Chiefs-Raiders: When You Lean Into Tendencies Too Far

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The Chiefs have dominated the Raiders, and Derek Carr for years. Coming into yesterday, Carr was 2-10 vs the Chiefs, while not winning a game since 2017 vs the Chiefs. In 12 games, Carr threw for 18 touchdowns, 14 picks, and an average passer rating of 85. Bob Sutton and Steve Spagnuolo had figured out easy tendencies to pick on from Carr, and completely shutdown all of what the Raiders wanted to do. Carr likes targeting the short and intermediate parts of the middle of the field, and Kansas City liked playing their safeties downhill in a lot of different calls, which really hurt him. But on Sunday, Carr finally figured out the Chiefs, throwing for over 347 yards and 3 touchdowns, with a passer rating of 126.7. How did he figure out Spagnuolo and the Chiefs? What tendencies did Carr finally break? Why did the Chiefs not adjust? Let’s take a look at some of the bigger coverage busts from Sunday’s game.

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The Good

While the game was poor yesterday, the defense definitely had a couple of bright spots. Basically everybody played poorly except for Anthony Hitchens and Bashaud Breeland. I thought I would just talk about the bad parts of yesterday, but those guys deserve a shoutout, because they were actually trying and played well.

Anthony Hitchens really struggled to start the first two games. Between bad block deconstruction, a slow mental timer, and poor lateral movement, teams attacked him frequently in the run game, and the Chiefs had no answers to the opposing run game. And a lot of it could be pegged directly at Hitchens, but the past 3 weeks, he’s actually been really good. In fact, I think Hitchens has played his 3 best games as a Chief over the past 3 weeks.

Hitchens has done a way better job tackling and reading plays, and I think it speaks a lot to really quick play recognition, and good body control and positioning. Hitchens is indisputably the smartest player in the linebacker room, and he’s tasked with calling the fronts, and now in year 2 of the system with Spagnuolo, he looks very comfortable with the run fits. In the 3 clips above, there’s two reps of Hitchens playing inside zone well, both at him and against him. He showed quick processing to get down in the front side B gap on the first play, and the backside A on the second. While Hitchens is a poor athlete, his body control allows him to stack some blocks well enough at the point of attack, and his tackling has been good the past 3 weeks. Against a jet sweep, Hitchens saw it quickly enough to flip his hips and run with it, and he actually pursued the running back really well on the sweep.

Is Hitchens’s contract still bad? Absolutely. But there is zero doubt that Hitchens is the 2nd most valuable player to this defense, as crazy as it sounds. He was playing through a really bad hand injury yesterday, which forced him to miss one drive, with Ben Niemann playing MIKE (we’ll get there). When Hitchens was in the game, the Chiefs were allowing basically 3 yards a carry all day. Once he went off the field, the 2nd run was a 43 yard gain. While there were other reps with Niemann at MIKE, the defense was so much better with Hitchens on the field. His leadership and football IQ are really good. If he can continue flashing good body control and quick processing he’s a valuable asset, making the contract not so egregious.

On the other hand, in his first game Bashaud Breeland was awesome. With no L’Jarius Sneed on the field, the Chiefs desperately needed a cornerback with ball skills, and Breeland brings that to the team. Here, the Chiefs are playing Cover 7, which essentially is a Cover 2, but responsibilities depend on the release of the receiver. Darren Waller, the #1 WR on the strong-side, runs a deep over, using an inside release. When he releases inside, Juan Thornhill is responsible for robbing the route over the middle. On the weak-side, Nelson Agholor runs a post route on an inside release, which means Tyrann Mathieu has to carry the vertical, because the release leads to the middle of the field. Breeland and Charvarius Ward are now free to protect the boundary, and read the eyes of the QB, essentially becoming safeties. Breeland does a great job tracking the ball on the deep over to Waller, and made a great play on the ball. I’m so glad to have Breezy back.

Now, let’s get to the many bad plays of the game.

The Bad

To start on the first drive, we get our first communication error of the day. The Chiefs are dropping into their slot drop Cover 2 look, something Spagnuolo has done a high amount since becoming the play caller of the defense. The #2 WR in the formation (on the line of scrimmage) is running a deep post corner, which occupies Ward in the flat to rob it. The problem is, Fenton keeps his eyes on #2, which is the read of the safety in Cover 2. Meanwhile, the #1 WR, 4.27 Henry Ruggs, is running a Go route against this concept, and neither of Ward nor Fenton have eyes on it. Fenton really should be watching that straight vertical, but no communication the post corner leads to what should’ve been a touchdown.

In the Breeland pick earlier, that was made by good communication on the backend, which forced Carr to have to throw to a difficult window, and the turnover happened. That’s the benefit of Cover 7, you can take away the deep concepts in all parts of the field. But when you don’t communicate on the back end, you end up with guys streaking down the field, which happens here.

