How the Kansas City Chiefs Defense Can Survive Without Hali, Houston

BJ Kissel@bkissel7Contributor INovember 26, 2013

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 24:  Defensive end Tamba Hali #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs kneels on the ground, after hurting his right leg against the San Diego Chargers during the first half on November 24, 2013 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Kansas City defense struggled against the San Diego Chargers after its top two pass-rushers, outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, both left the game with injuries. 

Both players were injured in the second quarter of the 41-38 loss last Sunday. Hali went down with an ankle injury on the first play of the second quarter, while Houston went down with an elbow injury with just under two minutes left in the first half. The Chiefs were leading 14-3 when Houston was injured.  

The Chiefs defense, which hadn't given up more than 27 points in a game all season, surrendered 31 points in the second half alone to the Chargers. Obviously, the loss of these two players made an impact, as Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers finished the game 27-of-39 for 392 yards and three touchdowns. 

Chiefs defense over first nine games compared to last two
PPGPassing yards/GMSacksTurnovers
First nine games (9-0)12.32363623
Last two games (0-2)3435711

Rivers acknowledged after the game that the Chiefs defense changed after those injuries, via Adam Teicher of ESPN.com.

It seemed like early in the game, they were going to play with coverage [and] rush with four, maybe bring [linebacker Derrick Johnson] a little bit. When those two guys got hurt, it seemed like they went to a more exotic blitz package, bringing [Brandon], bringing [Eric] Berry, bringing an extra guy in the slot. It obviously affected them, losing those two guys. They're great players.

It's easy to point at the injury situation, withhold any criticism of the rest of the Chiefs defense and simply claim "it's because there was no pass rush!" But that's letting some guys off the hook who didn't play very well. 

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In either case, however long the Chiefs could be without either Houston or Halialthough it looks like Hali could be back sooner than Houstonthe Chiefs defense will survive.

But in order to do that, a few things are going to have to change, and it's not about Frank Zombo or Dezman Moses trying to play more like the Pro Bowl players they're replacing, although the Chiefs would certainly be OK with that. 

They, along with everyone else on the defense, simply need to do their parts, something they weren't doing against the Chargers. 

Let's take a look at a few plays from the game and see what needs to change moving forward. 

Film Room

First we'll start with the simple things. 

Obviously, rushing the quarterback is something that'll be talked about because Houston and Hali have combined for 20 sacks on the season. 

Moses, the second-year player out of Tulane who replaced Houston, has just four career sacks. But on this play, it's his rush defense that's the issue. 

NFL Rewind

In this first shot, you'll see Moses in a two-point stance on the right side of the defensive line. His responsibility is outside contain to the short side of the field.

NFL Rewind

He needs to keep his outside shoulder free and maintain his discipline so Ryan Mathews can't get outside and turn it up the field for a big gain. 

This play didn't have anything to do with pass-rushing moves or not being Justin Houston or Tamba Hali; it's simple run discipline that any high school coach in the country would tell you. Keep your outside shoulder free and do not get sucked inside.

This next play is simply about team defense. 

Rivers talked about some of the exotic blitzes the Chiefs used in the second half after the injuries to Hali and Houston. The screenshots below illustrate one of the plays Rivers was talking about.

NFL Rewind

The Chiefs are going to bring five on the pressure as they overload the left side of the formation. They are blitzing right over the top of the Chargers' bunch formation. 

NFL Rewind

You'll see that Allen Bailey gets locked up with an offensive lineman, and it looks as if Eric Berry is supposed to stunt underneath him with a clear lane to the quarterback. Therefore, it's Bailey's responsibility to bull-rush and drive out the guard, thus giving Berry a lane to come underneath. 

NFL Rewind

The problem is Bailey gets disengaged with his hands and doesn't gain ground on the guard, and therefore Berry doesn't have a lane to get to Rivers. He ends up out in no-man's land and doesn't have a way to make an impact on the play. 

NFL Rewind

This was a 54-yard pass completion to Eddie Royal that set up the go-ahead touchdown for the Chargers early in the third quarter. 

The Chiefs were trying to get creative with their pressure and dialed up a blitz that brought two defensive backs, and when they didn't get there, four defensive backs for the Chiefs in coverage were responsible for four wide receivers spread across the width and down the length of the field. 

When the pressure didn't get there to force an early throw, it spelled doom for the Chiefs. While Marcus Cooper will be the one with the highlight (or lowlight) of mistiming a jump in front of Royal that led to a long catch, Bailey being better at the point of contact on this particular play may have allowed Berry to disrupt the throw and get a better result for the Chiefs defense. 

Here's another play where the Chiefs brought six on the blitz and were still not able to get to Rivers. 

NFL Rewind

The Chiefs are in a nickel defense and bring middle linebacker Derrick Johnson on the A-gap blitz. 

NFL Rewind

Again, they aren't able to get pressure on Rivers quickly enough despite bringing extra guys, and he finds Royal for another 24 yards. It was another big chunk of yardage given up by the Chiefs defense when the team was leading the game. The Chiefs were making a concerted effort to try and get pressure on Rivers and they were failing. 

