Chiefs Chargers Defensive Review: Thornhill’s Injury Forces Change of Plans

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Nate looks at how the Kansas City Chiefs Defense was able to slow the Los Angeles Chargers offense and how the loss of Thornhill forces the secondary to adjust

Thank you, Ryan Fitzpatrick! After the GOAT himself led a victory against the dying Patriots and the Chiefs took care of business against the Chargers, we got a bye week. We finished the season 12-4, 6-0 in division.

The defense, while not playing their best, were able to find a lot of success overall, and held the Chargers to just 4.9 yards per play. How were they able to find success, and how can they improve as we head for a Super Bowl? We break that all down here. Enjoy!

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Good Plays

Reggie Ragland has had a strange career in Kansas City. In 2017, Ragland looked like a legitimate rising star, looking very fast as he made many plays in the backfield and nearly fixing the Chiefs run defense. Then in 2018, with injuries, weight, and being put in a bad scheme, he looked really poor. That led me to believing he would be cut this offseason, replaced for a faster linebacker. Then, when I watched more Spags tape, I thought he could be the MIKE linebacker in our scheme. So, when they put him at the SAM linebacker, I was shocked. So far this year though, he’s been able to do it.

As the SAM linebacker he’s mainly asked to key runs or blitz, depending on the play. He’s not asked to play coverage or read plays like a MIKE or a WILL linebacker, but to work downhill quickly and try to blow up plays.

The Chargers, especially out of 12 personnel, mainly run Zone, Counter, or Trap in their blocking scheme. Knowing this, Ragland slants upfield, instantly blowing up any type of front-side hole, and letting the other players flow to the ball.

Ragland has played really well since week 7, when he was brought into the lineup. He isn’t horrible in coverage, he fills gaps and plugs holes against the run while being a good blitzer. I’m shocked I’m saying this now, but I would find a way to keep Ragland this offseason. He fits exactly what Steve Spagnuolo wants out of a SAM linebacker.

Chris Jones played a great game Sunday, using play recognition more than athleticism. Here, the Chargers ran a screen to Jones’s side, but he sees this, using his blocker to close the space on the screen. This forces the running back wide, where Hitchens fills the alley and closes the screen.

Once Juan Thornhill went down Armani Watts was inserted into the lineup. While Watts hits hard and has good ball skills, he lacks the range to be a true centerfielder like Thornhill was. Due to this, Spagnuolo had to play a lot more two-high safety looks, playing man coverage everywhere underneath.

The cornerbacks did a good enough job underneath against the receivers, while being protected over the top. The issue is with the matchup of a linebacker against a running back. With a ton of space, teams isolate Ben Niemann on a running back, which is major mismatch for the Chiefs.

We see that mismatch here. Kansas City runs two-high again, but an inverse shell of it. The slot corner drops and the weak-side safety replaces the strong safety. The strong safety drops in that robber role, patrolling the middle of the field.

The Chiefs do a very nice job covering everything deep. The issue, again, is running backs. If we can’t tackle and stop running backs for short, we’re going to have issues. My suggestion is to play Dorian O’Daniel or Darron Lee. They help replace the loss of range that will be missed without Thornhill. This way, we can play more man coverage, while protecting over the top as well.

With Bashaud Breeland getting hurt and Mo Claiborne inactive, Rashad Fenton was asked to play on the boundary more this week. He looked pretty comfortable playing there as well. Without having to change directions as much, he’s able to show off his impressive vertical speed and ability to play the ball. His versatility will be much needed in the playoffs, with Thornhill’s injury.

The Chiefs sent the exact same corner blitz they used against Chicago. They drop the play-side of the formation into coverage, where the strength of the protection lies, and send the opposite boundary corner. Tyrann Mathieu makes a great play on the ball and forces an incompletion, but the blitz forces Rivers to step up and throw a poor throw.

Spagnuolo kept the rush plan relatively simple, using just simple Tex stunts up front, not wanting to reveal too much on tape. Still, moving his four best pass rushers around causes the offensive line to quickly change protection calls, which helps against stunts. Frank Clark slants upfield as the contain player, and Terrell Suggs loops around to exchange the gap, and gets the easy sack.

I would expect more complicated rush plans in the playoffs, but as the season winds down, the Chiefs are executing their stunts at a high level, which gives hopes for the playoffs.

