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Week 13 defensive film review: Finishing the job against Denver

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

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs needed a victory over the struggling Denver Broncos to clinch a playoff spot in Week 13. They got the job done — albeit in an unorthodox fashion for this team.

The Chiefs’ offense struggled in the red zone and had some missed touchdowns that kept this game close all the way to its end — which meant that the Chiefs’ defense needed to step up and close out the game.

They did just that, icing the game with a good fourth-quarter performance.

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 13’s matchup.

The numbers

With the team clinging to a less-than-a-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs’ defense responded by putting together its best quarter of the season, allowing just 1.93 yards per play (non-penalty) and a 73% defensive success rate on three drives. The final defensive drive — with 1:04 remaining in the game — allowed a single five-yard completion to the flat that was stopped in bounds. Tyrann Mathieu’s fourth-down interception to ice the game completed a terrific finish that pushed the Chiefs over the line.

Throughout the game, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was once again unafraid to bring pressure, rushing five or more players on 51% of the passing snaps. On those snaps, the defensive success rate was good: nearly 59%. With the Chiefs needing to add a spark to the pass rush, the heavy-blitzing nature of the past two weeks may become the “new normal.”

Alex Okafor led the Chiefs’ defensive line in pressure rate at just under 10%. He’s been rotating in with the second-team defensive line more and more often — and also getting the first-choice dime pass-rusher snaps opposite Frank Clark. When he was on the field, Derrick Nnadi led all defensive linemen with just 2.86 yards per rush, while Willie Gay Jr. led all linebackers with 1.70 yards per carry.

The good

Denver forgot that rent was due on the first of the month — and on Sunday, The Landlord came to collect.

Tyrann Mathieu played one of his best games of the year against the Broncos, coming up with two interceptions and a tackle for loss that helped to set the defensive tone. The first pick came on the very first drive of the game, deep in Chiefs territory — likely wiping points off the board.

The second was vintage Mathieu: reading the quarterback’s eyes and sneaking into the throwing lane; Drew Lock never saw him. Mathieu’s understanding of route distributions is top notch — so on these dime reps, Spagnuolo gives him the freedom to patrol the middle of the field, utilizing his football IQ to make big plays.

Last year, Mathieu was a key player in the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run, making impact plays and leading by example in a brand-new defense. While he’s not having the same outrageously good season that he did in 2019, he’s still playing at a very high level. His performance on Sunday night could be the start of a very strong defensive finish in 2020.

The bad

Almost one-third of the total yardage the Chiefs allowed came on designed runs against the dime defense; the Broncos rattled off 105 yards rushing on just six attempts for an average of 17 yards per carry. Even taking out this monster run by Melvin Gordon, the Broncos were still able get 8 yards per carry against the dime.

It’s not wholly unsurprising that the dime has a propensity for giving up chunk runs; it’s a defensive back-heavy front that normally features Chris Jones and Tershawn Wharton along the interior of the line. Those two players are — by far — the best interior pass-rushing duo the Chiefs can field, but they’re not the strongest against the run. Spagnuolo also opts to bring Daniel Sorensen down into the box as a linebacker — next to Ben Niemann, who is the dime MIKE linebacker. That set of players in the middle of the field is ripe for a run-heavy offense to attack — and the Broncos did just that.

Against this front, the Broncos chose run the ball on some third-and-medium situations — and this third and short — extending two drives that led to 10 points. In their dime package, the Chiefs are allowing 6.3 yards per carry on an average third-down distance of six yards. They’ll need to get a bit better up front to close out the season — or come January, other teams may attack this in earnest.

Something you may have missed

Sunday’s biggest defensive talking point was the Chiefs’ lack of run defense. Multiple explosive runs kept the Denver offense in the game — and the Chiefs defense on the field.

What you may have missed was that almost all of those runs came against the dime defense.

In their base 4-3 and Buffalo nickel defenses, the Chiefs allowed just 2.74 yards per carry — and just 1.70 yards per carry base 4-3 alone! That’s well under the season average of 4.7 yards combined and 4.6 yards in base.

This was most evident late in the game as the Broncos tried to drive the field to tie or win. In their base defense during the fourth quarter, the Chiefs allowed just six yards on four runs — and every single Broncos drive stalled out. Kansas City’s run defense consistently won on early downs — something that we rarely get to say — forcing the Broncos offense to play perfectly on third down. Early in the game, Denver was able to do that — but when it mattered most in the fourth quarter, they struggled.

If the Chiefs can continue to win their matchups in the base and nickel defenses against the run — like they did on Sunday night — they’ll put a lot of stress on offenses to take longer drops in order to push the ball down the field. With Spagnuolo’s propensity to blitz — and Mathieu lurking in the middle of the field — that could mean more stops and turnovers.

The bottom line

The Chiefs — through some wonky decisions and insufficient red-zone offense — put this game on the backs of their defense. That’s not something we often get to say about a team with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback — but when Kansas City needed its defense to step up and close down the Denver offense, it was up to the task.

This week, a fair amount of the discussion will center around the quality of the Broncos offense — and their late-game decision to punt from midfield on fourth-and-3, which otherwise probably would have faced the Chiefs’ dime front. But that’s a disservice to what the Kansas City defense did against some good weapons — and a good rushing offense.

in their base 4-3 or Buffalo nickel defenses, the Chiefs allowed just 2.7 yards per carry, which is way down from the 4.7 yards per carry they’ve allowed this season with those fronts. Against a Broncos rushing offense ranked 14th in yards per carry, that’s a big step forward.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City passing defense held Drew Lock to his second-worst adjusted yards per attempt of the season — a statistic that accounts for touchdowns and interceptions. Only his one touchdown, four-interception performance against the Las Vegas Raiders was a worse day for the young quarterback. The focus will surely be on the lack of a solid defensive-line rush against Lock, but Spagnuolo’s pressure packages — and some good secondary play — were able to keep the Denver offense in check for a fair bit of the game.

For this Chiefs defense, there are certainly issues to be sorted out. There are still questions about the run defense — especially in the dime front — and the four-man pass rush. But without the miscues on the offensive side of the ball, performances like this one will be more than good enough. For the Kansas City defense, this game was one to build upon — and going in to the playoff stretch, I’m curious to see if this turns out to be an inflection point.