’s what the Saints brought to the table this week, and I expected we’d get a good feel for where this defense was situated heading into the playoffs.
I’m feeling pretty good about this defense after this Saints performance.
The Chiefs defense didn’t play poorly for most of the game. Yes, they allowed 29 points on the day and a late score that cut the Chiefs’ lead to three points. However, they held in check a team that was — prior to this week — a schematic nightmare for the Chiefs defense to defend.
Over the past two weeks, the Chiefs defense has had singular plays that we can point to that would drastically change the narrative surrounding their “one-score” games. If Juan Thornhill intercepts a fourth-quarter pass against Miami, the Chiefs likely win by multiple scores. If Mathieu catches a third-quarter interception or stays on top of this fade route — both plays he makes significantly more often than not — this game is blown wide open.
The fade route discussed earlier was the only third down that the New Orleans Saints converted all day. While it was a big one, these games are beginning to come down to individual plays that Spagnuolo and his staff can point to that would change the outcome drastically against good teams. That’s a positive thing going into the playoffs.
Yes, there are some deficiencies. The pass rush isn’t “fixed,” although it looked better than expected against this Saints offensive line. The dime defense still struggles to kill off the game, and a fourth-and-2 pass over Ben Niemann’s head in the fourth quarter prevented them from doing it again this week. The Chiefs defense also hasn’t played against top-flight receiving weapons in a few weeks. The last three weeks have been close games that shouldn’t have been close — two of them against playoff teams on the road.
We know that Spagnuolo has some tricks up his sleeve to help close out games — reference the 2019 playoff run for those — so taking care of business early in halves repeatedly this season has been excellent to see. That should translate to January football, and a few more wrinkles added to help close things out could end up with some more comfortable victories.
But for right now, the Chiefs defense is definitely trending upward. That’s exactly what this team needs to help execute a deep playoff run.