When the highlights roll from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 21-14 win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 9, the defense will be heavily featured — and not just because cornerback Trent McDuffie and safeties Mike Edwards and Bryan Cook made the play of the year in the first half.
Ripped it loose, scooped it, lateraled it and took it to the house.— NFL (@NFL) November 5, 2023
Just a wild sequence of events for a @Chiefs touchdown.
: #MIAvsKC on NFL Network
: Stream on #NFLPlus https://t.co/d4RDZpceuE pic.twitter.com/VqoT9m7ZAq
The majority of the defensive highlights from this game came on third (or fourth) down, when the Dolphins’ offense was more predictable. Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took advantage, manufacturing sacks and incompletions.
That, however, isn’t the focus here.
Instead, let’s shine a light on why Miami was unable to get past third down: because of how well the Chiefs played on first and second down. Five of the Dolphins’ first six third-down attempts required nine or more yards to convert. Miami didn’t convert a third down until midway through the third quarter.
It started with how the Dolphins’ running game was handled — even though the Dolphins collected 117 yards on 21 carries.
Limiting explosive runs
One of the ways Miami has created big rushing gains this season is by sending running back Raheem Mostert toward the sideline. With his speed, he can erase the angles that linebackers and defensive linemen can take to cut him off.
#Chiefs set up their 3rd down success vs. Miami by swarming on early downs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2023
On outside runs, CBs were beating blocks and forcing runs back inside, including safety Chamarri Conner in the slot
That allowed hard-pursuing players like Tranquill, Omenihu, & Chenal to finish the stop pic.twitter.com/IU7HAy2S7o
On Sunday, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — along with McDuffie and rookie safety Chamarri Conner — helped the cause by fighting through leading blocks on the perimeter, forcing Mostert to cut back into their pursuing teammates. You can’t always expect that someone will be there to meet the ball carrier — but on Sunday, linebackers Drue Tranquill and Leo Chenal (and defensive end Charles Omenihu) were there to make plays.
Conner made an immediate impact, blowing up a block from a slot alignment and disrupting a run to his side. He manned the slot when the Chiefs went to Nickel packages on running downs, giving them a bigger body to crash down into gaps — and more easily take on the blocks of tight ends and fullbacks.
#Chiefs LB Willie Gay had the 3rd most tkls of the LB group, yet was arguably the most impactful— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2023
This TFL set Miami back on their 2nd-to-last drive, leading to a punt
He made two other 1st & 10 run stops, including nearly forcing a turnover in the 4th Quarter pic.twitter.com/bSR4WythJj
As we see in these plays, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. also played a key role in early-down defense. He makes one of the contest’s most significant tackles as he shoots through the line on first down, dragging the ball carrier down six yards behind the line. This negative play led to a Miami punt. Then we see two other first-and-10 stops: one gains only two yards, while the other is a forced fumble in a crucial spot in the fourth quarter.
Playing downhill and physical in coverage
The Dolphins did complete some downfield passes on first downs, perfectly timing up play-action patterns to fit a throw between defenders. Kansas City was more prepared to suffocate the quick-hitting passes underneath — which was illustrated by safety Justin Reid’s performance.
#Chiefs safety Justin Reid talked about being physical in pass defense leading into the game, and he backed it up— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2023
On early downs, he was constantly anticipating throws in front of him, firing downhill with a purpose
He put someone on the ground all 3 plays here pic.twitter.com/esRqBiRW8U
Reid finished with only three tackles, but his speed to the ball in front of him helped the defense stop at least two completions for minimal gains. He also came up hard on a slant route that was thrown too far out in front, exposing the receiver’s torso so that Reid could legally bury the receiver in the turf.
This was something Reid had talked about before the game: taking every opportunity to be physical against Miami’s pass-catchers. That was also reflected in Sneed’s press coverage of Tyreek Hill. While the Dolphins missed downfield opportunities to Hill, Sneed’s physicality at the line contributed to disrupting the timing and accuracy of the passes they did attempt to the league’s top wideout.
The cherry on top was McDuffie’s highlight-reel play; he wasted no time going from reading the play to putting his nose on the football to make the tackle — and force the fumble. The second-year corner was in Hill’s face before the juke artist could even take a step — and McDuffie’s play ended up scoring the game-deciding touchdown.
The bottom line
The success on early downs wouldn’t have been important unless the defense had followed that up with strong plays on third down. Our Caleb James will be reviewing those snaps in his own breakdown of Sunday’s win. He’ll show just how creative Spagnuolo was with blitzes and coverage, which were more available to him after his unit had won so often on first and second down.