It’s the exact same concept as earlier, with the inside release into post route or “S” route, and the deep over from Waller. The communication vs Waller is really good, and Thornhill carries Waller in man-to-man across the field, while Ward is to bail on the boundary. Tyrann Mathieu is responsible for the “S” route, and he does pick it up well, but he does open his hips too far, and gives Agholor way too much space for the post to run through. While Mathieu definitely was poor to react and run with the play, he’s not the only one at fault here. There’s no one occupying the flat for Ward to be held by, so he needs to bail and replace Thornhill as the safety. He needs to help cover some space on the post. There’s way too much space for Carr to throw to, and that’s an easy touchdown for everyone to throw.

When I said Hitchens is the 2nd most valuable player, you probably thought about sprinting to the comments, calling me an idiot or whatever for the take. Is Hitchens the 2nd best player on the defense? Absolutely not. I have him pegged for around 7th-8th, depending on how good you think L’Jarius Sneed is. But in terms of value and replacement on the defense, he’s the 2nd most valuable. The case for that? Let’s break down the above clip.

The Raiders are running 26 Power, one of the older plays in the book. They have a Jet motion built into the concept, which forces Mathieu to sit in the flat, in case a rollout occurred. The RT and RG combo Chris Jones, getting him completely blown out of his gap. Alex Okafor doesn’t win and set a tight edge vs Darren Waller, which leaves the pulling left guard a huge hole to run through. The LG climbs onto Damien Wilson, who like last week, has zero shot of beating the block. Even through all that, there is still one player who can make a play on the running back, which is Ben Niemann, who’s the backup MIKE. He needs to get over the combo from Brown, and make the play as the overlap player in the C gap. Niemann doesn’t read the block well, gets caught by Brown coming on the combo, and it leaves a massive gap to the 3rd level, where Sorensen misses the tackle, Ward has terrible positioning, and a 43-yard run occurs.

Now, am I saying Hitchens stops this play completely? Maybe not. But this play eventually comes down to processing, quick lateral movement and body control to a gap, something Hitchens was awesome at on Sunday. In fact, for all of Hitchens’s negatives, he’s really good in the 3 areas above. He’s the only linebacker on the Chiefs who possess all 3 traits. That’s why he’s the MIKE and is regarded so highly in the building. When we don’t have Hitchens, our defense sucks. Don’t believe me? Go watch the Houston game last year. The fronts are a mess, the linebackers suck even more than they already did, and we’re terrible as a defense. For all of Hitchens’s many flaws, there’s zero doubt we need him to win as a defense.

Back to coverage errors, this one is of the most talked about of the day. The Chiefs are running a conventional Cover 0 out of nickel, something that Spagnuolo has really done without great coverage linebackers to protect some underneath zones. Dan Sorensen is matched up with the running back out of the backfield, while Ward has the #1 WR. With the RB staying in to pass protect, Sorensen becomes the single-high safety in the look, and he needs to help on the vertical routes. Instead, he climbs far too forward on the play, and is out of position to help out Ward.

This isn’t all on Sorensen though. Ward either needs to bail super early vs the speedy Ruggs, or get his hands on him to reroute him to the safety. What does he do? Well, neither. He’s slow to the free release, and has terrible leverage to run with him. Ward’s an average athlete as a cornerback, running barely a 4.5. He also has slower and tighter hips, so he can’t really turn to run well. With the matchup on Ruggs, he needs to know to get out and bail quickly to prepare for the vertical, or at least get super physical and knock Ruggs off the spot. With neither happening and Sorensen climbing too forward, it’s an easy 72 yard touchdown.

While Willie Gay has been so much better than Ben Niemann since becoming the base WILL, there’s still so many issues with Gay on the field. Primarily, he has no idea what to do vs play action, and his reps in coverage have been really bad. He bites against the run action too often as the WILL, which needs to worry way more about coverage responsibilities. Once he sees the pass, Gay for some reason turns his back completely to the ball, trying to ID people behind him. That’s a big no-no in coverage; you need to have your eyes and body in front of the play. Because he has no idea what’s going on in the route combination, he completely misses Jason Witten, who’s slower than my grandpa, running over the middle of the field. This play on 3rd and 2 really sealed the game, with Las Vegas getting the conversion into a touchdown later.

