The game script for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football was one very reminiscent of past seasons as the offense led by Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid led the way toward a dominant victory.
Despite what the sports networks will be talking about all week in their segments, the Chiefs' defense did play a significant role in the game as well.
The Chiefs allowed just 3 rushing yards against the Bucs, which ties a single-game franchise record. The Chiefs also allowed 3 yards against San Diego on November 19, 1961.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) October 3, 2022
While the Buccaneers rushing attack was totally shut down to the tune of just three total rushing yards, their passing game led by Tom Brady put Kansas City's pass defense to the test all night.
Let's go to the film to examine the pass rush:
The first half
The initial defensive game plan incorporated by Steve Spagnuolo was clear — the Cheifs wanted to only rush four defenders at Brady, trusting at least one pass rusher to win quickly while playing soft zone coverage behind it. Unfortunately, the success with this approach didn't come to fruition.
Pressure was rarely seen in the opening half when Kansas City rushed a traditional four-man front. This meant Brady could remain comfortable in his stance and simply pick the holes in Kansas City's zone defense apart. It was much like what we've seen Brady do to teams for the past 20-plus years.
Only in the first half so far but Brady had far too much space in the pocket to work with vs. the four man rush/zone cvg. pic.twitter.com/YFi2yMSvGU— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 3, 2022
In fact, the Chiefs didn't have a clean, quick win by a defensive lineman within a four-man pressure until early in the third quarter (but more on that later).
Tampa Bay came into the game with a good plan to combat what it faced, and its players along the offensive line rose up to the challenge early. They were ready to double-team defensive tackle Chris Jones often and trust their other offensive linemen to win one-on-one matchups elsewhere, especially in the opening half.
On the few occasions the Chiefs did blitz Brady early on, they had by far their greatest overall defensive success.
First blitz vs. a non-screen pass looked like this. pic.twitter.com/F6gkiI1vjh— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 3, 2022
Second blitz of the night vs. a Bucs non-screen pass. Sneed's disguise happens right as Brady looks that way. pic.twitter.com/yvAsHj19Z6— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 3, 2022
The way to beat Brady is to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, and it has to be done at all costs — even if it means sacrificing coverage defenders on the back end. He has to be pressured, or he will kill the opposing defense with elite mental processing and accuracy in the short to intermediate areas of the field.
It wasn't to the clip fans would like to see early on, but blitzes by defensive backs ultimately did enough in the first half to hold onto a sizable lead as the Chiefs headed back to the locker room. Extra credit goes to L'Jarius Sneed, who was the defensive player of the game with his clutch strip sack.
The second half
Early in the second half, it was more of the same for the Chiefs, with not a ton of pressure being generated beyond what the coaching staff had designed or forced based on blitzing more defenders than Tampa Bay had in terms of blockers. It's terrific to see how these defenders respond to having pressure placed on them as aggressors — they love being in attack mode.
1 of the Chiefs 4 third down stops on the night - what stands out w/ the approach?— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 3, 2022
The aggressive types of calls were immensely better than everything else Sun. pic.twitter.com/5cGJMTj8nC
The major shift came in the fourth quarter.
With a three-score lead throughout most of the entire second half, Kansas City's defensive linemen started to string together some wins on their own, blitzing or not.
Defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton stood out amongst all Chiefs pass rushers in the final quarter. Wharton put together a few different pressures all by himself. Defensive ends like George Karlaftis and Frank Clark flashed as well.
Second half Pass rush one-on-one wins start to accumulate— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 3, 2022
First up; Wharton (98): pic.twitter.com/TR5sBpR15Y
Very next play - Karlaftis flashing the lateral quicks! pic.twitter.com/AqLjyqnOyW— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 3, 2022
gets in on the action with a good 4th quarter spin. pic.twitter.com/3f2A3drvFS— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 3, 2022
The game script matters, especially for this defensive line group. Similar to the game against the Los Angeles Chargers a few weeks ago, they saved their best work for when they were able to fully pin their ears back and take off after Brady while protecting a significant lead. Pass-rush moves used early in the game set up opportunities to counter and win in different ways.
As a subtle matter of fact — these defensive linemen are getting great conditioning week after week by having to rush the opposing quarterback so many times due to large leads late, and it could pay off in the long run.
This isn't the final time they will be trying to close out games this way.
The bottom line
Through the first month of the season, the pass rush for the Chiefs has been a little better than in prior years under Spagnuolo overall. However, it still isn't a dominant unit capable of winning often with the four-man pass rush week to week.
Chris Jones is still the headlining star who is accompanied by a lot of guys just looking to make a play here or there each week.
There are several paths to success for this pass rush moving forward. They could elect to eventually add an edge rusher via trade, but that option is far, far less likely right now than the following alternative.
The Chiefs need the defense to get some very pivotal pieces back. Suspended linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and injured cornerback Trent McDuffie are very likely their best second and third-level coverage defenders on the entire team, respectively. Simply having the skill sets of those two players back will unlock some schematic components.
Spagnuolo can be more aggressive with his play calling when he has Gay's athleticism covering the middle of the field and McDuffie's ability to blanket receivers on the perimeter one-on-one. Defensive lineman Mike Danna showed a new level of potential in his role before straining a calf a couple of weeks back.
There's a good chance they will have to be more blitz-heavy against great offenses. Typically, this isn't ideal for defenses, but it's in Spagnuolo's wheelhouse and nothing new for him or the Chiefs defense to figure out.
Even though quarterbacks like Brady or Buffalo's Josh Allen usually do quite well against the blitz as great passers usually will, Spagnuolo's pressure scheme has given these guys more fits than any other in recent memory.
Regardless, this is still a team game, and when the Chiefs have their offense rolling like it was in Tampa — with steady special teams play and an opportunistic defense — it will be darn tough to beat.