Since Patrick Mahomes became the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting quarterback, this hasn’t usually been the case — but this will now be the second straight week where reviewing the Chiefs’ defensive performance will undeniably be more enjoyable than examining what the offense did.
During Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the defense displayed moments of strength at all levels of the field. But here, we will center on Kansas City’s defensive backs.
For Week 3, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo devised a tremendous game plan for the Colts, based mostly on two-high safety zone coverage shells combined with aggressive man-to-man coverage when the team was blitzing in key third- and fourth-down situations.
Let’s go to the film to see how the Chiefs’ young group fared.
Versatility, speed, and aggression
In Week 2, rookie seventh-round draft choice Jaylen Watson helped Kansas City win a huge divisional matchup with his pick-six against the Los Angeles Chargers. It left fans excited to see more. How would Watson respond to the highest point of his young career?
September 27, 2022
Similar to cornerback L’Jarius Sneed’s 2020 rookie season, we are seeing Watson’s natural playmaking ability unfold; you just know there’s something real and tangible there. Watson doesn’t look like a Day 3 pick holding on for dear life. Instead, he looks like a player who belongs on the field. He is yet another player on a long list of the team’s defensive players who demonstrate strong instincts.
Still, Watson did not appear as comfortable in his few Sunday reps in tighter slot alignments; at different times, the Colts’ star receiver Michael Pittman Jr. was able to win with good releases against both Watson and Fenton. In these snaps, the Chiefs probably missed injured corner Trent McDuffie (and his stickyness in coverage) more than in others. Similar to veteran cornerback Rashad Fenton, Watson’s best current spot is certainly out on the perimeter.
There’s a pretty good chance that right now, Watson and Fenton are battling for the remaining starting position when McDuffie returns to the lineup. Realistically, the rookie will have to be far and away better in the weeks ahead to edge out the veteran corner for that spot.
Yet another play where the math is good for Indy and looks nice on a board, but Thornhill out-executes the WRs. pic.twitter.com/f0tBH6USwQ— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 27, 2022
But right now, the entire secondary is defending wide receiver screens at a high level. For whatever other reasons — none more important than securing the initial tackle attempt — the unit is identifying these types of plays very well. This will help the defense stay in more optimal down-and-distance situations.
To that point, the biggest thing helping the Kansas City defense to be successful is that when it’s necessary, it can always count on one position group to pick up the slack from other ones. Using fewer players inside the tackle box than most would have expected, the Chiefs did an excellent job of containing the excellent Indianapolis rushing attack. This allowed the secondary to be more aggressive in its approach.
KC absolutely killed Indy up front with these Dime/speed pressures - Bryan Cook (6) closes on Ryan so quick that even despite missing initially, Bolton is ready to call it a wrap. pic.twitter.com/Gkxn3BSkib— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 27, 2022
One way this showed up was how Spagnuolo used safeties as blitzers from his dime packages, in which six defensive backs are on the field. Both Justin Reid and Bryan Cook had degrees of success coming after Indianapolis quarterback Matt Ryan. Of course, part of that was how the Indianapolis offensive line handled those pressures. But the speed these defensive backs displayed as they closed on the pocket was a big weapon — one we may see again when the Chiefs face Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady this weekend.
The advantage of having versatile DBs - Sneed can comfortably rotate back to S and Reid can play over WRs unpredictably in a way that makes the juice worth the squeeze every so often pic.twitter.com/zl77qiGUXw— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 27, 2022
It isn’t just blitzing, either. Between Reid, Cook, Sneed and Juan Thornhill, Spagnuolo now has a bunch of really fast players on the back end who really can line up just about anywhere; studying to play this defense can’t be very fun (or easy). But we know that it will be December or January before Spagnuolo’s defense peaks; once the full playbook comes into play, the unit will be absolutely brutal.
Sneed's awareness/spacing saves Chenal here, gives Dunlap chance to finish.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 27, 2022
Speed of Thornhill squeezing the vertical route is much better than who they likely would've been relying on there early last season. pic.twitter.com/I2HTK7k1xC
Sneed definitely deserves some love after a relatively quiet day for him. Here, we see some great zone coverage awareness that makes up for linebacker Leo Chenal (No. 54) being overaggressive toward play action.
Something to note: against more athletic quarterbacks the defense will face this season, we may not see the same results. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap likely won’t be able to run down quarterbacks like Josh Allen or Joe Burrow.
Still, Indianapolis had quite a bit of success creating schematic opportunities for their receivers to get open — something the Kansas City offense would be wise to copy more often. If the pass rush hadn’t impacted Matt Ryan so consistently, the Colts would have been able to move the ball more steadily.
A concept I'd circle as one Tampa can/might replicate with their blend of size and quickness at WR. pic.twitter.com/8pNjFHqOGb— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 27, 2022
On this play, Fenton gets caught in no-man’s-land. It’s really no fault of his own; it happened to a couple of his teammates on Sunday, too. Especially in the second quarter, Indianapolis started to get into a groove using pick routes to expose one-on-one vulnerabilities behind Kansas City’s blitz packages.
Chiefs adjust how they sort out the bunch formation next go around, no pick route to be had. Bolton cleans up. pic.twitter.com/9sVsJB9fg1— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 27, 2022
Whether it was through coaching or player adjustments, Chiefs defensive backs did a better job of avoiding getting caught up in the Colts’ schematic binds during the second half. Against Brady in Week 4, they’ll need to be even better.
The bottom line
This week’s matchup against the Buccaneers will be interesting. So far this season, these teams have looked similar in more than a couple of ways: both offenses have underachieved, while defenses have kept them in games.
So don’t be surprised if we see more of the same on Sunday night. The difference between winning or losing could be whether Kansas City’s secondary can create one more turnover than Tampa Bay’s does.