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Film review: How the Chiefs ‘earned the right’ to rush the passer vs. the Seahawks

The game changes when you do the work on early downs.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

If you listen to Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s press conferences, a common expression you’ll hear from Spagnuolo is this:

“You earn the right to rush the passer.”

Spagnuolo means that to get to optimal pass rush downs — second-and-longs or third downs — you have to do the necessary work on early downs to get those opportunities. Getting upfield on third downs is ideal, but you won't get good pass-rush opportunities if your defense isn’t structurally sound on early downs.

This week against the Seattle Seahawks, the Chiefs were fortunate to have plenty of opportunities to rush the passer. Seattle finished 2 of 14 on third down with a paltry -.046 expected points added per play when quarterback Geno Smith passed on third downs. The defensive line was dominant, and Smith had little time to navigate his progressions without scrambling.

Still, none of that would have been possible without the Chiefs’ defense doing its job on first and second down. The Seahawks had a putrid 37% success rate on early downs Sunday on 54 plays. The Chicago Bears have the worst success rate on early downs in the NFL at 40%. By EPA per play, the -0.11 mark by Seattle this Sunday would rank 32nd in the NFL. The Chiefs made an efficient offense all season look like the worst offense in the NFL on early downs Sunday, which enabled their third-down performance.

How did the Chiefs “earn the right to rush the passer”? Let’s dive into the film:

First down: stopping the run

The first key to how the Chiefs limited Seattle’s early-down offense was stopping the run on first down. If you eliminate two-minute situations and when Seattle was down three touchdowns, Seattle ran the ball 12 times for 38 total yards (including a holding call). Seattle’s offense is built around blending perimeter runs with play-action passes, but they couldn’t get advantageous positions on second down.

Overall, I thought this was the defensive tackles’ best game overall. I thought nose tackle Derrick Nnadi played his best game of the season, and Danny Shelton and Brandon Williams made great impacts with Khalen Saunders being out. When the Seahawks tried running inside zone or duo, those guys took double teams and destroyed the line of scrimmage consistently.

Kansas City also tackled great. When the Seahawks would run toss-sweep or outside zone, the Chiefs “force defenders” — or slot players — did a great job coming in to insert on the run, not allowing anything to break outside. The Chiefs were able to string everything to the sideline but also were able to shut off that sideline based on what our slot defenders were doing.

Limiting middle-of-the-field targets

Quarterback Geno Smith has been excellent in targeting the middle of the field all season. Smith leads the league in completion percentage and is second in completion percentage over expectation, with Smith primarily throwing into the middle of the field. When Smith got the job after the Russell Wilson trade, the biggest difference in Seattle’s offense was that they could access that area of the field, which helped offensive coordinator Shane Waldron call a Sean McVay-style offense that he was brought in to do.

On Sunday? Here was Smith’s throwing chart vs. the Chiefs;

Smith had one completion past 10 air yards and between the numbers on Sunday and only had two overall attempts in that area of the field. The Chiefs completely took away that area for Smith to throw to, forcing him to make deep sideline passes or check it down.

The Chiefs did a good job scouting the Seahawks' tendencies out of play action this week. Linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay were both doing well at turning right after the snap to defend the middle of the field, and both were in the right positions to take away any crossing routes. Considering both generally struggle in those areas, to me, that shows strong scouting from the coaches in getting those players to execute against something that shows up on film often.

Because those guys were taking away the middle of the field, Smith was forced to check it down routinely or make difficult sideline throws, where the Chiefs were “clouding” — or playing Cover 2 — to wide receiver D.K. Metcalf. That strategy wouldn’t be effective without solid linebacker play in zone coverage, and Bolton and Gay were good in that area this week.

Second-down Pressures

The Chiefs didn’t blitz a ton this week, but they were able to get consistent pressure on Smith, especially on early downs. Defensive tackle Chris Jones was feasting in the backfield all week, regardless of whether he was playing defensive end or defensive tackle. Jones hadn’t been playing his best football recently, so it was great to see him reenergized and dominant again.

The four-man rush was working in totality, especially from rookie defensive end George Karlaftis. This was Karlaftis’s best game as a pro. His only sack of the game came on a nice chop-rip move around the corner, but he also had a quarterback hit on an inside move vs. play action. Karlaftis has been playing strong football recently, which is critical for the Chiefs to win in the playoffs.

Bonus third-down play

While I was mainly impressed by what the Chiefs’ defense did on early downs, I didn’t want to leave this [pst without mentioning one cool third-down design.

When the Chiefs' defense aligns presnap, they’re showing Cover 1 with a safety walking down into the slot while also showing pressure with their MIKE linebacker and safety. When the snap comes, the Chiefs rotate into Cover 4 against a 2x2 formation, but I love the pressure design on this play.

The Chiefs have Bolton walked into the A-gap and put Jones wide at 3-technique, which forces Seattle to slide their protection toward that side. Safety Justin Reid walks up into the opposite B-gap right before the snap, which forces the running back to take him in pass protection. When the snap comes, Reid wins his one-on-one rep vs. the running back in pass protection, but they also send safety Bryan Cook in the same B-gap, where he gets a free run to the quarterback. Bolton and defensive end Carlos Dunlap drop into coverage, taking away any potential routes at the sticks.

This play is a good example of the Chiefs messing with protection rules in their alignments and getting good blitzers against running backs in protection. The Chiefs design this for their best athletes to get free access to Smith, and this design does that perfectly.

The bottom line

Seattle is reeling right now.

With wide receiver Tyler Lockett out, that severely limits what Waldron and Smith can do to run an efficient offense. Seattle’s offense is based on timing and rhythm, and without Lockett to take those easy targets over the middle of the field, they had trouble running their normal playbook.

Still, the Chiefs deserve a ton of credit for how they executed on Sunday. The run defense was incredibly sharp this week, forcing multiple tackles for loss. The Seahawks wanted to hit perimeter runs, but the Chiefs didn’t allow Walker to hit anything outside. They also did a great job taking away the middle of the field from Smith, which made him uncomfortable.

Finally, the Chiefs’ defensive line was awesome on Sunday. Jones was an absolute force, and Karlaftis also stepped up and played his best game. It’s challenging to blitz on early downs because offenses have the threat of running, but when you can win with four as those guys did, it makes Spagnuolo’s job way easier.

This was the last big test for the Chiefs’ defense before the playoffs, and they passed with flying colors. Seattle’s offense isn’t as good as the competition in the AFC, but that doesn’t take away the fact that this week can build confidence for the playoffs.

The Chiefs’ defense can and will likely struggle in the playoffs, but if they’re confident in their assignments, they might just be able to make enough plays to win a Super Bowl.

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