The Kansas City Chiefs' 21-14 win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 9 was highlighted by one of Kansas City’s best defensive efforts of the season. The Chiefs held the league’s most explosive offense scoreless in the first half — and allowed it a season-low 14 points over four quarters.
A large part of the Chiefs' success came on third down, where they held Miami to only three conversions on 12 third-down attempts, stamping the game with the brand of defensive football they want to play.
How did the defense get it done? Let’s take a look.
Third-down success started with putting in the work on early downs to put Miami into unfavorable third-down situations. Per Pro Football Reference, Kansas City blitzed Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa 14 times. Three of those came on third down, while another was on the quarterback’s fourth-down fumble in the Dolphins’ final drive.
Sending pressure against an explosive team like Miami can be risky, but defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was able to disguise his looks and make Tagovailoa uncomfortable in the pocket.
Tua never saw the bliz from Watson coming Tranquill is creeping toward the line and Edwards is playing shallow. The OL slides toward Jones, but Tranquill goes opposite A gap Omenihu and Danna go T/E and Watson is the free runner. Great disguise on the play. pic.twitter.com/LqfpV4Vv7X— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 6, 2023
On this play, the Chiefs are in a dime look — it’s an obvious passing down — with L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie both to the field and linebacker Drue Tranquill showing in the middle. Cornerback Jaylen Watson appears to be lined up one one-on-one against Dolphins’ wideout Cedric Wilson to the boundary.
On the snap, Tranquill does come up the middle, but McDuffie and Sneed drop — along with defensive end George Karlaftis, who takes away the flat. Justin Reid rolls over the top to take Wilson away — and Tagovailoa doesn’t know the blitz is coming. At the top of the quarterback’s drop, Watson takes him down.
3rd and 10. Reid blitzes, Tranquill drops middle, and Danna drops to the flat. Karalftis comes unblocked off the edge and gets his hands up. Tua has to get the ball out quickly to the RB, but Tranquill is there to make the stop. pic.twitter.com/EFtvpT9YBa— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 7, 2023
Here we see Tranquill walking around the line of scrimmage before the snap. At the last second, he bails. On the opposite side of the field, Mike Danna drops into coverage in the flat, while Tranquill settles in — ready for anything short over the middle.
Reid blitzes the B-gap. The right tackle takes Reid, which essentially creates a full slide-left protection on the fly. That leaves Karlaftis free off the edge. The defensive end gets his hands up — and while Tagovailoa hits his checkdown to the running back, Tranquill is there for the stop.
With the Dolphins driving on the final drive of the game, the Chiefs would dial up one more blitz.
Reid drops at the snap, while McDuffie and Tranquill blitz. The slide is the opposite of the blitz over to Jones. Danna creates some penetration and with McDuffie flying from the outside Tua gets the ball out of his hand quickly. Not enough time to step into the throw. pic.twitter.com/rJZ0CBdwAy— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 7, 2023
This time, McDuffie and Tranquill — along with the rest of the defensive line — rush the passer. Six men are coming, but only five are left in protection — so McDuffie runs free off the edge. Wilson has Watson beat on the outside — but with the pressure closing in, Tagovailoa can’t step into the throw, so his pass to Wilson is well short.
Forcing Tagovailoa to throw checkdowns — or hold onto the ball and take sacks — helped Kansas City dominate on third down.
Chris Jones as a decoy
In games of this magnitude, it’s not often that defensive player of the year candidates are used as decoys — but that is exactly what happened on Sunday.
Jones didn’t make much impact on the box score. Even worse, a monumental lapse of judgment — when he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct — led directly to a Miami touchdown.
But his presence was still felt on the field when the Chiefs took advantage of the Dolphins' blocking scheme, which tended to slide protection toward Jones.
The Dolphins were doubling Jones on nearly every play. It actually helped to open up some of the blitzes on the man side of the Dolphins' slide protection, as well as the T/E stunts later in the game. Here he splits the double team and the C has to hold him to prevent a sack. pic.twitter.com/WTzhvDTTC3— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 7, 2023
On this third-down play — lined up as a 3-technique — Jones easily splits the double-team between the guard and center, forcing a holding call (and a bad pass).
On the third-down plays in which it didn’t blitz, the defense was still able to take advantage of Miami’s protection sliding toward Jones.
Dolphins slide left toward Jones leaving the backside one on one. Omenihu and Karlaftis run a T/E stunt. The RG is late on the pass-off, and Karlaftis gets free into the A-gap. Sticky coverage by Cochrane and Williams. pic.twitter.com/dP3UaXRIII— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 7, 2023
Here we see that after a slide toward Jones on the edge, Charles Omenihu and Karlafits work a tackle-end stunt. Omenihu works into the B-gap to contact the right tackle's inside shoulder, while Karlaftis loops around to pressure Tagovailoa. The quarterback tries to hit the hot route to the running back, but his throw is off-target — which brings up fourth down.
On a day when Jones had one of the worst moments of his career — and little production of his own — he was still a key to the defense’s success.
Tranquill makes an impact
Kansas City had plenty of bodies allocated to stopping Miami wideouts Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The whole secondary did an outstanding job of limiting this explosive duo, which didn’t have many big plays.
With that much attention being paid to two of its pass-catchers, the Dolphins should have had chances to convert third downs with other players. But with his play recognition — and ability to defend passes — Tranquill continued to make a difference.
Third and long, but the Dolphins tried to get their speed in space. The fake screen look out to Hill into a shuddle pass. Tranquill is reading the RB, and does an awesome job to avoid the OL and attack the ball. If he isn't able to make the tackle it could have been a giant gain. pic.twitter.com/dhZD5gZtYE— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 7, 2023
On this play, Miami shows a fake screen to Hill while working the running back underneath on a shovel screen. This play could go for a first down (and then some), but Tranquill immediately reads it and splits the blockers to make the stop.
3rd and long. KC is accounting for Hill and Waddle deep. There is a good chance Tua would have looked to Wilson on the over route, but Tranquill does a great job of cutting him off in stride and taking away the space. Tua scrambles but is nowhere near the sticks. pic.twitter.com/pHxYdPMd2Q— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 7, 2023
Here, the Chiefs have Hill and Waddle covered deep. After going through his progression, Tagovailoa looks to Wilson, who is running an Over route. Tranquill begins to drop — and then pivots to cover Wilson as he breaks his route. This takes away the separation, forcing Tagovailoa to hold the ball — and eventually scramble.
The bottom line
Kansas City’s dominant defensive effort started on early downs, but was capped off with elite play on third downs. Elite blitzing, disguised coverages, disruption of Miami’s pass protection and high-level individual performances all contributed to the Chiefs shutting down the NFL’s most explosive offense — and getting the team to 7-2.
The Chiefs' defense is elite. And now, the entire world knows it.