10 Biggest Questions: Do Chiefs Change Their 3rd Down Coverage Shell?

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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!

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.

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.

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.

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steve_chiefs
steve_chiefs
07/26/2022 5:22 pm

awesome things to ponder

I hope the Chiefs don’t take half a season to figure it out

and Spags has his own history to fight with all the rookies out there in the D

They are going to have learn in-game which spags hates

gonzangkc11
gonzangkc11
07/26/2022 3:36 pm

LADIES – WOOHOO

Chiefs Reportedly Signing Former Cowboys ‘Hard Knocks’ Star: azur kamara (DE/LB)
.
Might be another (JAG) just another guy

He played college ball @ Kansas
Maybe, playing @ Arrowhead – will PUSH him to Ball Out

Last edited 1 day ago by gonzangkc11
gonzangkc11
gonzangkc11
Reply to  gonzangkc11
07/26/2022 3:43 pm

upamtn
Reply to  gonzangkc11
07/26/2022 9:35 pm

yeah, 24 in Sept, very undistinguished “career” thus far … be lucky to make it on the roster, likely “practice fodder” … who knows

upamtn
07/26/2022 3:11 pm

thanks, Nate … great analysis as always: I think Spags WILL have it figured out (Zone vs Man) in time, and of course depending on how the DB’s look within whatever type of Defense he calls … but I do think he has the tools (Sneed, McDuffie, Reid, Thornhill, etc etc) to do pretty much whatever he wants that works best (conditional also on the play of the D-Line and LB’s, both of which I think will be improved from 2021)

5 StarZ and a Huge “Rec”

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gonzangkc11
gonzangkc11
07/26/2022 1:45 pm

purchased my Mega Millions lotto tix — for tonight lotto drawing

If I win…
every in AG gets $50,000

hoosierchief
Reply to  gonzangkc11
07/26/2022 1:52 pm

That would pay better than Tony does…

NovaChiefs
Reply to  hoosierchief
07/26/2022 3:30 pm

But only by $50,000 so it’s close

Nasrani
Nasrani
Reply to  gonzangkc11
07/26/2022 2:00 pm

comment image

gonzangkc11
gonzangkc11
07/26/2022 1:45 pm

Question #1a: Who will protect Patrick BLIND SIDE (aka LT)?
Question #1b: RT??

Question #8: RUN THE F*CKING BALL — and not with Patrick or CEH!!!

Last edited 1 day ago by gonzangkc11
Nasrani
Nasrani
07/26/2022 11:15 am

Great write-up. As you said, the first few games may be a bit rocky as our new guys get practical experience under their belts. Practice is one thing, but the real stuff comes “at combat speed” (as they used to say in the military).

Thornhill will be a holdover from Mathieu’s leadership in the defensive backfield, as will Fenton (when he is healed), but I can’t think of too many others we retained from the last couple of years.

I look for Sneed to step up in a major way, and for Reid to hopefully have the aggression that we saw early in Mathieu’s Chiefs time. Man coverage will be a glaring weakness for us, at least early on, but I’m sure we will adjust accordingly.

Were Justin Reid and Mathieu on the Texans’ roster at the same time?

Last edited 1 day ago by Nasrani
NovaChiefs
Reply to  Nasrani
07/26/2022 12:36 pm

With the division as it is now, I don’t think we’ll have the grace period we’ve been able to use in the past. If the D is sloppy 4 weeks in, we could be looking up at everybody.

Wichita Chief
Wichita Chief
Reply to  Nasrani
07/26/2022 1:18 pm

I do believe they were together for 1 year.

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