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Why Chiefs’ safeties are the X-Factor vs. Bills’ Josh Allen

Diving into the film to see why Kansas City’s safeties play a key role in Sunday’s game against Buffalo.

Syndication: Arizona Republic JAMIE GERMANO/ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE/USA TODAY NETWORK / USA TODAY NETWORK

This feels like a playoff game.

It's crazy to say that about a Week 6 game — but I'm not sure it's wrong to feel that way. These are the two best teams in the NFL, coming back for the rematch of potentially the most legendary game of NFL history.

In reality, this game won't mean too much over the course of a long season, but setting the tone for this rivalry could go a long way to building up for the rest of the season.

To do that, the Kansas City Chiefs will have to defend Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. In both games against the Chiefs last season, Allen was on a heater. It didn't matter what the Chiefs did defensively — Allen had answers for everything the Chiefs were doing schematically.

This year, the Chiefs have plenty of new faces defensively. The team got younger, faster and more physical. Still, this is the first time this defense has faced Allen as a unit. Allen is an extremely difficult quarterback to play; if you don't have experience playing him, it can be a long day.

No position group has seen more turnover than the safety room. Justin Reid, Bryan Cook, and Juan Thornhill haven't played Allen as a trio yet. Last year, Allen shredded the Chiefs' safeties in both matchups. For the Chiefs to win again, they will need their safeties to step up and play big games. Let's discuss ways the safeties will be tested vs. the Bills.

Quarterback run game

If Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson didn't exist, we would spend more time talking about how Allen is an all-time runner at quarterback. Allen doesn't have the speed of Jackson, but he reminds me so much of Cam Newton. His sheer size almost makes it difficult to tackle him. Add his game-breaking speed, and it's nearly impossible to bring him down.

The Bills like to use Allen as a runner in their quarterback run game. Defending a quarterback run game is already difficult because of the numbers advantage the offense has, but when you combine that advantage with Allen's body, it can be a cheat code.

The Bills have been conservative with using Allen in the run game, which makes sense. Allen signed a $258 million contract — you can't afford to overuse his legs and expose him to more injuries. Yet, when the games matter most, the Bills use Allen's legs to give them easy, early-down advantages. In both Chiefs games last season, the Bills had no problem using Allen's legs in the run game — especially during the playoffs.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Allen's legs become an integral part of the game plan again, considering the consequences of this game against the Bills.

Defending Allen in the run game is a total defensive effort, but it's going to be big for the Chiefs' safeties. The Bills attacked Daniel Sorensen and Tyrann Mathieu when they were down in the box last year, forcing them to try and tackle Allen in space. Justin Reid has been the primary guy the Chiefs have put in the box this season. His ability to tackle will be critical vs. Allen. The Bills will test to see if he can hold up, and if he can, it'll go a long way to eliminating that package from their playbook.

Allen overthrowing safeties

Like the Chiefs last season, the Bills' offense had rough patches.

Both teams dealt with a staggering amount of zone coverage against them. Defenses were hoping they could keep explosive plays down just enough for the Bills to make enough mistakes offensively. If they could limit explosive plays, it might force the Bills out of rhythm. That strategy did work, with the most famous example being the Urban Meyer-led Jaguars holding Allen to six points.

Similar to Patrick Mahomes, Allen was forced to check it down more, which was a win for the defense every time. Teams were able to take away all the crossing routes the Bills attacked teams with during the 2020 season, forcing Allen to try and play a much more conservative approach.

The problem? While it's true that keeping a lid on explosive passes is easier with two-high safeties, it doesn't matter much when your quarterback can just overthrow your safeties, regardless of distance.

When Allen sees a one-on-one with a safety, he will throw a post or vertical shot every time. Even if you're playing zone coverage and in an excellent position to turn and run with the route, Allen will simply outthrow your leverage.

It's going to be critical for the Chiefs' safeties to play everything top-down. Even if they have to concede some yards over the middle of the field, it beats the alternative of Allen throwing passes over your head. With Thornhill and Cook playing deep most of the time, they have to keep a lid on explosive passing against Allen, forcing him to hit other parts of the field.

Buffalo attacking base defense

Last season, in both matchups against the Chiefs, the Bills’ offensive game plan was to put Kansas City in its base defense and attack the weaknesses of the Chiefs' personnel. When you put a defense in base personnel, it simplifies the calls they can get into.

In 2020, the Bills struggled against defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's pressure packages because the Chiefs could play dime personnel and get exotic with their blitzes and coverages. By putting a defense into the base, Spagnuolo can't do that.

Once the Chiefs were in base, they were able to hit the Chiefs with play action. When the Bills run play-action, they look to hit anything vertically. If you're out of position as a linebacker and safety, you don't have time to recover before Allen has already thrown the ball right behind your head.

Getting into the base also unlocks the run-pass option (RPO) game. The Bills love to run Pin-Pull with an RPO slant behind it. If the defense flows to the outside run, that slant will be open, and the lack of speed at the second level generates plenty of yards after the catch.

If you walk a safety down into the box and play Cover 1 or Cover 3, Allen will throw the go route down the sideline. He trusts his arm and receivers enough to make plays, and given the Chiefs' inexperience at cornerback, I would expect Allen to throw it up to see if they can make plays.

Strong safety play can help all of these problems out of the base. While the defensive calls are simple, strong eye discipline can help vs. the RPOs and play action. You can bait Allen into throwing passes that aren't there. This can lead to pass breakups and interceptions for Chiefs safeties. It's a lot of things to cover, but if the safeties can bait Allen into tough throws, there are opportunities for turnovers.

The bottom line

Of all position groups on defense, no position group feels more strain defending Allen than safeties. His ability with his legs forces safeties to attempt to tackle him in space. In coverage, even if teams do their best to play deep zone coverage, Allen can throw a rocket strike for a touchdown.

When Allen is attacking underneath with RPOs and play action, there is a lot of strain on safeties to defend the middle of the field and tackle in space because of his quick trigger and throwing power.

For the Chiefs' safeties, everything will need to be clicking. The Bills are built to beat you in space. In order to constrict space, the Chiefs have to take away windows and angles. A lot of that will come down to Reid, Thornhill and Cook making plays.

The goal against Buffalo is to limit their menu as much as possible, and if those guys can do that, I feel good about the Chiefs' chances vs. the Bills. If they don't, it's going to be a long day defensively.

I'll be fascinated to see how that matchup turns out.

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