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Week 16 defensive film review: Willie Gay thrown into the fire

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

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs entered Week 16 without their starting MIKE linebacker or their starting BUCK linebacker. Midway through the second quarter, they lost their backup MIKE linebacker as well.

They still stood tall against an Atlanta Falcons offense that looked to attack those young linebackers in space — holding the Falcons to just 14 points on a day in which the Chiefs offense had some struggles.

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 16’s matchup.

The numbers

This was a game of quarters for the Chiefs defense. It started well enough, posting a 53% defensive success rate in the first quarter — and did a good job staying ahead of the sticks. The second quarter saw the Chiefs lose their MIKE linebacker and some confusion set in, leading to a poor second quarter. Steve Spagnuolo made some quality adjustments to get Darius Harris up to speed as the replacement MIKE linebacker at the half, and it showed. The Chiefs posted a 62% defensive success rate in the third quarter — partially helped by an early pass-heavy script — and entered the fourth quarter with the lead. The Falcons adjusted and started targeting the middle of the field against the backup linebackers, and the Chiefs once again struggled, posting a 35% success rate in the fourth quarter.

The Falcons played with heavy personnel for 42% of the game, meaning the Chiefs countered with a lot of base defense on early downs. Spagnuolo’s fronts have been mostly strong for three weeks against the run out of the base and nickel, but with backup linebackers in the game, the numbers predictably took a dip. The base defense allowed 5.82 yards per carry on the day — and 6.83 yards per carry after Ben Niemann exited the game due to injury.

The Chiefs did pressure the quarterback well on defense, and Matt Ryan was constantly under duress from the Chiefs pass rush. Chris Jones had a terrific performance on the day, pressuring Ryan on 19% of his pass rushes. Frank Clark came in second at 14%, with Alex Okafor in third at 11%. Those three have been the most consistent Chiefs pass rushers on the year, and all three are heating up going into the postseason.

The good

The Chiefs defensive line played excellent against the Falcons, particularly when rushing the passer. Yes, Atlanta was down two of their starting offensive linemen, but the Chiefs front four were able to get pressure on Ryan throughout the day.

However, the pass rush was at its best this week with the defense’s backs against the wall. The Chiefs were able to rack up back-to-back sacks from Clark and Jones after a costly Patrick Mahomes interception at the 1-yard line, preventing the Falcons from swinging the momentum in their favor. The Chiefs repeated the feat with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, posting back-to-back pressures from Clark and Okafor to force a field goal attempt.

The Chiefs were able to get pressure for most of the day, but it’s these tight situations that harken back to the 2019 Super Bowl squad. That defense closed out the year with a number of crucial sacks and pressures that pushed them over the line late in games. While that hasn’t fully formed down the stretch run of 2020, this game showed that the pass rush is still capable of showing up and turning away momentum swings by the offense.

The bad

The Chiefs were shorthanded and had to play with a backup’s backup signal-caller in the middle of the field this week, so it’s hard to be too critical of the outcome. That said, there was some natural miscommunication that occurred that led to some big plays for the Falcons offense.

The above plays are just two examples — one pass play and one run play — that highlighted everyone not being on the same page this week. It’s completely understandable that this group of players struggled with some miscommunication. It’s likely that Harris and Omari Cobb hadn’t taken any combined reps with Clark, Jones and Tyrann Mathieu in practices, so plays like the above were bound to happen.

However, even when Niemann was in the game, the Chiefs defense didn’t react particularly well to late motions or leaks to the flats — something they’d done well throughout the season to date. They lack the ability to adjust to some of the concepts developing in front of them without Anthony Hitchens on the field to alert and change the front. That’s to be expected without the number of reps that a player like Hitchens brings to the front, but further portrays how important he really is to making this defense operate at its peak efficiency.

Something you may have missed

While most remember Willie Gay Jr.’s splash plays this week, his biggest workload of the year was also sprinkled with some poor play. That’s to be expected for a player that hasn’t gotten many reps throughout the season, completely missed the normal offseason reps and was playing next to several new players at the second level.

In the first half alone, Gay was responsible in coverage for three first-down receptions — two to fullbacks — and had some struggles reading and fitting the run. His miscues were highlighted by a missed collision at the line of scrimmage on third down that allowed Todd Gurley to leak into the flat. Niemann tried to make the recovery on the floated ball in coverage and ended up injured. The Falcons scored just four plays later.

However, he still made impact plays for the defense in the first half, and his athleticism absolutely leaps off the screen. His tackle for no gain as a back-side defender is one that few of the Chiefs' second-level defenders can make.

When the second half started, you could tell that Spagnuolo had stressed communication between the linebackers. Harris and Gay were discussing plays more frequently pre-snap, and Gay looked significantly more comfortable reading and reacting than he did in the first half. His miscues in the second half were still there — he’s still got to work on his zone awareness and getting quicker through his reads — but they were significantly fewer and farther between.

Gay is an impact defender that makes splash plays when he’s on the field. His forced fumble late in the game proved to be a tide-turning play. He’s by far the most athletic player that they can put in their WILL and BUCK linebacker positions. Unfortunately, the lack of true offseason reps — and the Chiefs' inability to get him on the field earlier in the season — means that Gay is still adjusting to the speed of the game.

There is no doubt in my mind that Gay can be a star in Spagnuolo’s defense. I expect big things from him in 2021, and maybe a few splash plays in the 2020 playoffs. Getting to play another full game’s worth of reps in Week 17 is going to help Gay’s development immensely, and I’m excited to see him continue growing as a professional.

The bottom line

The Chiefs gave three linebackers their highest snap counts of the season this week and cycled through one of the most important positions in Spagnuolo’s defense twice. They still held this Falcons offense to their second-lowest point total of the season and stepped up in a game in which the Chiefs offense was struggling to put points on the board.

Schematically, Spagnuolo stayed near his trendlines. He blitzed roughly his season average, played roughly the same amount of single-high and split-safety coverages and kept things simple up front. It’s a process that works for this defense, especially in games like this one against a league-average offense.

Harris, Cobb and Gay played admirably for the jobs that they were asked to perform this week. Only Gay played the role he practiced throughout the week: Harris was projected to be the base SAM with Niemann at the MIKE — so the three of them stepping up and helping this defense across the line deserves major kudos.

Jones, Clark and Okafor stepped up in a big way for this defense and helped force Ryan out of his comfort zone while rushing the passer. Rookie L’Jarius Sneed — going up against Calvin Ridley in the slot — played very well and is in the argument for the Chiefs’ best cornerback this year after yet another good performance. His involvement in the game plan each week allows Mathieu and Dan Sorensen to rotate and shift to take away routes in the secondary while Sneed locks up his man. He even added another sack to his already-impressive rookie resume.

This Chiefs team is built around its explosive offense, but that doesn’t mean this defense is bad. They’re top 10 in scoring defense and — outside of this week’s backup-laden linebacker spots — they’re playing well together and off of each other’s strengths. A game like this one helps prove that even when the defense is down some players, they can still step up and help get the offense over the line.

They may need to do that in the playoffs. After this look, I feel a bit more confident that they can step up and do that in 2020.