Game Ball

This Game Ball goes to Tyrann Mathieu, who played another excellent game on Sunday. He made some excellent plays in coverage, including this interception. Teams try to highpoint Mathieu a lot, but he understands this, and is still able to make many plays on the ball.

Mathieu should be the defensive player of the year. I don’t care what anyone else says. What he’s done to fix the coverage in one year, the plays he makes on the ball, plus his football IQ should all make him the DPOY. Of course he won’t get it due to stats, but if I were voting he would be my vote without a doubt.


Overall, I felt Spags kept it pretty simple this week. More man coverage and four-man rushes, and fewer blitzes and stunts. He still called them, but there weren’t a lot of long-developing stunts for pressure. That’s something for the playoffs.

We needed this bye tremendously. Without Juan Thornhill, Spagnuolo is going to have to change his plans on defense. He’s going to have to protect Watts more deep. That will be an issue against Baltimore, where we need guys in the box. How Spagnuolo adjusts will intrigue me.

Overall, it was a good defensive performance. Not perfect, but for a week 17 game that didn’t really matter, it was good enough. Let’s see how Spags adjusts during this bye.

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As long as we have the depth at DB to sustain it, I’d sooner replace Niemann with a DB for RBs/TEs. Sorensen can do that, pretty effectively. So could Watts. If they’re going to be in cover-2 a lot, then any pair of DBs could probably provide the deep help, if they’ve got the IQ.

I see people talking agility scores for Watts. I thought he had speed, though, and if he’s ready, mentally, then agility isn’t all that important, if he’s got the IQ, speed, and ball skills. He’s not going to have to mirror a WR or anything like that.

There are other guys with more speed than Watts who can play single-high, on occasion. I agree that it’s nice to have that single-high, so more guys can play closer to the line. Mathieu has the speed to play some single-high. Maybe Fenton could do it, too. Even without Thornhill, this is still one of the better, all-around secondaries KC’s had, in my opinion. Part of that is they’ve been getting more pressure, up front, from the 4 guys.

I prefer the way the D plays with Ragland out there. I’d be comfortable with him and Hitch, or him and Wilson. I’d even be OK with him and 6 DBs, tbh. Lee’s been kind of lackluster here, just like he was for the Jets.


I noticed a missing name here, Kendall Fuller. Spags has been using him as a safety some, so I figure he’s gotta be in the mix when it comes to covering the gap Thornhill’s left.

While Juan’s been good enough I’m concerned about how the coverage will be affected with him gone, I’m not at freak-out levels due to Spags viewing the back end more as a collection of DBs than a set of CBs and a set of Safeties. Furthermore, under Team Spags we’ve developed a DB crew whose tackling isn’t a liability, which will help prevent the coverage unit from really getting torched after completions. That’s a rather minor stat point, I suppose, but I have to wonder now how they stack up against the league in YAC yards/game, and especially comparing the Chiefs ’18 season to the ’19 campaign.


I went back and watched the film after the injury thinking the same thing, but was surprised to see Fuller’s snap counts not increase or change to Thornhill’s spot. Instead they used Sorensen for the first drive then moved Watts to Juan’s role.

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PFF KC Chiefs @PFF_Chiefs

#Chiefs CB Rashad Fenton made his return in Week 17

• 74.6 Overall (2nd best of Chiefs D in Week 17)

• 83.9 Coverage (Season best for any Chiefs CB, 25+ coverage snaps) #ChiefsKingdom

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PFF KC Chiefs
‏ @PFF_Chiefs

2019 PFF NFL All-Rookie Team, featuring #Chiefs S Juan Thornhill

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PFF KC Chiefs @PFF_Chiefs

34 cornerbacks had 300+ run defense snaps this regular season.#Chiefs CB Charvarius Ward had the best Run Defense grade of that group with an 83.5 grade!

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‏Verified account @NFL345

NFL345 Retweeted NFL

@Mathieu_Era earns his 2nd POM honor, & is the 1st @LSUfootball player to win the award multiple times.


I feel like I’m finally starting to figure out the concepts that Spags is doing. And readings Nate (much more experienced than I) talking about the same things I see is great verification. The 2nd tweet shows how Spags will disguise not just his coverage, but what personal are playing which roles in said coverage, which can throw off timing.