On Monday night, the Kansas City Chiefs were coming off poor defensive performance in Week 2 — and were facing a dynamic, run-heavy Baltimore Ravens offense. The defense needed to step up to give the Chiefs a fighting chance.
And step up they did.
Despite having to shuffle the secondary and linebacker corps, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his coaches are likely to be very happy with the unit’s play in Week 3. The defense displayed a much more aggressive (and much better executed) game plan — and it should have Chiefs fans buzzing about the heights the team can climb.
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 a stifling defensive performance against the Ravens.
Heavier Ravens personnel meant the Chiefs spent more time in their base defense, which accounted for nearly 22% of Monday’s snaps. Even with an offensive game script favoring a much heavier dose of passing, the Ravens still came out heavy in an attempt to keep the Chiefs in their base defense. But end-of-half (and end-of-game) situations forced the Ravens to run more hurry-up. That resulted in the Chiefs utilizing more dime looks — approximately 34% of their snaps.
The Chiefs got off the field well on third down, coming up with a stop on 66% of the snaps. In addition, a favorable first-down success rate (58%) helped get them ahead of the chains.
Getting pressure on 30% of his pass-rush snaps, Taco Charlton again led the Chiefs defense. As a situational rusher, he’s become quite a dangerous man; he should continue to command snaps after Alex Okafor returns from his hamstring injury. Frank Clark was once again second in pressure rate — followed by Mike Pennel, who returned from his suspension.
Rookie Willie Gay Jr. led all linebackers in run defense success rate (50%) and yards per carry (5.17) — largely due to the stacked fronts in which he saw his snaps. But on the whole, the run defense was poor — which was to be expected in this matchup.
This is a fantastic team sack by the Chiefs defense early, blending slot-drop C2 and a TEX stunt.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 30, 2020
RB sprint out wide, switch between #38 and #49. #49 drops deep, underneath defenders force QB to hold. #55 sells up the arc, #95 plays contain, good chase to finish 2nd sack on play pic.twitter.com/OiTapRKArX
While Spagnuolo didn’t get as creative with some of his coverage calls on Monday, he still brought out some of his best looks from last year. He clogged the middle of the field well with Tyrann Mathieu, primarily utilizing him as a robber to take away some of Lamar Jackson’s favorite receivers. It seems simple, but the Ravens avoided Mathieu for large portions of the game, forcing Jackson to hold on to the ball longer.
This allowed Spagnuolo to dial up some more stunts (and other games) up front to get free rushers — like on this play. As it is, Chris Jones and Frank Clark are a dangerous pass-rush combo, but weaponizing them on a tackle-end stunt makes them even scarier.
Clark actually gets a sack on this play — one that the referees missed — but Jones’ hustle out to the flat helped seal a well-worked stunt.
BAL went empty 16% against KC, & the Chiefs countered with plenty of C0.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 30, 2020
BAL attempt to pick the drag, resulting in a collision. #38 with the heads-up play to continue rolling, almost results in INT. TEX stunt + #56 crashes A and #95 long scoops. Great pursuit by #94 forces INC. pic.twitter.com/Xp8NXfjOtU
The Ravens attempted to utilize more empty backfield formations to stretch out the defense, getting good looks against slower defenders. But for the most part, it didn’t work out in Baltimore’s favor, resulting in negative net yardage out of their 3x2 and 4x1 alignments.
When an offense goes empty, there are a couple of methodologies available to defend the play. One is to flood the secondary, dropping as many defenders as possible to clog throwing lanes, allowing a three or four-man pass rush time to get home. But as we see here, Spagnuolo went the other way, using Cover 0 blitzes against the Ravens’ empty looks.
Because of the aggressive nature of the play, Jackson needs to get the ball out quickly to avoid a sack. The Chiefs are playing tight, physical coverage which doesn’t allow Jackson that option, so he uses his legs to escape the pocket and buy time. Juan Thornhill sticks with his man on a scramble drill — and an inaccurate pass is almost intercepted by L’Jarius Sneed in back-side pursuit.
