Few things are more satisfying to watch than an NFL defense whose units complement each other with high-quality play — especially when it is the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense, led by savvy veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his experienced position coaches.
Much can be said about how good the unit’s defensive line has become during the past couple of months — here at Arrowhead Pride, we’ve covered it extensively — but what’s also been helpful is how the unit’s coverage players have settled into well-defined roles within the overall scheme. In game-upon-game, they have set the tone by playing in ways that best fit the individual players.
We should begin by recognizing the entire defense’s great all-around effort — especially in the early going while the game was still within Pittsburgh’s reach.
KC's defensive pursuit was inspiring Sunday. 3rd&10, Spags goes to a signature 6-man pressure vs. empty formation leaving everyone 1v1. PIT smart to go screen against it, but too much red running to the to make anything happen. pic.twitter.com/re4ZjRAf6m— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
This sort of hair-on-fire pursuit of Pittsburgh ball carriers showed up against both the pass and the run. In particular, third-year free safety Juan Thornhill stood out by consistently displaying a willingness to throw his body around to reduce the yardage surrendered to the Steelers in space.
Nor did it take long for budding superstar cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to remind everyone what the Chiefs had been missing during his two-game absence.
3rd & 4 - from the slot, really tough down & distance on a CB b/c it's easy to get grabby and hold WRs as they break any which way. Sneed checks all the boxes though, so gifted. Can play off-man as he does here and close so quickly yet on time. pic.twitter.com/JN2BMPcfYh— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 27, 2021
Second on the team to perhaps only safety Tyrann Mathieu, Sneed is a highly versatile player. But in the past calendar year, he’s clearly shown that playing in the slot allows him to create the most significant overall impact; at that position, he does everything at a good to elite level.
The great thing about playing so much physical man coverage — with safety help over the top — is that it keeps coverage players from being fooled or put in difficult positions. An offense like Pittsburgh’s — one that loves to go to quick screen passes to generate easy gains — really runs into trouble against Kansas City because the cornerbacks give little to no space to wide receivers before the snap.
As we were saying... Sneed's accel and tackling ability are special. pic.twitter.com/vlDXMVvGjL— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
On this play, Sneed’s eyes are on the receiver — and as soon as he senses the screen, he can just attack.
Offenses often try to expose this kind of aggressive press coverage by scheming up natural pick routes to slow down the defenders.
#Chiefs' Hughes and Sneed do a good job working thru potential pick routes here - pressure is coming on Roethlisberger, and the split-second needed for the WR to slow down and secure the catch is enough for Sneed to force a key 4th down. pic.twitter.com/ZKqNT0L4UL— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
But on this play, we see Sneed (and Mike Hughes) handle such a scenario very well — showing that even when presented with challenges designed to attack the coverage’s vulnerabilities, they can still out-execute the opposition.
Charvarius Ward — who came away with the game’s lone interception on Sunday afternoon — also did plenty of great things.
PIT tries to fool KC's aggressive secondary and Ward has been beat on these types of plays before in his career, but neither he nor 32 are biting here. Textbook speed turn + body positioning + high point to secure the INT. pic.twitter.com/d6SkMTJr0k— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
I don’t know what it is that has Ward looking like a different player in his fourth year. Is it more experience, a better pass rush, increased confidence or Lasik eye surgery? Or is it a combination of all these things? Either way, it’s great news for a Kansas City defense that explosive NFL wide receivers continue to test downfield.
The coverage that has been provided by Kansas City linebackers is also critical — and deserves recognition.
Willie Gay looks uber comfortable in man covg. vs. RBs - the way he throttles down w/ inside leverage to protect the middle of the field, re-accels + collides Harris to widen his route. Slight knee hyperextension is the only reason this rep doesn't finish perfectly. pic.twitter.com/lNAgTDX0Qi— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
Here, Willie Gay Jr. covers up some of the unit’s potential vulnerabilities against excellent receiving backs, displaying a level of acceleration toward the football that has sometimes caught quarterbacks off guard. Gay’s value to the defense is hard to measure — but it is incredibly high.
