Last Sunday, the Chiefs welcomed the Oakland Raiders into town, for a critical matchup that would potentially determine the AFC West. Coming off a bye week, the Chiefs manhandled the Raiders, winning 40-9. The Chiefs move to 8-4, 2 games up on Oakland, with the Patriots game looming.
First though, a film review! We’re covering secondary today, because it was a major bright spot for the Chiefs on Sunday. Only positive vibes plus the weekly game-ball. Enjoy!
The Dynamic (Safety) Duo
As we all know, the 2018 Chiefs safeties weren’t good. With Eric Berry missing basically all season, the Chiefs rolled out Jordan Lucas, Daniel Sorensen, and Ron Parker for the majority of the season. This trio got killed over the top of the defense all season, allowing for many big plays in the secondary.
With the change to Steve Spagnuolo this offseason, Brett Veach identified the need at safety, and completely overhauled the position. In free agency, Veach signed Tyrann Mathieu to be his Swiss Army knife, playing every position. Veach also drafted Juan Thornhill, to be his rangy, ball-hawking free safety.
The credit for why the Chiefs defense has improved so much this year lies at both of these players’ feet. Both have been excellent this year, and as they grow more comfortable in the scheme, they should continue to make plays.
If Juan Thornhill is known for one thing, it’s his amazing ball-skills. While he had had only one interception coming into this game, he’s been around the ball all year, taking away any potential routes over the top. It was only a matter of time before Thornhill had more interceptions, and another one came this week.
Thornhill makes a fantastic read on this play by reading the route distribution of the Raiders. He doesn’t immediately gain depth, instead watching Derek Carr and the WR at the same time. Once he sees the WR break into a slant route, Thornhill drives on the route with lightning speed, flashing for the easy pick 6.
Against New England next week, Thornhill will have more chances to drive on these routes over the middle. Tom Brady doesn’t want to throw on the boundary, he wants to throw over the middle. If Thornhill reads his keys well on the routes, he could get another interception next week.
On top of his ball skills something Thornhill has done an excellent job at this season is running down the alley in the run game, taking away jet sweeps. Thornhill may not be the fastest free safety over the top, but once he drives downhill, nobody is going to catch him.
The processing speed Thornhill has for a rookie is remarkable. Most rookie safeties wouldn’t be able to process the sweep quickly enough and get to the proper spot to make the tackle. That’s what separates Thornhill from anyone else. His mental speed is superb.
Let’s move on to the other safety, Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu has been excellent for the Chiefs this season, but faltered a bit vs the Titans. There were a few plays where he appeared to not go at 100%, and that led to some critical third downs given up. Luckily, I think the Honey Badger heard enough of fan criticism, because these past two games he’s been fantastic.
This play sets apart Mathieu from really any other safety in football. In week 2, the Raiders ran a lot of flood concepts like these, where one receiver runs a Go route, and the WR inside of him runs an Out route to the sideline. Oakland had a lot of success running these types of concepts against us in the first meeting. Mathieu clearly saw this on tape, and capitalized by understanding the formation and the releases/breaks of the receivers.
Once he sees the #2 WR going vertical and the #1 receiver running a short curl, he understands the #3 receiver is going to run an Out route, so he drifts on that route. Then, once Derek Carr floats the ball out there, that’s an easy interception.
What separates Mathieu from anyone I’ve ever watched is just how smart he is and how he knows where the ball is going. Sure, Mathieu may not be the athlete he was 6 years ago, but it doesn’t matter. He’s so smart (and plenty athletic enough) to make plays like this. The Chiefs have been missing that since peak Eric Berry, so Mathieu is worth every penny in this defense.
The Chiefs’ coverage was arguably the best it looked all season on Sunday. There were no major communication breakdowns, no penalties, and guys were in proper spots all day. Our four man pass rush didn’t do very well this week, so our guys were asked to play coverage for an extended time, and this go-round they were much more successful at it.
Here, the Chiefs are playing Cover 2 Man. Everyone underneath is in man coverage, with the two deep safeties over the top to protect them deep. The pass rush doesn’t do well here, not causing much chaos. But since the coverage is so good, Carr is forced to hold the ball for 7-8 seconds, allowing enough time for the pass rush to get through. Carr then has to throw it away.
Here, the Chiefs are playing Cover 3 Cloud. This is just like traditional Cover 3, but instead of two corners bailing deep, only one corner covers the deep zone, with another in the flat. The two safeties are the other over the top players in cover 3. Again, the pass rush isn’t there, not causing any immediate pressure. The Chiefs have to hold their coverage responsibilities for 7-8 seconds, but they don’t falter.
Once Honey Badger drops back into the flat to take away the out route by the tight end, Carr has nowhere to go, allowing Tanoh Kpassagnon to get a sack. The fact that we held coverage that long without a breakdown speaks to the IQ of the secondary in zone coverage, not biting for any of the routes of the receivers and staying in their zones.
The Chiefs are playing man across the board here, with three guys dropping into the short zones on 3rd down. It’s still just a four-man rush, but they send the rush from different angles to confuse Carr. Nice play-call by Spagnuolo, sending Thornhill flying off the edge. Carr calls the wrong protection call to the offensive line, and is forced to throw it away.
Overall, the coverage was completely lockdown on Sunday. Only 1 play went over the top of the secondary, which was a 20 yard pass to Darren Waller down the sideline. That’s it.
We have to credit Steve Spagnuolo, Sam Madison, and Dave Merritt. All 3 of them have done a fantastic job of teaching cornerback and safety technique, which is now leading to our coverage being very good. Last year, nobody had any idea what we were doing in coverage. The fact that these 3 coaches have fixed almost every coverage communication issue in just 10 months is outstanding.
Game Ball: Juan Thornhill
I’m not going to say much about this, I already talked about Thornhill above. His processing speed, range, and downhill speed are all top-tier for a safety. They may not be as quick as Earl Thomas, but he’s really close. And now that he’s finally understanding zone assignments as the deep safety, he’s able to make more plays like this.I already have a Mathieu jersey hanging up in my closet. Thornhill may be the next jersey to my collection.
This was the most fun I’ve ever had typing an article since I’ve been at Arrowhead Guys. Even during some of our better weeks as a defense, none were as fun as this. Sure, we gave up yards, but the coverage this week was outstanding. All the time I’ve spent defending this defense came back full circle this week.
There’s not too much to complain about. Were there a few run plays that went for too long? Absolutely. But the fact is, once the Chiefs did get a short stop against the run and forced 3rd and long, we got off the field. That speaks to the level of attention in the secondary, and how primed they were for a good day.
I’ve talked about it for a while now, but this team is going as far as their secondary plays. If they play poorly, we’re losing. But now, as Thornhill and Charvarius Ward develop, our secondary suddenly went from abysmal to good. That should terrify the NFL, especially Mr. Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.