by Ben Muth
I wanted to write about the 49ers destruction of the Cardinals on Monday night. I really did. Unfortunately, the coaches film wasn't available on NFL Game Rewind quickly enough to meet my column deadline. So, instead, I get to re-enter the bleak world of the Kansas City Chiefs. Let's get into it.
Sunday's game against the Raiders was the worst I've seen the Chiefs offensive line play this year. They weren't effective in the running game early because of a series of individual mistakes (most of them by Jeff Allen, who’ll be featured later) and they struggled in protection all game long.
First, let’s discuss some of the protection issues. Kansas City’s biggest problem in pass protection was their inability to handle Oakland’s blitz package. Throughout the game, Oakland blitzers were either coming free or beating the running backs (particularly Shaun Draughn) on passing plays. Free rushers were so common that it became difficult to tell if the issue was a schematic failure or a series of individual mistakes. To demonstrate, let's explore the Chiefs second-to-last drive of the game.
With 6:40 left in the game, the Chiefs had already picked up three first downs on the drive and found themselves in Oakland territory. The Chiefs were in 11-personnel and the Raiders were in nickel. The Chiefs had their slot receiver split to the right, so Oakland’s nickel back was to the right, over him.
It looks like the Chiefs are in a half-slide protection with the slide going to the right. That means, in theory, the running back is responsible for any pressure coming off the left. The problem is that the way Oakland is aligned, the back (again, Draughn in this case) actually has to account for the Mike linebacker ... who is on the right side of the formation.
Half-slide protection is designed to take care of the traditional front seven on defense with just six blockers: five linemen and one running back. The running back will take the Mike and the outside linebacker to his side, and slide will take care of the other side. The quarterback should only have to throw hot if the defense concocts an exotic corner blitz (that burns zones), or if both linebackers to the halfback’s side blitz.
Usually, offenses will count nickel backs as linebackers in pass protection. Because of where they are aligned on the field, nickel corners can blitz while allowing the defense to maintain coverage integrity on the back end. So the offense counts the nickel back as part of the front seven as far as the blocking is concerned. In this case the nickel back is accounted for as the Sam linebacker.
The Chiefs should have everyone accounted for in the front seven. The left guard and left tackle are responsible for the defensive tackle and defensive end aligned over them. The center, right guard, and right tackle have the gap immediately to their right, though it's important to note that center Ryan Lilja must carry any rusher past his face since left guard Allen is occupied. The running back should read first the Will linebacker, then the Mike. If they both come, the quarterback is hot.
At the snap, the defensive end over left tackle Branden Albert drops, so Albert helps Allen inside. The rest of the defensive line slants to the offense’s left. Both the nickel back (as, we discussed, counted as the Sam linebacker) and the Mike linebacker blitz outside to the offense’s right.
The slide (RT, RG, C) all do exactly what they’re supposed to. Lilja is starting to get beat across his face a bit, but at least he’s blocking the right guy. Draughn (RB) sees the Will linebacker drop and gets his eyes to the Mike linebacker. You can see in the shot above that his eyes are in the right place. The Chiefs have every Raiders pass rusher accounted for.
But then Draughn decides to release into the flat. I’m not sure if he didn’t know he was responsible for the Mike (No. 56: he goes by Miles Burris) or if he thought he was coming from too much depth to make a difference. Whatever the reason, Burris now has a clear shot at the quarterback. Matt Cassel actually did a good job of getting rid of the ball and got a one-yard completion out of it, but he shouldn’t have had to dump it off on this play.
The blitz worked so well, the Raiders ran it again the next play. Seriously. The exact same blitz, except they ran it to the other side since the slot receiver lined up on the left. Kansas City was in the same protection scheme (though flipped, so the back had the right and the slide had the left), and once again Draughn failed to come across the formation to block the blitz. Now Allen actually let the slanting defensive end go to block the Mike linebacker this time (a mistake), so it was the end coming unblocked, but Draughn was the reason they were a man down again.