Thanks to the positive development we have seen in young linebackers like Gay and rookie Nick Bolton, Ben Niemann has settled into an ideal role in Spagnuolo’s defense.
Late in the first half w/ a big lead, Spags loves to go to these 2-high looks that let Mathieu lurk b/c of his instinctual abilities.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
Really great job sorting routes out underneath, but Niemann especially here takes a phenomenal angle + finishes against a tough dude to tackle. pic.twitter.com/lidDwfWzk4
Against the Steelers, Niemann’s foot speed, pursuit angles and tackling ability — along with his mental processing to diagnose routes — all appeared on-point. As long as he can continue to play within this role, the narrative surrounding Niemann can — and should — be changing for the better.
Still... Sunday wasn’t even close to the secondary’s most dominant performance during the team’s eight-game winning streak.
Where can these KC corners be beat? It's still the short whip/agile style routes that really test their lateral athleticism. We've saw it w/ a Hunter Renfrow and Johnson here below. Not something an offense can or will do over and over. pic.twitter.com/vPDA0oUJtb— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
Quick, shifty receivers who work best in the short areas of the field continue to be the toughest challenge for Chiefs cornerbacks. It’s simply a matter of their athletic skillsets — especially for a player like Ward, who performs better along deep vertical planes than he does from sideline to sideline.
As they extended their lead, the Chiefs could rotate some of their younger depth players into the game. One of them — cornerback Deandre Baker — had some struggles going against a really good wide receiver: Diontae Johnson.
Baker adjusted his LOS approach after this play, but bottom line is he simply made the release too easy for Diontae given he had no help inside. Pursuit angle is reminiscent of a guy who hasn't played a ton in recent years. One to learn from. pic.twitter.com/bd8AFdNaGw— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
It’s important to note that after this play, Baker got better; he elected to either be more physical with his hands or play more softly in zone coverage. In the future, Baker will need to display better pre-snap awareness of what opposing offenses intend to do.
Finally... Kansas City gave up some highlight-worthy offensive plays to Pittsburgh receivers.
KC again w/ 2-high + Mathieu robbing - even when this defense does give up 'big' plays rn, almost nothing comes easy. Zero room for error here for Roethlisberger who makes a great throw, and still it could have been broken up/picked if 22 finishes on the ball more aggressively. pic.twitter.com/14xX6PC78V— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 28, 2021
On the surface, this is a bad snap. But it also shows something good: that even in the rare instances where the secondary surrenders explosive 20-plus yard pass plays, it still requires top-notch finishes by offensive playmakers to get the job done.
Right now, the defense’s margin for error is razor-thin; in the future, plays that are now going for big completions could very easily turn into interceptions or third-down stops. It’s just that on this particular rep, Thornhill and his teammates simply didn’t get the job done; credit should go to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wideout Chase Claypool.
The bottom line
When the Chiefs jump out to big leads, they land in a comfort zone where Spagnuolo can play two-high coverage schemes, relying on tight coverage by the cornerbacks — as well as a tremendous four-man pass rush. It is simple — and darned effective.
Despite the limited resources that have been invested into the defensive secondary, all the pieces needed for an opportunistic, dominant NFL defense are on hand in Kansas City.
I keep saying how important it is for the Chiefs’ defense to remain healthy. Each game where we see nearly all of their talented playmakers together — miss you, Nick Bolton — only emphasizes the point. So when Mathieu exited Sunday’s game with what was called a quad contusion, we had a bit of a scare — but it appears that Mathieu had dodged any serious long-term concern.
With confident players who love to be physical in any way they can, the Chiefs’ defense is ready to welcome all challengers. For now, though, the focus is on an extremely explosive Cincinnati Bengals offense led by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow.
Another dominant performance in Week 17 could have the Chiefs’ starters preparing for a rest period before resuming their AFC title defense — something that would be immensely helpful in keeping these players fresh and healthy.