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.
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.
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.
One of the biggest woes for the #Chiefs 2020 defense was their lack of sideline-to-sideline range from the 2nd level of D. Especially in RZ— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 8, 2021
In today's NFL, LBs have to be able to scrape better and get to the flat quicker than what we've seen from this LB unit in recent szns pic.twitter.com/ClJj2jIXMp
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.
RZ defense a lot of times comes down to playing smart and aware of your surroundings— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 8, 2021
1st play: 56 guesses badly wrong on run, leaving Danna in 1v2 situation in flat
2nd: KPass can't see who has the ball
3rd: 56 needs to stick with TE instead of rushing. KPass already had angle pic.twitter.com/zItrQkakdC
#Chiefs RZ defense gave opposing offenses way too much space in an area of the field where they should have little.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 8, 2021
It also speaks to a lack of communication in coverage. On last play, 56 either needs to verbally pass off Waller or get on his horse to trail him. Does neither pic.twitter.com/PM77ZIJsQg
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.
Damien Wilson seemed to be the best #Chiefs LB at quickly filling a gap and truly stonewalling a ballcarrier. They need Gay and Bolton to bring that ability in 2021— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 8, 2021
Wilson had the KC highlight of Super Bowl LV with this 2-play sequence stuffing the Bucs on 3rd and 4th down. pic.twitter.com/K4dQ4MniJQ
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
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.
The RZ defense can take a big step if they can get more athleticism and range from LBs that are on the field the most.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 8, 2021
Gay has those tools. If he can recover cleanly from injury and play a larger share of the snaps this season, it would be huge for the #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/rtYZbDOxMC
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.