On the opening day of Wild Card Weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs recorded a 26-7 home victory over the Miami Dolphins. In record-low temperatures, the Kansas City defense put on a master class as they held the league's most explosive offense to just seven points.
Much of the Chiefs' success was the result of an elite performance by the defensive line. The unit found a way to slow down Miami’s ground game — and then as the temperature continued to drop, it put the heat on Dolphins’ quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during one of the most memorable playoff games in Arrowhead Stadium’s history.
Stuffing the run
While most of last week’s narrative had focused on former Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill and the Dolphins’ explosive passing game, Kansas City made sure not to overlook Miami’s ground game, featuring the dangerous rookie De’Von Achane and veteran Pro Bowler Raheem Mostert.
Because of the frigid weather, both teams were expected to establish their running attacks early in the game, hoping to set the offensive tempo. But the Chiefs easily stopped the Dolphins’ running game; right from the start, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo threw a few wrinkles into Kansas City’s defensive alignment.
The KC D got into some odd looks on early run-downs. Wharton in 4i controls the B gap and presses the guard into the backfield. This causes the cutback and sets up Tranquill for the tackle. pic.twitter.com/5kN2IPLHf6— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 15, 2024
Here we see the defense in an odd front that has Mike Pennel head up over the center, Tershawn Wharton lined up as a 4i-tech, Mike Danna as a tight 5-tech and Drue Tranquill and Charles Omenihu playing overhand looks.
Miami pitches the ball to Achane, but Wharton beats the right guard’s reach block to penetrate the B-gap into the backfield. Pennel gives up no ground, so Achane has to cut back. But Tranquill — pursuing from the back side — makes the stop for a minimal gain.
Pennel hasn’t been back in Kansas City for very long, but he has made an impact.
Mike Pennel working as a shade over the center. Miami runs power but the KC DL pinches and plugs all the run lanes. Omenihu presses the RT inside and as Achane tries to cut Pennel engulfs him. pic.twitter.com/I5p7UDx8qa— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 15, 2024
On this play, the Dolphins run Power to the left. Chris Jones and George Karlaftis pinch the play side to take away any room. Achane tries to go to the back side — but Pennel and Omenihu collapse it, taking away any cutback lanes.
The defense managed to hold Achane and Mostert to just 42 total yards — and rendered the Dolphins’ offense one-dimensional.
Omenihu pressuring Tagovailoa
While the former San Francisco 49ers defensive end wasn’t able to carry his late-season sack streak into the postseason, he still made an impact.
Omenihu head up on the LG and works a bull rush on third down. Creates some leverage and starts to drive him into the pocket. The pressure gets to Tua just in time and forces the poor throw. A heads-up play by Edwards to be there for the Int. pic.twitter.com/L9OZoKu7CY— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 15, 2024
On this third down, Omenihu is head up over the left guard. With the Miami defense paying close attention to Jones, Omenihu is one-on-one. He works a bull rush, creating leverage and pushing the guard into the pocket. This late pressure forces a poor throw from Tagovailoa — and Mike Edwards comes down with it.
Omenihu was timely with his pressures. Both of his best plays came on third and fourth-down situations.
EZ view of Omenihu bending the arc on Armstead. Jump set from Armstead, but Omenihu works a rip move forcing Tua out of the pocket. Gay is there working the spy and he forces the quick pass. McDuffie meets Hill when the ball does and forces the incompletion on fourth down. pic.twitter.com/7d41Sc7XGS— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 15, 2024
On this fourth-and-2, the Chiefs surprised the Dolphins by only rushing two players — Jones and Omenihu — while Willie Gay served as a spy.
Jones draws the defense's attention, allowing Omenihu to quickly bend around the arc to beat left tackle Terron Armstead — which forces Tagovailoa out of the pocket. The quarterback rushes the throw, so it leads to a fourth-down incompletion.
Omenihu was active for almost the whole game — he was on the field for 80% of the defensive snaps — making the biggest impact in the most important situations.
As the game progressed, the pressure on Tagovailoa mounted. George Karlaftis followed up on his excellent regular-season performance, finding the Miami quarterback more than once.
Karlaftis working on Jackson on third down. Quick get off, and throws his inside hand under Jackson's chin, while using his outside hand to win the hand fight. Puts a big hit on Tagovailoa to get off the field on third down. pic.twitter.com/9PQOIrduMd— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 15, 2024
On this third down, Karlaftis is lined up wide on the edge. The Dolphins slide their protection toward Jones on the left, giving Karlaftis a one-on-one against the right tackle. Using a powerful long arm to drive the tackle into the backfield, Karlaftis collapses the pocket before blindsiding Tagovailoa
The Dolphins converted just one third-down attempt of 12 — and the pass rush getting home was a big factor in that success.
With Tranquill blitzing the B gap, Armstead powers down and takes the most dangerous threat. This leaves GK free to rush the passer. CJ works the A gap, and with McDuffie coming through the B gap he gets a 1v1 with the C. They both meet at Tagovailoa and bring him down. pic.twitter.com/3KcvX7kD2G— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 15, 2024
With empty protection on this snap, Kansas City sends more pressure than Miami can manage.
The Dolphins slide their four-man protection toward Jones on the right — with Armstead on the back side. Karlaftis is out wide — but Tranquill blitzes through the B-gap. Since he is the closest threat to the quarterback, Armstead takes the inside pressure — and that gives Karlaftis a free rush.
On the other end of the line, Jones works through a double team — but late pressure from McDuffie pulls the right guard to the B-gap, leaving Jones one-on-one with the center. He moves through the center with ease — and he and Karlaftis meet Tagovailoa in the backfield at the same time.
Throughout the game, the Dolphins worked hard to get the ball out of Tagovailoa's hands quickly — so Kansas City’s defensive line didn't get a lot of true pass-rushing situations But they took advantage of the chances they did get.
The bottom line
The Chiefs’ defensive line dominated Miami throughout Saturday’s game — first by stopping the run, which made the Dolphins’ offense one-dimensional. Once Miami abandoned the run, Jones, Karlaftis and Omenihu were able to attack Tagovailoa frequently.
On Sunday, the defensive line will face the Buffalo Bills — and their elite quarterback Josh Allen. So while the Chiefs will still need to rush the passer well, the emergence of Buffalo running back James Cook means they must continue to play sound defense against the run, too. So the defensive line’s dominating performance against Miami is a positive sign.
Right now, the Kansas City defense looks like one of the best units left in the playoffs — and it starts with the defensive line.