But that doesn't excuse what was happening on the outsides and in the defensive backfield either. 

Getting Beat at the Line of Scrimmage

A spotlight was put on the Chiefs cornerbacks after their 27-17 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Simply put, Peyton Manning was getting rid of the ball in less than two seconds on the majority of his throws, and the Chiefs defense couldn't do much to stop it.

It started with the cornerbacks, mainly Marcus Cooper and Sean Smith, and their inability to jam or disrupt the Broncos receivers at the line of scrimmage. 

This is what Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's defense is predicated uponbringing pressure and being physical on the outside. This style lends itself to getting beat on occasion, but that's going to happen in the NFL anyway, and so you live and die by the pressure.

It had been successful for the Chiefs up until the last two weeks, and it's an issue because Cooper and Smith haven't been winning at the line of scrimmage recently. 

In fact, against the Chargers, the only Chiefs defensive back who played more than eight snaps that received a positive grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was Eric Berry. Cooper (-2.2) and Smith (-3.7) received the lowest grades of anyone on the defense. 

When your two outside cornerbacks have the lowest grades on your team, that's when an opposing quarterback throws for almost 400 yards, completes almost 70 percent of his passes and averages 10.1 yards per attempt. Those are video game-like numbers from Rivers, not something you'd expect to see from a visiting quarterback at Arrowhead Stadium. 

What does it look like when you get beat at the line of scrimmage?

NFL Rewind

Here's Cooper getting beat off the line of scrimmage on a third-down play in the first quarter. 

NFL Rewind

In this second picture, you'll notice that it's not the crosser who creates the space for the reception—the space was already there.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the Chiefs' inability to defend crossing routes in these last two games. But it's not just because they're crossing; it's because they're getting beat at the line of scrimmage. 

Cooper needs to get his hand out and drive the receiver as he runs down the line of scrimmage. The receiver isn't past the five-yard barrier, so there's free reign to put your hands on him and be physical. Instead, Cooper tries to mirror the juking, gets off-balance, stumbles and allows the third-down completion. 

NFL Rewind

Smith was just as guilty of a poor performance on Sunday as Cooper. He was consistently beat off the line of scrimmage, and everyone will remember the play below. 

Chargers rookie Keenan Allen put the move on Smith on the quick slant and picked up the easy first down. 

The good news for Chiefs fans is that all of these issues are correctable, and they aren't things these players have proven they can't do. 

Surviving without Hali, Houston

Whether it's a game or a month, the Chiefs can overcome the losses of Houston and Hali by simply playing good team defense. It sounds cliche, but it's only because there's still a considerable amount of talent on the field. 

Without the individual skills to consistently win one-on-ones, the Chiefs will need to find creative ways to get pressure on the quarterback in their defensive schemes—just as they attempted to do against the Chargers.

But it's up to the players to execute those blitzes and understand the role and responsibility of everyone else on the field and how they play in a part in that overall scheme. Cooper and Smith don't need to break up every pass, but they can't allow such easy completions while getting beat off the line of scrimmage. 

As far as playing good team defense, it's like the play illustrated aboveBailey needs to know where Berry is coming from and going to and how his actions are part of facilitating that pressure. 

The Chiefs might not have the ability to win one-on-one matchups with the talent they have on the front seven right now, besides perhaps Dontari Poe, but that doesn't mean they can't still get pressure.

Expect to see a lot of Berry and Johnson coming after the quarterback while Houston and Hali are healing. 

Chiefs final five opponents' offensive scoring rank
DateTeamRankPPGPassing YPG
12/1/13Denver Broncos139330
12/8/13Washington Redskins1224.6257
12/15/13Oakland Raiders2619.4193
12/22/13Indianapolis Colts1723.9230
12/29/13San Diego Chargers1424.5297

The Chiefs' ability to get pressure on Manning and the Broncos next week will be more reliant on scheme than skill.

One way the Chiefs can help themselves with these issues is being more physical across the middle with receivers on crossing routes. Expect to see Derrick Johnson and Akeem Jordan taking shots at Wes Welker and Eric Decker as they come across the field on these routes. 

The Broncos love to use pick plays, rubs and wheel routes with receivers playing off one another, and the Chiefs need to find a way to disrupt those plays with physicality. It's the only way to defend those plays consistentlyif there is such a thing, because Manning and the Broncos run them to perfection. 

If nothing else, you'll knock them out of rhythm, which will give you a bit more time to get pressure on the quarterback.  

Obviously, there's no good way to look at your top two pass-rushers possibly missing time, but the emphasis for the Chiefs defense will be to rely on scheme and execution in order to get pressure while they're injured. 

The good news for the Chiefs is that there's still plenty of talent on this defense, albeit not at the outside linebacking position. But that's why you can look for Berry and Johnson to be put in position to make plays while Hali and Houston are getting healthy. 

Regardless of whether or not the Chiefs get Hali or Houston back for this upcoming game, expect to see some new wrinkles to their blitz packages and more physical play across the middle on crossing routes. 


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