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Chiefs defense Week 2 film review: poor tackling makes bad situation worse

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

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

After a good Week 1 performance, the Kansas City Chiefs defense took a step back in Week 2. While they were dealt a tough hand to start the game — rookie quarterback Justin Herbert was a last-minute injury replacement for Tyrod Taylor — a poor tackling performance and a lack of discipline led to some long drives for the Los Angeles Chargers offense.

Today we’ll 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 overtime win over the Chargers.

The numbers

Early on, the Chargers definitely had the Chiefs’ number. Long drives and chunk plays were the norm; the defensive success rate reflected that; in both the first and second quarters, it was under 40% — and with less than two minutes in the half, it was a shockingly poor 14%. The defense did improve in the second half, but there was still only one quarter that crested the 50% mark. In overtime, however, it was 100%.

The Chargers mixed things up more than the Houston Texans did in Week 1, which caused the Chiefs to play more base defense against 12, 13, and 21 personnel. The Chiefs were in their 4-3 defense for 29% of the snaps, the Buffalo nickel in 48% and the dime in 23%.

Pressures were difficult to come by against Herbert, who — unlike Taylor — got the ball out very quickly. This was especially true in the first half. As the game went along, the Chargers called a few more deep passing concepts that forced Herbert to hold the ball — and the Chiefs pass rush began to disrupt the quarterback. Taco Charlton — largely filling in for a sick Frank Clark — led the Chiefs with an excellent 25% pressure rate on his passing downs; rookie Mike Danna was second with 14%.

While the rush defense was largely poor, rookie Tershawn Wharton led the Chiefs in yards per carry and defensive success rate; when he was on the field, the Chargers rushed for just 3.35 yards per carry and the team had a 59% success rate against the run. While Wharton largely spelled Derrick Nnadi by lining up as a nose tackle, he showcased his versatility by playing as a three-technique on 19% of his snaps.

The good

Lately, the Chiefs defensive ends have been dropping like flies, so rookie Michael Danna has been seeing more time on the field. While Danna may not be the longest, most explosive defensive end at coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s disposal, he more than makes up for it with his football IQ — and he’s definitely been proving his worth.

Here we see Danna’s first career NFL sack, showcasing his quick play diagnosis and awareness. To this point in the game, Los Angeles had utilized quite a bit of play-action bootleg. Danna feels the tight end’s block — he realizes the blocker isn’t committing to it, instead attempting to make Danna believe it is a run play — and then he notices the fullback coming back across the formation.

Danna is able to shed the tight end and follow the fullback to the flat, dislodging him from his route and disrupting Herbert’s timing. Seeing this, Herbert looks downfield to the well-covered crossing route, giving Danna plenty of time to shoot forward and come up with a big sack.

Danna’s collegiate film is full of these high-IQ plays. When I interviewed him shortly after the draft, he spoke about his commitment to the playbook and his willingness to learn. Thus far, it’s paid big dividends for the rookie — and the Chiefs defense.

I can’t talk about football IQ without discussing the man who is himself too smart: Tyrann Mathieu.

Mathieu has picked up right where he left off last season, eliminating receivers in his nickel cornerback role, fitting the run as a box safety and keeping a lid on the defense as a deep safety. That last role is where Mathieu made his biggest on-field impact on Sunday, swatting away a deep touchdown throw to Mike Williams.

Here, the Chargers attempt to catch Mathieu peeking at the deep over, putting him behind Williams’ post route. But Mathieu reads Williams’ release and trusts Juan Thornhill to track Keenan Allen to Rashad Fenton. Mathieu flips his hips and runs with the Chargers’ big receiving target, locates the ball early and is able to undercut the route to make sure Williams can’t come up with the grab.

During the offseason, Mathieu often spoke about keeping the intensity in 2020 and finishing the job they’ve started. Through two weeks of the season, Mathieu has looked sharp — ready to help the Chiefs defense repeat.

The bad

The most important part of playing defense is tackling. It seems obvious, but the Chiefs defense definitely struggled with it through most of the Chargers game.

Los Angeles moved the ball well on their own — but they got plenty of help through missed tackles by the Chiefs defense, too. This play is an encapsulation of that performance.

After giving up a first down on a fourth-and-short, the defense drops to prevent a quick shot play. As Herbert settles at the top of his drop, he sees the defense has taken his deep shot away, so he checks down to the running back in the middle of the field.

Ben Niemann is unable to arrive at the catch point, but closes shortly after — about four yards shy of the line of scrimmage. He misses the tackle, allowing the running back to release into the third level and past the first-down marker. Thornhill tries to bring down the back for a 15-yard gain, but he also misses his tackle. The back is finally brought down after a 22-yard gain deep in Kansas City territory.

The Chiefs struggled to push the Chargers into third down — where they had a 60% defensive success rate — due in no small part to their poor tackling; too many short passes and runs went for an extra 3-4 yards. In a game where a defense is struggling to get stops, those extra yards are brutal. If they want to limit future opponents, Spagnuolo and his coaches will have to quickly correct this behavior.

Something you may have missed

Chiefs rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. is one of the most anticipated additions the team made this offseason. After a Week 1 game where he had no defensive snaps, Gay finally saw the field against the Chargers. You’ll likely remember Gay filling in for an injured Damien Wilson after a sideline collision, but that wasn’t the only time he saw the field.

This play is late in the first quarter — well before Wilson’s injury. Gay is deployed in Spagnuolo’s dime defense on a fourth-down stop. With the Chiefs dropping eight into coverage, Gay is aligned over the A-gap while Frank Clark and Chris Jones are lined up wide. On the snap, the Chiefs rush Clark and Jones, leaving Gay to spy on Herbert.

While most of Gay’s defensive snaps came in relief of Wilson — where he showed he has plenty of room to grow — this should give us hope that Spagnuolo already has a package installed for the rookie. With the Chiefs linebackers starting the season in rough shape, we may get to see Gay on the field sooner rather than later.

The bottom line

With a performance marred by missed tackles — and a quick passing game that prevented it from impacting the game — this was a forgettable game for the Chiefs defense; Spagnuolo will likely want to take quick lessons and move on.

Still, the Chiefs’ rookies once again showed well. Danna, Wharton, and L’Jarius Sneed — tallying his second interception in as many games — all played above their draft positions, getting valuable reps, too. At this stage, getting snaps for young players and victories should be considered a win.

Spagnuolo and his staff have plenty to clean up before this week’s Monday Night Football showdown with the Baltimore Ravens. There’s little doubt that the leadership in the locker room will use this performance to try to rally the defense, putting together a better effort in the weeks to come.

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