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Chiefs defense Week 1 film review: signs of progress are there

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

NFL: Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

That sound you hear is the collective exhalation of football fans everywhere — finally able to discuss some the on-field actions of their favorite football teams.

The Kansas City Chiefs defense took the field against a potent Houston Texans offense in a Chiefs victory on Thursday night. While it was a sloppy affair for most of the evening, the defense showed some new looks, got some young players some valuable snaps and did a good job stifling the Texans for large parts of the game.

For the 2020 season, rather providing tables of formations, success rates, rush patterns and coverages, my defensive game reviews will highlight the defense’s more noteworthy shifts from week to week. Have no fear: I’m still charting all of that information — and more — so feel free to ask for more information in the comments. But by reducing the numbers presented, I’ll be able to break down more plays.

With that said, let’s take a look at where the Chiefs showed well — and where they didn’t — and then we’ll find the good, the bad and something you may have missed from the win over the Texans.

The numbers

While the Texans’ second drive of the game may stick out in the minds of many fans, the Chiefs defense actually played fairly well while the game was within three scores. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s adjustments after the Texans’ first touchdown drive resulted in a 64% defensive success rate while the Chiefs offense built a lead in the second quarter. Alex Okafor was particularly effective through the second quarter, tallying two pressures and half a sack en route to a 37.5% pressure rate on the day. That led the Chiefs defense — albeit in limited snaps — while Chris Jones (14.7%) and Frank Clark (13.2%) followed.

The defense ended up in a version of its dime defense for over 63% of the game — largely because the Texans needed to throw the ball. While the traditional dime defense from 2019 — with four defensive linemen and one linebacker — was the most prevalent, Spagnuolo sprinkled in a dime package with three linemen and two linebackers; Dorian O’Daniel was used as a quarterback spy alongside Ben Niemann and a three-man pass rush.

The run defense struggled from its Buffalo package — particularly from an over front. The Texans had a staggering 83% success rate against that over front — and a whopping 6.8 yards per attempt with 11 personnel. It’s little surprise that the Chiefs run defense was at its most effective when Derrick Nnadi was on the field, holding the offense to only 3.5 yards per attempt and a 50% success rate.

The good

Any time a defense is starting a Day 3 rookie in the first week of the season, a lot of attention will be focused on him. But L’Jarius Sneed more than held his own against a good group of Houston wide receivers.

Sneed immediately displayed the speed, length, and fluidity that helped him blow up the NFL Combine; had he tested as a cornerback, he would have been a Tier 1 cBAT. Even on plays like the one, his footwork didn’t have to be perfect in order to recover and make plays on the ball — largely due to his athleticism.

That athleticism helped smooth things over on the boundary — and gives Spagnuolo a little more wiggle room when he has a healthy cornerback group. If Sneed continues to play like we saw on Thursday, there are plenty of reasons for Chiefs fans to hop aboard his hype train.

The Chiefs rookies weren’t the only ones to grab headlines in the season opener. The Chiefs’ two highest-paid defenders — Frank Clark and Chris Jones — were absolute monsters rushing the passer.

Jones was particularly dominant, getting singled up with the Texans guards through creative pressure packages — and Houston’s increased focus on Clark. Jones made them pay time and time again, living in their backfield and racking up 1.5 sacks. As we see here, he displayed his usual quickness to knife into the backfield, but also played with strong technique to beat blockers.

Clark showed the relentless motor and power we’re accustomed to seeing — but he looked even more explosive on Thursday. Spagnuolo lined him up all over the front, but his wide alignment reps were particularly troublesome for the Texans offensive tackles to handle. On this play, Clark fakes a long-arm pass rush with a “ghost move” to get the tackle to set, demonstrating good flexibility to dip under and get the pressure before chasing the quarterback down and finishing the sack.

The bad

The Chiefs defense didn’t see many rushing attempts from the Texans offense — but the early ones were not particularly strong.

The Texans created misdirection on many of their running plays — just as we see on this touchdown run. The Chiefs second-level defenders are particularly poor on this play — and even Jones finds himself moved well off the ball.

But rookie Tershawn Wharton — forced into action after Khalen Saunders’ injury — does well to knife into the backfield, forcing a cutback from the running back. Unfortunately, not many others fit this run well — either from hesitation from caused by the play design or failing to get downhill quickly enough to fill a gap.

If they want to take the step that Spagnuolo expects this season, the Chiefs’ run defense will need better contributions from Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson — and better tackling in the secondary, too. With several run-heavy teams on the immediate horizon, we’ll quickly see if the Chiefs’ run defense can take some steps forward.

Something you may have missed

One of the things I was most excited to see this season was what Spagnuolo would add to the foundation he laid in 2019. Despite having a decent number of new (and young) players on the field, he still uncorked some fun pressures on Thursday.

This play puts a lot of pressure on rookie defensive end Michael Danna in coverage; the Stab 3 look has the defense in Cover 3 behind a strong side blitz from Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen. The keys come from linebacker Ben Niemann replacing the blitzers in coverage against the tight end — and Danna matching the hot crossing route from the weak side number two receiver.

Danna does incredibly well to run with the crosser — and Niemann funnels the tight end to the cornerback in the flat. Watson has nowhere to go. Nnadi flushes him from the pocket before he throws an incomplete pass to the flat, forcing a third-and-long late in the first half.

That third-and-long play came with yet another creative blitz replacement — this time from Clark coming completely across the formation.

Watson likes to throw into pressure, so the slot cornerback blitz on this play should free up the quick out route. But Clark is able to drop into coverage across the field and rob the route from the back side. Jones simulates pressure and then drops to spy Watson, who gets anxious in the pocket under the blitz. He tries to test Sneed deep, but the rookie has done well to squeeze the boundary, shrinking the throwing window. The stop not only forced a missed field goal but ultimately led to a Chiefs field goal to close the half.

In 2019, Spagnuolo needed to lay the full foundation of his defense — although he still presented plenty of wrinkles to the opposition. Now in a single week of snaps, he’s already unleashed a few new unique pressure packages. As he continues to get the new players acclimated, I’m ridiculously excited to see what he plans to unleash.

The bottom line

Given the game script with which the Chiefs defense were dealt in Week 1, it’s hard to argue with the result. They opened with a stop, allowed a poor drive, then corrected and helped build a four-score lead before coasting to victory.

Spagnuolo was able to give some rookies valuable snaps — in which they all showed they belonged on the field — and showcased some new wrinkles in his defense. Jones and Clark looked more dominant than they did in 2019 — and after just one week of play, the Chiefs may have found the future at cornerback.

It’s easy to brush this performance off as an anomaly; the Chiefs did return most of their defense and all of their staff — and got to open at home on banner night. But the Texans are not a bad team — particularly on offense — and the Chiefs held them to just seven points before going vanilla to end the game.

There are still holes to fix — especially against the run. But Week 1 was a big first step for a Chiefs defense looking to pick up where it left off last season. If this is the start of what this defense could be in 2020, we may just see a very dominant defense to go with the Chiefs ridiculous offense.