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How the Chiefs’ red-zone defense improves in 2021

You have to look back to look forward sometimes. I did that with the Chiefs’ red zone defense to see how it could shape up for 2021

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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.

The hot topic at Chiefs’ OTAs has been the red zone defense, so I researched that aspect of the game from 2020 and determined how it could be better for the upcoming campaign.


The numbers

Before digging deeper into this phase of the game, I’ll lay the foundation with how the Chiefs performed statistically.

  • In the 2020 regular season, Kansas City allowed 47 possessions to advance into the red zone — the sixth-fewest of all teams. They allowed touchdowns on 36 drives; that conversion rate of 76.6% was the league’s highest. In the postseason, they improved to a rate of 58.3% on 12 total drives.
  • The Chiefs did not earn any red-zone interceptions in 2020 — regular season and postseason combined. They were one of only four teams with none. They totaled five regular-season sacks — the sixth-most in the NFL; the only Chief with multiple red-zone sacks was edge rusher Taco Charlton, who had two.
  • Opposing quarterbacks completed 78.6% of their red-zone passes in the 2020 regular season — the highest rate in the NFL by over seven percentage points. They also allowed the highest yards per attempt rate and a passer rating of all NFL red-zone defenses.

The film

In recent seasons, one of the biggest weaknesses of the Chiefs defense, in general, is their lack of sideline-to-sideline range from the linebackers and other second-level defenders. It was especially exploited in the red zone.

In the modern NFL, it is a necessity for linebackers to have the requisite athleticism to beat plays to the flat. There are too many ways an offense can quickly get the ball to the outside now. If the second level of the defense consistently loses an angle on the ballcarrier to the sideline, it leads to wide open cut back lanes or a clean running lane to the front pylon.

In that same vein, the Chiefs were constantly beaten by quick throws to the flat when the linebackers or box safeties were in man coverage.

In such a crucial area of the field, each individual player needs to be smart about their assignment and be aware of their immediate surroundings.

While there was plenty of blame to go around, linebacker Ben Niemann had numerous red-zone repetitions showing poor football IQ. He takes himself way out of position by biting too hard on run fakes, he fails to either follow or pass off receivers to his teammate and leaves a well-known, dangerous red-zone threat to rush after a quarterback that already had pressure in his face.

In the tightest area of the field, the Chiefs' defense ironically allowed a lot of open windows for quarterbacks to throw into. There are examples of giving too much cushion and eliminating their own chances to make a play by being so off-coverage.

Statistically, the Chiefs defense was the league’s worst at stopping conversions on short-yardage runs. That said, a few red-zone drives end in a goal-line stop; the one in the second quarter of Super Bowl LV was the most memorable.

The two-play sequence is a reminder that the Chiefs will miss this aspect of now-Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Damien Wilson’s game. He showed the best, most consistent ability of his position group to quickly explode downhill, fill a hole and truly stonewall a ballcarrier. It’s a skill the team will need to find from another linebacker on the team now.

Looking forward to 2021

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest thing the Chiefs need to improve their red-zone defense is more athleticism and playmaking from the linebacker position. Judging by the back-to-back years of selecting second-round linebackers, they understand that. Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton are both players that can help correct that weakness for the future — but Gay has a bigger opportunity to make a difference.

Gay was drafted for his range. His 4.46 40-yard dash is numerical proof that he is faster than what the Chiefs have had at the position, but we also saw glimpses of it on the field in 2020.

Gay’s reaction time is quicker, his acceleration is better and his general speed is faster than any of the primary linebackers in the era of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. If he can return from injury and earn a larger share of the linebacker snaps, he would naturally improve the defense’s ability to defend outside runs and passes to the flat.

Otherwise, the defensive backs need to work towards being more aggressive and getting into passing lanes in the red zone in 2021. A natural step in progression for cornerback L’Jarius Sneed should help with that kind of playmaking, while safety Juan Thornhill further removed from his ACL injury can also make a big difference.