The last play represents one of the biggest issues the Chiefs had, which was their tendency to want to “Cut” anything over the middle. Here, the Chiefs are playing a simple Cover 3, with Tedric Thompson playing the robber role in the middle of the field. With the #3 WR running a curl route, Thompson drives on the route underneath, or “cuts”, the throwing window. While it was a good decision based off what the Chiefs like to do with their safeties, there has to be the replacement player in the middle of the field. Sorensen has nobody in his zone, with the RB chipping and not running a real route. He should be there to watch for deep crossing routes. Ward has a flat responsibility, with the #1 WR weak running a short curl. Juan Thornhill gets way too much depth in Cover 3, shading way too deep into the Trips side, partially because he was helping Antonio Hamilton on the boundary. Regardless, with no middle of the field defender, Carr gets a super easy completion that I probably could’ve completed, which really ended all our hopes.

Conclusion

The Chiefs had some tendencies vs Derek Carr exposed on Sunday. They were willing to see if he would challenge them vertically, and down the sideline. And to Carr’s credit, he was awesome at it. He destroyed Charvarius Ward for 4 quarters. Still, the Chiefs made it way too easy for him. Way too many coverage miscommunications left speedy receivers such as Ruggs and Agholor just running downfield wide open, and they were way too many explosive plays. Some quarterbacks, such as Rodgers, Mahomes, and Wilson, are just so good, they can create big plays just based off their talent. When that happens, you tip your hat. But when Derek Carr is carving up open throwing windows downfield, that’s a problem.

The coverage communication has been off at many points in the season, but it was awful this week. Thompson and Sorensen neither deserved to be on the field yesterday, and were directly responsible for two 40+ yard gains (Sorensen had 3 with the big run). Ward got benched yesterday, and honestly, he deserved it. He was awful. Tyrann Mathieu looked uncharacteristically flat, and was terrible communicating on some routes. The only good secondary player yesterday was Breeland, and that’s it.

The front 7 gets no pass either. Frank Clark and Chris Jones were both equally awful. Taco Charlton and Alex Okafor did nothing yesterday. The only defensive lineman who showed up yesterday were Derrick Nnadi and Tanoh Kpassagnon, who both had decent days at best. Damien Wilson, Ben Niemann, and Willie Gay were all bad. The only linebacker who even played with real effort, let alone a good game, was Anthony Hitchens. While the coverage miscommunication led to a ton of mistakes, the front 7 all around deserves so much blame, considering how many assets were thrown there.

The matchup doesn’t get any easier next week. We have to travel to Buffalo, and play potential MVP candidate Josh Allen. They have 3 legitimate wide receivers, with Stefon Diggs, John Brown, and Cole Beasley. They’ll do way better attacking vertically than Las Vegas did. Next week’s game could basically decide whether the Chiefs get the 1 seed and a bye, or if they’ll have to play 4 playoff games to win another Super Bowl. And let me say this right now, if the defense doesn’t show up and play with actual effort and football IQ, we’re going to get obliterated. It will be embarrassingly bad. This Chiefs defense talks way too much to have a performance this bad, where everything they did was bad. If they have another performance like this…

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Stuckinpackland
Stuckinpackland
10/13/2020 2:47 pm

If you’re not gonna send nieman back to special teams permanently, then strip him of #56. What a disgrace to that number

Severely Concussed
Severely Concussed
10/13/2020 1:31 pm

Really good summary. It took almost all of the players on defense to play horribly for the Raiders to win by one score.

And I am just going to say it. Hitchens is the black Mike Maslowski.

paulkcc
paulkcc
10/13/2020 12:14 pm

I agree about the apparent value of Hitchens to the defense right now. It seemed like when he was out, we lost not only his tackliing and reads compared to Niemann, but also there seemed to be a lot more confusion as a whole on the defensive side.

probablyamistake
probablyamistake
10/13/2020 11:16 am

Everyone needs to calm down just a little bit. We might get into another shoot-out, we might even lose the game. This team is streaky, but we aren’t gonna get blown out. What happened to Spags is the greatest? Andy is the greatest? Patrick is the greatest? One loss and all is lost? Come on.

Chief-Blinders-On
10/13/2020 10:55 am

Your flow has gotten considerably better Nate. Reading about the performance of our defense, punctuated by the idea that Hitchens was our best defender is nauseating.

I don’t think your conclusion is as worrisome as it read, but I do think the Chiefs need to take Buffalo seriously. I think if the Chiefs can get some pass rush and turnovers. We’ll have better results. The Chiefs allowed the Raiders to push them around up front on both sides. They’ll need to either perfect their finesse or get more aggressive against Buffalo as teams are going to go after them deep all season after this Raiders game.

On offense, we have to get more separation and not have defenders draping our players so Mahomes has to be Bullseye 🎯 to get a completion. They can all do better. I think we’re going to rip Buffalo apart.

Last edited 9 days ago by Chief-Blinders-On
Chief-Blinders-On
Reply to  Nate Christensen
10/13/2020 11:13 am

Agreed. The loss put the consistent flaws under a microscope.

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