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Film review: In Washington, defense gets timely stops and creates turnovers

The game plan to utilize blitzes helped every level of the defense play better against Washington.

Kansas City Chiefs v Washington Football Team Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

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.

Blitz pressure

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.

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.

Third-down attempts

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.

The commonality of these plays is they’re all made by defensive backs.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

Creating turnovers

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.

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.

The bad

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.

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.

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.