The Kansas City Chiefs looked a lot like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens for the first nine games, but their vaunted defense has disappeared over the last two weeks. It only really takes one bad play to erase a season’s worth of production in the playoffs, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it only took two bad games to erase Kansas City’s hot defensive start.
NFL production in its simplest form is a combination of talent, technique and scheme put up against the same qualities of the opponent. All four of those areas have been a problem for the Chiefs over the last two games and have been reasons for their defensive collapse.
Since there is a combination of factors ailing the Chiefs, getting back on track is going to be difficult—especially because some things are outside their control. The Chiefs may get back on track, but it might take several weeks just to get the best talent back on the field together.
It’s a long season, and eventually the Chiefs were going to have a key injury on defense. Although it can’t always be predicted when or who will get injured, we know they are coming. The Chiefs had two key injuries on Sunday and could be without pass-rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston for a game or more.
If judging by opponent strength, the Chiefs were actually quite good at slowing down Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Chiefs allowed more than 17 points for the first time, but they also held the Broncos to 13.2 fewer points than their season average against the rest of the NFL.
On average, the Chiefs’ first nine opponents scored 9.0 fewer points against them than the rest of their respective opponents. That number actually goes up to 9.4 points per game if you include the Broncos, meaning that the performance was actually one of their better ones this season.
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While the Chiefs didn’t play well against the Broncos, it wasn’t necessarily a bad performance by the defense. The Chiefs got exposed a little bit, but the Broncos had done that to all of their opponents until Manning once again dueled with Mother Nature and lost to the New England Patriots on Sunday.
What happened to the Chiefs against the San Diego Chargers could not have been predicted and was really the result of a variety of factors. For the first time this season, an opponent scored more points against the Chiefs than they averaged in games against their other opponents.
The Chargers were averaging just 22.8 points per game coming in and managed to put up 41 points against the Chiefs in Kansas City. For the first time this season, the Chiefs also failed to force a turnover.
Only safety Eric Berry has a sack over the last three games, and the Chiefs only have two total sacks over the last four games. Obviously that’s a problem, but it’s going to be even harder to get sacks without Houston and Hali.
The Talent Issue
Manning is tough on defenses and the Chiefs were inevitably going to give up more points, but it seems pretty obvious that the loss of Houston and Hali on Sunday against the Chargers had a profound impact on the performance of the defense.
The Chiefs were up 7-3 when Hali left the game and 14-3 when Houston exited. Shortly after Houston left the game, the Chargers scored a touchdown to make it 14-10 headed into halftime and got another touchdown on the first drive of the third quarter to make it 17-14.
With all due respect to Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses, they are backups at outside linebacker for a reason. Moses was released when the Green Bay Packers shaved down their roster to 53 guys and Zombo signed for the league minimum according to spotrac.com, indicating the Packers probably didn’t even try to keep him.
General manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid only had a year to make over the roster and have done a great job, but the reality is that the depth just isn’t there yet. Zombo and Moses were players Dorsey scouted when he was in Green Bay and was comfortable with, and that’s why they were signed.
Without much of a pass rush, the weaknesses in the secondary were also exposed. Issues in the secondary go back several weeks, but only the Chiefs' recent struggles to get to the quarterback have really brought them to the surface.
There were numerous examples to choose from against the Chargers to illustrate how the pass rush and coverage failed the Chiefs. Examples include the game-winning touchdown pass and the 60-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ladarius Green.
On wide receiver Eddie Royal’s 54-yard grab early in the third quarter, the lack of pass rush and several coverage failures set up a touchdown that put the Chargers ahead. Royal’s catch was perhaps a more pivotal moment in the game.
From a scheme perspective, the Chiefs brought five rushers, and four of them came off the defensive right side. This is a tactic defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has employed to try to get pressure on the quarterback and was very successful with earlier in the year.
Without Hali or Houston drawing attention, Rivers gets a nice pocket to work with and moves through his progressions from left to right. When Rivers notices a wide open Royal, he slides up in the pocket and delivers a pass that was actually well short of where he should have put the ball.
Safety Kendrick Lewis ignores Royal running across the field, and rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper has no way of knowing there is a player running into the clear behind him. Cooper still tries to make a play on the ball, but it’s out of his reach.
A tiny more pressure on Rivers and he might throw an incomplete pass. If the Chargers don’t score there to make it 17-14, it’s possible the game is a very different one, as the Chiefs may have been able to extend their lead.
Scheme and Technique
One of the things the Chiefs are struggling with over the last couple of weeks is getting a good jam at the line of scrimmage in man coverage. Without a good jam, the defensive back is just wasting cushion, and that leaves him susceptible to the deep ball.
All of Kansas City’s defensive backs have struggled to some extent getting the jam, but it’s Cooper who is struggling the most. Early in the season, Cooper was a pleasant surprise, and now teams are targeting him.
Cooper did a poor job disrupting Demaryius Thomas at the line and gave up a 70-yard catch against the Broncos. Without some kind of jam at the line of scrimmage, it’s a foot race, and Cooper is going to lose that race in most cases.
There’s no amount of pressure that the Chiefs can get to prevent this type of pass play. Cooper was simply beat at the line and Manning took advantage. If the Chiefs don’t start getting a better jam, Sutton may be forced to incorporate more zone coverage.
Teams have clearly adjusted to Kansas City’s man coverage and blitz techniques by using six-man protections with crossing “rub” routes. These routes force the defensive backs to make a quick coverage switch or to quickly get through the traffic. The Chargers ran a bunch of these concepts to get open receivers. Philip Rivers also did a good job getting the ball to his players when the Chiefs gave him the opportunity.
In this example, cornerback Sean Smith covered the inside guy, and that forced cornerback Brandon Flowers to get around him. The failure to have a switch call or to quickly recognize the route enabled the Chargers to get a first down inside the 5-yard line, and eventually they scored a touchdown.
Without much pass rush, the sloppy technique in the secondary is only going to be more glaring. Sutton is going to have to mix the coverage types and try some new things if the play doesn’t improve soon. It’s hard to change the identity of the defense at this juncture of the season, but Sutton is going to have to reinvent some things to keep the defense humming.