By all accounts, the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive performance in Week 6 against the Washington Football Team was its best of the season. The defense allowed fewer points, yards and first-down conversions than in any other game this year.
It was nowhere near a flawless performance — Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke was often unable to take advantage when it played poorly — but the game plan was effective. The unit played well on third down and created two turnovers.
Let’s take a closer look at what the defense did during their best showing of the year.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo deserves credit for turning up the blitzes a notch. It started in the second half against the Buffalo Bills — but against Washington, he went to it early and often; the first play of the game featured linebacker Willie Gay committing to a blitz.
#Chiefs relied on the blitz early and often to get pressure v WFT— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 20, 2021
1. Sneed blitz gets 1v1s across DL, Clark bull rushes G into QB's lap to force scramble
2. Niemann blitz from Dime, stunts on both sides succeed w/ Reed and Danna meeting at the QB to force bad throw pic.twitter.com/8miB0SQ6sQ
These two first-half blitzes don’t result in pressures for the blitzer. Instead, they create one-on-one matchups for every pass rusher.
In the first play, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed occupies the offensive tackle, allowing defensive end Frank Clark to beat a blocker with no help. He bull rushes the guard effectively, causing Heinicke to scramble and eventually throw an incompletion.
In the second, linebacker Ben Niemann blitzes from dime personnel; his presence gives every rusher a one-on-one matchup. Defensive end Mike Danna and defensive tackle Jarran Reed succeed on their stunts, hitting Heinicke and causing an incompletion on third down.
Not counting blitzes on running plays, Kansas City blitzed Heinicke on 13 of his 39 dropbacks. Lacking the ability to create pressure with its four-man pass rush, Kansas City must use blitzes more often — and Week 6 proved how much it could help.
After allowing six third-down conversions on 10 attempts in the first half, the Chiefs made stops on three of four opportunities in the second half.
#Chiefs played really well on 3rd downs, especially 2nd half— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 20, 2021
1. Good coverage allows Clark to get loose and force hurried throw, Mathieu all over target
2. Sneed on blitz tips quick pass to flat, incomplete
3. Mathieu times up blitz perfectly, doesn't finish but gets job done pic.twitter.com/zHulsiEQvA
The commonality of these plays is they’re all made by defensive backs.
- Clark’s quarterback hit happens because the coverage is good — safety Tyrann Mathieu is tight on the eventual target — forcing Heinicke to hold onto the ball.
- A blitzing Sneed tips a pass to the flat, allowing safety Juan Thornhill to close in on it and finish the four-yard tackle for loss.
- Mathieu times up his blitz perfectly to come untouched right to Heinicke; while he doesn’t finish the tackle, he does enough to keep the offense from converting the third down. Clark misses an opportunity for a cleanup sack.
Not shown in these plays is what may be the most impressive individual performance of the day: cornerback Rashad Fenton playing exceptionally well in coverage. On the first play from scrimmage, he forced an incomplete pass — and never looked back.
Another hurried or disrupted throw caused by a blitz, even w/ a 7-man protection— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 20, 2021
Turk Wharton gets hand on QB as he threw, but it's because RB has to step up and stop blitzer.
Then Fenton makes a great play in coverage. Has been looking great lately #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/o128KyoqeX
The Chiefs send six defenders on this third down, allowing defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton to leak through and get a hand in Heinicke’s face. Even then, he throws an accurate jump-ball to the wide receiver Fenton is covering downfield. Fenton is tight on him, plays the ball as it gets to the receiver and finishes aggressively.
On a third down later in the game, Fenton hung tight on a slant route and buried the receiver as soon as he caught it — which was short of the first-down marker.
Whether they were making plays in coverage or as blitzers, the defensive backfield had a busy day.
Going into Sunday, the Chiefs hadn’t forced a turnover since the first half of their Week 2 game against the Baltimore Ravens — the longest stretch Spagnuolo’s Chiefs have ever gone without a turnover.
One of the difference makers against WFT was the defense's ability to finally force some turnovers— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 20, 2021
1. Danna does an awesome job of ripping ball loose
2. Wharton great awareness to have hands up and get a hand on pass pic.twitter.com/XOsOMHdNYr
That changed thanks to two great efforts:
On the first turnover, Danna gets his hands on the ballcarrier but consciously works to rip the running back’s arms from the ball and pries it loose. Sneed then makes a heads-up play to grab it quickly.
On the second — late in the fourth quarter — Wharton rushes to the outside, timing his jump perfectly to palm the football; he’s able to pin it against the offensive lineman’s helmet to complete the interception.
Making these plays will build the unit’s confidence.
It wasn’t always pretty against Washington. At halftime, it might have felt like the sky was falling — and a small defensive stretch was part of the reason why.
The now famous 3rd&16 screen pass— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 20, 2021
WFT catches #Chiefs in man coverage w/ only one off-ball defender seeing the screen unfold. Not much 56 can do besides make a spectacular play to get around a block.
You'd wish 56 or 49 could at least make the tkl before the marker pic.twitter.com/nlQg6j2elN
On this third-and-16, Washington calls a running back screen — which was apparently the right call; the Chiefs’ defense was in man coverage. In that coverage, the defenders don’t see the screen develop — increasing the likelihood of a big play.
Linebacker Ben Niemann is put in a really challenging position; he has to get through two offensive linemen to cut this off. Still, you’d like to see him at least be able to trip up or delay the ball carrier enough to stop him before the first down marker. Safety Dan Sorensen could also have made a more instinctual play.
This was the play that motivated Mathieu to have a passionate moment with the defensive unit on the sidelines — even though another play a few snaps later was much worse.
The TD before half was just another example of broken down coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 20, 2021
Looks like Cover 3. Thornhill commits to helping over the top of McLaurin away from throw, Niemann and Hughes both fall for WR screen fake, prevents them from dropping and keeping up with vertical routes pic.twitter.com/hYz1fY6yVw
This is just a bad play in coverage by two defenders: cornerback Mike Hughes and linebacker Ben Niemann. The Chiefs are in Cover 3, which means Thornhill is the only deep safety. He commits to helping over the top with wide receiver Terry McLaurin, which exposes the deep section on the other side of the field.
On that side, Washington fakes a wide receiver screen — and then has the other receivers release vertically. Even though he has the deep third of the field, Hughes comes up hard on the flat. Meanwhile, Niemann — with no other immediate threat in his zone — should carry the tight end up the field. Both simply get caught moving towards the fake screen, which results in significantly blown coverage.
The bottom line
For all the positives from this game, there were some negatives — and a handful of them weren’t exposed by Washington’s offense; at times, there were open receivers to which Heinicke failed to deliver the ball. That said, the defense made plays in crucial spots — and added some big plays, too.
Even if the group allows more yards and points to the better offenses it will soon be facing, it just needs to create takeaways or get the big stops on third down. Against Washington, it frequently did exactly that.