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Review to preview: How the Chiefs can improve their ability to blitz in 2021

You have to look back to look forward sometimes. I looked at the defense’s blitz plays and determined how they could take it up a notch.

Divisional Round - Cleveland Browns v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

As we excitedly wait for Kansas City Chiefs training camp to open in late July, it’s a good time to recall the 2020 team’s performance in specific areas of the game and determine if it is set to improve or regress in 2021.

In my latest breakdown of an individual phase of the game, I looked at the defense’s blitzing situations — specifically the ones that occurred on third down.


The numbers

Before digging deeper into this phase of the game, I’ll lay the foundation with how the defense succeeded when blitzing.

  • The Chiefs' defense blitzed on 35.7% of opposing team’s dropbacks — the NFL’s ninth-highest rate in 2020.
  • Among off-ball defenders, Pro Football Focus’ data shows the leaders in pass-rushing snaps were linebacker Ben Niemann and safety Dan Sorensen, with 98 and 97 respectively. In only 43 chances, safety Tyrann Mathieu tied with Niemann for the team lead in pressures (11).
  • Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed was the only off-ball player with multiple sacks, racking up four. Sorensen led the group in quarterback hits with seven.

The film

There is a reason Niemann and Sorensen led off-ball players in blitzing opportunities: the Chiefs constantly used their dime personnel on passing downs — and at times, had to stay in it because opposing offenses were trying to keep up with the Chiefs.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves to mix up pass-rushing responsibilities by blitzing his second-level defenders on third down. This meant that Niemann and Sorensen were constantly being sent after the quarterback. Between them, they earned one sack and nine quarterback hits.

As a blitzer, Sorensen has always had a knack for getting downhill fast and powering through blockers. The momentum he carries is often hard for stationary running backs to stop. On top of that, his length allows him to get into passing lanes — and also shed blocks effectively.

Niemann can execute a blitz scheme, but there isn’t as much upside in him beating blocks with strength or flying through gaps as quickly. He hasn’t played the dime role because of his blitzing ability — but he has been asked to do it frequently.

Down the stretch of the season, rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed became the secondary’s most effective blitzer from the slot, with sacks in Weeks 15 and 16 — along with the Divisional and the AFC Championship games.

As a blitzer, Sneed’s straight-line speed and great acceleration are well-utilized. He’s also a very slippery player around blocks; he has a knack for twisting and rounding corners without a blocker getting good hand placement on him. On his blitz against Saints running back Alvin Kamara, he threw Kamara to the side and sacked quarterback Drew Brees.

Sneed — along with the rest of the defense — is also the beneficiary of incredible coaching. Spagnuolo is one of the best in the business — and assistants like defensive backs coach Sam Madison are also well-respected. It shows on the field when their defensive backs can hide their blitzes so effectively.

When a defender is showing man coverage against a receiver aligned closer to the offensive line, Kansas City defenders do a great job of looking like they’re in coverage until the last second. Sneed executed this strategy on this sack against the Cleveland Browns.

The Chiefs have combined talented blitzers with excellent coaches to create an effective blitz scheme. Headed into 2021, there are some things they need to keep the same — and some minor things they need to tweak.

Looking forward to 2021

NFL: NOV 08 Panthers at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I believe the Chiefs defense needs to make a firm decision to have Sneed play the slot in their nickel defense — even if he plays as an outside cornerback in base formations. Sneed really did show a knack for blitzing — and in general, making tackles around the line of scrimmage. He needs to play around the box, so he can be a consistent threat off the edge and in the flat.

Another second-year player should see more opportunities. In 2020, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. had 26 snaps rushing the quarterback — compared to Niemann’s 98. Whether or not Niemann is the “safer option” for the coaching staff to put on the field, the Chiefs need more of Gay’s superior athleticism and playmaking ability.

If the dime packages are going to be the formations in which the Chiefs’ defense lines up most often, 2020’s second-round pick needs to see more time in that role. The team needs to justify the draft capital — and with an uptick of opportunities, Gay’s straight-line speed and burst should turn into production.