This is question 8/10 on my 10 Biggest Questions list. Here are some links to check out the other ones if you haven’t read them yet. Thanks!
- Question 1: Who Emerges as Long-Term Right Tackle?
- Question 2: Which WR Emerges as a Long-Term Solution?
- Question 3: Do the Chiefs Lean on the Offensive Line?
- Question 4: How Do Chiefs Win on 3rd Downs?
- Question 5: Where are Willie Gay and Nick Bolton at developmentally?
- Question 6: How do the Chiefs Help Chris Jones?
- Question 7: Where do Chiefs slot Trent McDuffie? (Insert Later)
In 2019, the Chiefs made a seismic shift on defense. With the introduction of Steve Spagnuolo came a brand-new coaching staff and personnel. Only Chris Jones, Daniel Sorensen, and Anthony Hitchens were significant carryovers from Bob Sutton’s defense to Spagnuolo’s. The Chiefs made seismic additions with Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark, along with a bevy of new faces at all three levels.
To start the 2019 season, the Chiefs lacked an identity on defense. That’s not uncommon for a brand-new staff and personnel group, but it took around 10 games for the Chiefs to establish exactly what they wanted to do from a defensive standpoint. The 4-3 was a carryover from Spags, but the Chiefs were churning through a lot of different personnel groupings, pressure packages, and coverages to see what stuck.
By the time the Chiefs played the Chargers in Mexico City, the Chiefs were starting to form an identity on their most important down; 3rd down. The Chiefs were getting shredded in the middle of the field to start the season, lacking the range at linebacker to take away any concept over the middle. Teams were destroying the Chiefs with deep digs and crossing concepts, giving mediocre quarterbacks easy outlets for completions.
By the Chargers game, Spagnuolo finally had a new counter for this problem; put his best playmaker in the MOF. By inserting Tyrann Mathieu as a high-hole player in Tampa 2 Buzz, he solved two basic issues; he could put two safeties with range (Kendall Fuller and Juan Thornhill) deep to help protect his cornerbacks vertically, while also closing the middle of the field off completely with Mathieu there. Teams tried Mathieu in the middle of the field in 2019, but were met with terrible results. From week 9 all the way through the Super Bowl, the Chiefs were top 10 in 3rd down EPA and success rate defensively on 3rd down drop backs.
The Chiefs have turned to a lot of Slot Drop Cover 2, and it's been one of their most successful coverage shells all season
Great play by Mathieu, shows some excellent ball skills, reading Rivers stare-down the WR and getting underneath the route pic.twitter.com/QVnfaL8jUh
— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 20, 2019
Tyrann Mathieu is good at a lot of things but arguably the thing he does best is Patrol the Middle Hole of the field
1. Carries #3 WR to Safety
2. Reads route combination quickly, is able to make play on ball
If I was a QB, I'd probably avoid Mathieu in the middle of the field pic.twitter.com/nnW6olv3u1
— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 15, 2020
For three seasons, this was the main defensive structure on 3rd down, and it’s hard to argue the results. For three seasons, the Chiefs were top 10 in 3rd down EPA and success rate against drop backs (they were actually 11th in success rate this year, but close enough). Even though the Chiefs struggled to generate a pass rush and were playing Ben Niemann and Daniel Sorensen, this one coverage shell was extremely successful for the Chiefs. Mathieu’s IQ and ball skills enabled Spags to win in two ways; never have to worry about vertical passes down the sideline because of safety help, and not getting shredded over the middle of the field. The Chiefs rode this coverage all the way through the end of last year.
Finally! Some Mathieu in robber coverage again!
Slot Drop Cover 2 (a favorite of Spanguolo's), put Tyrann as low-hole robber. Simply reading eyes of QB, Lock locks onto #1 on deep dig on Dagger concept, Tyrann peels off into INT pic.twitter.com/IfuYwOp0P7
— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 8, 2020
This year, the defense underwent seismic change. Tyrann Mathieu left in free agency, among many other components of those defenses. The Chiefs are going into the season with potentially 4-5 new starters defensively, and it seems like it’s another year when the Chiefs are going to have to find something that works defensively.
Now, the Chiefs could go back with the same coverage shell next season. Justin Reid’s not Mathieu, but he also possesses strong football IQ and elite range/ball skills to potentially plug into Mathieu’s spot. Still, expecting Reid to match the productivity and success Mathieu had at that spot would be unfair. That’s a difficult spot to pull off, regardless of your position on Mathieu’s ability. It’s not a great process to run the same defense with new players, because the best defenses mold around their personnel.
This leads me to the question; what is the Chiefs’ main identity on 3rd down? This defense has different strengths and weaknesses, and solving that puzzle will be integral for the Chiefs to win defensively this season.
Judging the personnel of the Chiefs this season, it’s fair to say the Chiefs may struggle a bit in man coverage. L’Jarius Sneed, Trent McDuffie, and Rashad Fenton don’t profile as elite man coverage players, so the Chiefs may struggle playing Cover 1 this season. While Reid is rangier than Mathieu, I don’t see the Chiefs succeeding in man-to-man as some of our past defenses have.
However, there is one thing I think this defense did improve on, which is zone instincts. Adding guys like Trent McDuffie, Bryan Cook, and Justin Reid all lead me to this conclusion. All three are players with high football IQ and instincts. Could the Chiefs roll out more Quarters/Match Quarters this season, which is where the league is trending? The Chiefs have been wary about playing zone because they lacked the range and tackling underneath to succeed, but this defense profiles much better there this season. The athleticism and tackling ability of this defense are much improved. They can now play deeper zones and play more top-down with how they approach defense.
Now, on 3rd downs, the NFL does tend to go more towards man coverage. Defensive coordinators like to play man coverage on 3rd down, dipping more into their exotic blitz packages and safety rotations. Spags was no different, playing man 52% of the time on 3rd down last season (Tampa 2 Buzz is a man coverage). Even though Brandon Staley and Vic Fangio are known as zone DCs, both turned to man coverage for the majority of their 3rd down calls.
I would doubt the Chiefs go completely towards zone on 3rd downs because most teams in the NFL don’t want to play zone on 3rd downs. Most defensive coordinators want to win with pressure, so getting into their pressure packages on 3rd down achieves the most pressure (unless you’re the 2017 Eagles). Spagnuolo is the king of playing man on 3rd down, so I would guess the Chiefs are one of the highest man coverage teams again this season.
But, I will be extremely intrigued to see what the Chiefs do on 3rd downs this season. You can say a lot about Spags, but he is a flexible coordinator. Will he stick with his man coverage trends this season, or will he adjust to a more conservative zone scheme? I think the Chiefs have the personnel to be a solid zone team, but just how often the Chiefs dive into that fascinates me. I will be looking for this very early on during the season.