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07 Dec 2017

Film Room: Chiefs Defense

by Derrik Klassen

Times are tough in Kansas City. After a hot 5-0 start, the Chiefs have dropped six of their last seven games. Two of those losses were at the hands of the New York Jets and the New York Giants. The lone win came versus the Denver Broncos, who may be the worst team in the sport outside the city of Cleveland. It has been as bad a collapse as one could imagine.

The quarterback is the typical suspect anytime a team struggles. Alex Smith has not produced quite the same since enjoying a boon to open the season. Being that he is a bridge quarterback anyway, it is easy to start picking on him for that. However, Smith has enjoyed a 12-to 4 touchown-to-interception ratio and 7.82 adjusted yards per attempt since Week 6. Smith still ranks eighth in passing DVOA and DYAR as well. He is not much different than versions of Smith we have seen in years past. A game-sealing interception against the Bills and a failed game-winning drive against the Jets are tarnishing his image.

Smith is one faulty cog in the machine, but he is not the sole reason for total collapse. As much as everyone may want to see Patrick Mahomes, the rookie quarterback likely would not solve anything that Smith can not. Not this year.

Defense is the real hindrance in Kansas City. The Chiefs rank 28th in defensive DVOA as of Week 13. More specifically, the Chiefs defense has fallen off since the beginning of the year. The unit put up three above-average performances, per DVOA, during their 5-0 start to the season. They have only had one such performance since then.

Failure starts up front. The Chiefs have one of the most lackluster defensive fronts in the NFL. This particular issue has been festering in Kansas City for some time due to poor talent management. They have invested in a handful of volatile players (Chris Jones, Bennie Logan), while letting go of more reliable forces in the offseason (Dontari Poe). As a result, the Chiefs rank 27th in adjusted-line yards and 30th in adjusted sack rate. The Chiefs are one of the worst teams on a per-snap basis at getting into the backfield and controlling the line of scrimmage.

To no surprise, failing to make plays behind the line of scrimmage has led to poor overall run defense. Only the Falcons and Patriots rank worse in run defense DVOA than the Chiefs this season. The Chiefs were not a quality run defense unit last year and have only gotten worse with the absence of Poe. They do not have a true nose tackle, nor do they have consistent 3-techniques or 5-techniques. Derrick Johnson has lost most of his shine, yet remains the least problematic linebacker on the team. Injuries at outside linebacker have forced Frank Zombo into a starting role. Justin Houston remains the only consistent force up front.

The Chiefs are in a tackle-nose-tackle (TNT) front here. The two tackles play directly in the B-gaps, while the nose two-gaps over the center. The lone middle linebacker plays his technique off of the nose, filling whichever gap the nose does not. Against teams that like to run inside zone, this should be a great defensive front because the defensive linemen immediately take away every inside path.

via GIPHY

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Jets offensive coordinator John Morton calls a weak-zone play -- an inside zone run away from the strength of the formation. Starting from the left side of the picture, Zombo (51) should set the edge on the left tackle (Kelvin Beachum, 68), while Allen Bailey works to the play-side shoulder of the left guard (James Carpenter, 77) to allow the nose and middle linebacker to fill accordingly. Instead, Zombo is pushed out of the play and Bailey is turned inside by Carpenter. Middle linebacker Derrick Johnson sees the breakdown and tries to scrape over the top to the outside, but is caught by the center (Wesley Johnson, 76) at the second level. Zombo, Bailey, and Johnson all get taken out of the play. The lone hope is for nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches (99) to make the play from the other side of the center, but that is a tough ask for any player.

Pass defense has not been a success for the Chiefs, either. Considering they ranked seventh in pass defense DVOA last season, it is jarring to see them fall to 24th this season. Losing Eric Berry for the year has not helped, but the problem runs deeper than that. The secondary is often at a talent disadvantage, trotting out guys like Kenneth Acker, Terrance Mitchell, and Steven Nelson at cornerback. Daniel Sorensen and Ron Parker are also not a favorable starting safety tandem. On top of the talent mismatch, mental mistakes and miscommunication have plagued the entire unit, Marcus Peters included.

Morton is notorious for Air Raid staples, as fellow Outsider Charles McDonald highlighted a few weeks ago. On this play, the two receivers to the far side of the field are running a post-wheel combination (a.k.a. Tiger, if you are a Gus Malzahn savant). The Chiefs are in man coverage, putting cornerbacks Peters and Nelson in a tough spot out wide.

via GIPHY

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The two receivers stem slightly diagonally into each other as they get vertical. They create a mesh point around the 40-yard line right on the painted numbers. As the receivers switch their stems, Peters and Nelson should communicate some way to get over/under each other cleanly in order to follow their men. Instead, they collide into each other and allow Jermaine Kearse to work free on the wheel route. A defense has to communicate better and be more aware of space than that.

Now for an example from a few weeks ago. The Bills are running a drive concept to the two-tight end side on this one. Tight end Nick O'Leary stems vertical to about 12 yards before cutting inside, while the other tight end runs a drag route underneath him. The Chiefs are in a Cover-3 shell, meaning Nelson (outside cornerback) should take the first vertical.

via GIPHY

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

For whatever reason, Nelson never matches O'Leary on the deep in route. Nelson instead trails off into a deep-third to cover nobody. The linebacker to that side of the field rolls down to match the drag route, as he should, leaving a vacancy over the middle of the field. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is able to hitch up and deliver a pass to O'Leary for an uncontested 15-yard gain. A poor throw from Taylor let the Chiefs off easy for such an egregious mistake.

Mental mistakes have poisoned the Chiefs after the whistle, as well. Peters has been suspended one game for throwing a penalty flag into the crowd this past Sunday against the Jets. The Chiefs play the Raiders this upcoming week, a game in which the winner will take control of the division. Being without their top cornerback against a top-10 passing offense will surely be a disaster for the Chiefs.

It is easy to put blame on Smith for losing four straight games. Maybe he bears some responsibility, and maybe Mahomes is the better option right now. The reality, though, is that whether it is Smith or Mahomes behind center does not much matter if the defense is going to continue playing this way. If the Chiefs can not figure it out on defense, their exciting 5-0 start will have been all for naught.

Posted by: Derrik Klassen on 07 Dec 2017

2 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2017, 5:15pm by TimK

Comments

1
by Raiderfan :: Thu, 12/07/2017 - 6:40pm

Great article. In the first GIF, though, to my eyes it just looked as if it was a well blocked play.
Let's hope their D keeps up this good work!

2
by TimK :: Fri, 12/08/2017 - 5:15pm

I’m not sure either Raiders or Chiefs will exactly take control on the division. The way they are both going at the moment they could play to a messy draw and leave the Chargers to beat the Redskins for the divisional lead. (Though given the expected lousy defence from both it would have to be really messy to be a tie...)