After the first drive, #56 came off the field in the base defense, and it's because of plays like these.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 30, 2020
He does some good work to beat the climbing tackle, but lacks the length and athleticism in space after #51 forces the pitch. Can't finish the play and the drive continues. pic.twitter.com/iMSIT9eU7w
In this game, Ben Niemann relinquished his role as base WILL linebacker to Willie Gay — and it’s because of plays like this one.
A very intelligent player, Niemann knows where he needs to be — which is why he’ll continue to be the Chiefs’ dime linebacker — but the lack of athleticism we see here sometimes hurts Kansas City. He does well to flow with the motion and beat the climbing tackle’s block, but he is unable to bring down the ball carrier in space.
This rep is in the dime defense — in which he calls the fronts for Spagnuolo. In the base defense, however, Anthony Hitchens assumes those duties — limiting some of what makes Niemann most effective. It’s tough to see players get demoted, but it appears that in the base defense, Spagnuolo (and linebackers coach Matt House) think Gay’s positives outweigh Niemann’s.
Something you may have missed
Spags mixed it up a bit with his base looks against 22p, going with a 3 Safety set and leaving just 1 CB on the field.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 30, 2020
#53 and #50 aligned off ball, #54 as EMOL in a four point stance. #53 is downhill into weak A with #50 shooting strong A. Good fit from deep by #32. pic.twitter.com/05OjPGjJwb
The Chiefs got creative with their base defense against some of the Ravens’ 22 personnel snaps (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver).
On multiple occasions — including this play — the Chiefs utilized Derrick Nnadi and Mike Pennel as their defensive tackles, along with Tanoh Kpassagnon and Chris Jones as their defensive ends. Here, Damien Wilson is walked down on the line of scrimmage, creating a five-man front that Spagnuolo hadn’t used before.
Jones has been asking Spagnuolo to give him more snaps at defensive end. This alignment affords the Chiefs the ability to play Jones there — forcing offenses to change their focus point when doubling him — while still providing some coverage ability (and a little more speed) on the edge with Wilson.
And then there was Willie Gay’s coming-out party.
Chiefs fans got what they were asking for on D, as Willie Gay Jr took over as the base WILL linebacker after the first drive. You can see some of the explosion and body control he possesses, as well as some of the angle adjustments he'll need in this supercut of all his snaps. pic.twitter.com/h3SC6hmSEv— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 30, 2020
Gay took over as the base WILL linebacker early in the game. While he didn’t make any splash plays — and got a dose of Jackson in the open field — the burst and body control he possesses was evident from his first snap.
Gay and House discussed Gay’s role often during the offseason; both said he was expected to get base SAM and nickel BUCK snaps. As it turned out, his first non-spy/non-injury-related snaps came as a pursuit linebacker — where I believe he’ll be at his most effective.
I hope that House and Spagnuolo give Gay enough of a leash. As you can see on these plays, he still needs to read plays better — like Niemann does — and make some adjustments in his angles. However, if the coaching staff is willing to let him make some mistakes, the rookie linebacker’s ceiling is sky high.
The bottom line
This was a quality defensive performance against a good Ravens offense. Spagnuolo came out with a game plan to rob the middle of the field — with a focus on taking away Mark Andrews — forcing Jackson to throw to the boundaries. Jackson passed for fewer than 100 yards, so it’s hard to argue with the result.
Early on, the Ravens did find some success on the ground, but the game script eventually forced Baltimore out of their running game. Sill, there were still some bright spots in the run defense. The defensive ends were asked to handle a lot of responsibility — which they executed well — and Hitchens had his best game of the year. There are reasons to think that the run defense might be improving — especially since they won’t be seeing a Greg Roman offense every week.
This was a confidence booster for the Chiefs defense. While the Week 1 win against the Houston Texans was a good performance, it still lacked some of the attitude that we saw at the end of the 2019 season. This game looked more like the Chiefs defense that corrected itself during last year’s stretch run. If they’ve regained their “championship swagger” from last season, the rest of the league had better watch out.