Either the Chiefs half-slide protection is horribly flawed and can’t account for one of the most basic nickel blitzes, or Draughn doesn’t know the protection. I’m guessing it’s the latter. It seems Draughn knows the areas he’s typically responsible for, but he doesn’t know the concept of the protection, so he was having a hard time seeing a blitz coming from a different angle.
After two straight hits on the quarterback, the Chiefs changed up their protection scheme and went full man-to-man. The basic principle of any man protection scheme is that the offensive line has the four down linemen and the Mike linebacker, while the running backs or tight ends are responsible for outside linebackers.
The Chiefs were going no-huddle so they had a lot of time at the line of scrimmage before the snap. During that time, Cassel changed the Mike linebacker from Philip Wheeler (52) to Burris (56). On the coaches film, you can actually see Cassel point to Wheeler (and then Lilja points to Wheeler), wait for the defense to move, and then point to Burris (again, followed by Lilja pointing to Burris).
This is called "re-miking." Cassel is identifying who he wants the offensive line to consider the Mike. The goal is to have the offensive line account for the five most likely rushers, so you can release the back into the route. The actual defensive alignment is secondary to getting the soundest blocking assignments. Here, Wheeler is technically the Mike in that he is lined up in the middle, but at the time of the re-mike, Burris was walking up while a safety was rolling down behind him. (That's a good indication of a blitz.) So, it makes more sense to send the offensive line to Burris.
Now, the offensive line has the four down linemen and Burris. So Draughn has to change his assignment to the next-closest linebacker, which is Wheeler.
Unfortunately for Kansas City, Burris isn’t actually coming. He’s green-dogging off of Draughn. That means he is responsible for Draughn in coverage, and if Draughn blocks, he adds himself to the rush. Wheeler, however, is blitzing. And Draughn fails to pick him up. Instead, the halfback looks at Burris, realizes he’s green-dogging, and releases into the flat. I don’t know how Draughn missed the re-mike. You can clearly see Cassel pointing on film and everyone on the offensive line is certainly on the same page. Draughn wasn’t much better when he actually tried to block the right guy, but the constant miscues really kept the Chiefs from establishing any rhythm.
Of course, Draughn wasn’t the only problem for Kansas City on Sunday. Fellow second-year player Allen struggled as well, granted, he did have his hands full with Richard Seymour all game long. Allen had been solid since replacing Ryan Lilja at left guard (Lilja moved to center when Rodney Hudson got hurt), but he got manhandled by Seymour at the point of attack throughout the game. It’s no coincidence that the biggest run of the day for Kansas City (off an Allen block, no less) came when Seymour was on the sideline. Allen seemed to be two yards in the backfield every time he tried to reach the veteran defensive tackle.
On top of struggling with Seymour, Allen had a couple of other key mistakes. He failed to pass off a twist that led to a pressure on Brady Quinn, so Quinn had to force a ball and picked up an interception. Allen was called for a holding penalty after he took an awful first step when trying to cut off a nose tackle on a zone play, nullifying an eight-yard gain. And, in what had to be the low point of his day, he actually tackled Jamaal Charles for no gain when he tripped pulling on a Power play. To make matters worse, it was on a first-and-10 in the red zone.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Albert. Albert was great in pass protection, stone-walling whoever he was matched up against, and solid in the running game. Even more encouraging was that it wasn't a typical Albert day where it looked like he was going to get beat four or five times before making an insane recovery. He was in control throughout the game, and looked every bit a dominant left tackle. If he played for a better team, I would consider him a lock to give a 40 percent effort in Hawaii at the end of the year.
The rest of the offensive line played pretty well too. One thing I will say is that right tackle Eric Winston and center Lilja both were on the ground more than you would like to see. They still got the job done more often than not, but you just hate to see guys on the ground so much.
Even with these issues, the Chiefs line was easily the best part of the offense. Really, if Allen can rebound and return to the form he showed earlier this year, I still think this is a solid offensive line. They’re definitely in the upper half of the league, and probably a top-10 unit when they're on their game. There are a lot of problems in Kansas City, but I really do believe that this line isn't one of them.