Building a defense in the modern NFL is hard.
The league has trended offense for the better of 30 years now, but especially over the past 10 years. Rule changes certainly are a factor, but the introduction of the spread offense into the heavy PA approach we have now have brought schematic issues for NFL teams. Winning with offense is the trend of the league, and that goes into quarterback development. QBs are coming into the league much more polished now, simply because coaching is now better for QBs. NFL coaches are much more willing to blend in college concepts to help develop growth. Overall, the league is about offense in 2022.
Which leaves defenses in a precarious spot. Defenses want to get pressure and affect a QB, but the space they have to cover limits their options there. The Chiefs overhauled their defense for the most part in the draft and offseason, especially with youth and inexperience. While those things are scary propositions, it does allow Steve Spagnuolo to mold this defense in his image. He’s left with a few options; should I play a more simple static defense to allow my guys to grow in a scheme, or play a junk defense and throw the kitchen sink at them? It’s a difficult question, but let’s break down each approach.
A static defense isn’t a bad thing. Being the same is treated with negativity in the NFL, and they’re certainly are limits to the concept. Eventually, smart teams and QBs figure out what you’re in, and they can move the field in a way that gives them advantages. One example of this would be Cover 3. Teams figured out that they could isolate the LB in the middle of the field vs slot WRs, and gave themselves a massive advantage over the seams and MOF. Every coverage has weaknesses within it, and if you show a coverage enough, teams will draw enough counters to beat it.
However, there are still many benefits to playing a static defense. For this article, I consider a static defense to be much more zone-oriented. Quarters, match coverages, and two-high shells as your base defense are more indicators of me to a static defense. There’s a blend to them all, but heavy zone principles with a four-man front and sticking with them is what I’d call static.
The first benefit to a static defense is that it’s not super personnel-reliant. You need functional personnel to run any defense, but there’s a lot less pressure on a defense when you base so heavily out of zone. This is especially true of a secondary. If everyone has certain rules and spots to reach, the amount of surface area you have to cover is limited. Once chemistry and rules are implemented, you can play top-down, and limit the amount of space to cover. To run a zone defense, you don’t need All-Pro coverage players, functional bodies with high football IQ will work.
The learning curve for young players is much lower. If you play a style of defense and stick with it, players can learn to play faster in that role. Think of it like basic math. If you have to perform multiple operations to get an answer, it would be a lot to juggle for a new learner. But, if you do the same thing with repetition, you can get good at that one thing. A static defense can work like that too. If a CB knows he has to jam and protect himself vertically, after doing it a bunch, they’re going to be good in that one specific skill set.
Another benefit is that you can (hypothetically) limit big plays. Playing a man-to-man scheme is cool and can throw off rhythm, but if you gamble too much, you leave a lot of space to cover. The best zone defenses limit the amount of space you can have on a football field. One great example of this is the Bills. The Bills base a lot out of two-high and quarters, and when executed well, you limit explosive passing plays. Last year, the Bills were 2nd best in the NFL at limiting explosive passes, at a staggering 6% rate. The #1 team? The Eagles, who are an EXTREMELY heavy Cover 2 team. The best defenses at limiting explosive passes are turning to zone defense to achieve that.
Playing zone is also very light on cornerback responsibilities. CBs certainly have a role in a zone defense, but it’s much more limited. The amount of space they have to cover shrinks, and CBs mainly have to worry about delaying releases and protecting themselves vertically. For a team like the Chiefs with so many young CBs, that’s a big help for their transition process.
Now, playing static defense has drawbacks. The biggest landmarks of success in a zone defense are pass rush and tackling. To start with tackling, there are going to be underneath targets. You can’t shut down every area of the field. With more defenders deep, the space underneath is open. If your team can’t tackle, then literally zone doesn’t matter. You’re tasking safeties and cornerbacks to come downhill and tackle in space, which isn’t an easy thing to do.
Another landmark of success is the pass rush. If you base out of zone defense, the number of blitzes you can get to is low. There are different zone blitzes like Fire zone blitzes, but teams have figured out so many counters to those types of blitzes. This puts a lot of pressure on your front to win. If you have a dominating front 4 like the mid-2000s Giants under Steve Spagnuolo, you can absolutely dominate in a zone-style defense. But, if your team struggles getting pressure, you’re screwed. To bring back the Bills example, this was the biggest drawback for them when they got to the playoffs in 2020 (and some in 2021. Wonder why they signed Von Miller). They played solid coverage vs. the Chiefs, but the front couldn’t get anywhere near Mahomes. No zone coverage can hold for long. If your front isn’t getting home, it’s putting so much on your secondary to hold up for 40-50 plays a game. Coverage busts will happen, but your front can make up for a lot of it. But, you better have a good defensive front to play zone.
Now, a junk defense shouldn’t be meant as a bad thing. It’s everything and the kitchen sink. First of all, you can play zone in a junk defense. For me, I consider a junk defense to be a defense that does a ton of different things but is largely aggressive. The defense doesn’t base out of a front or coverage but runs a little bit of everything to throw offenses off. Junk defense leans more man-to-man, but it’s a true mix of everything.
The first thing junk defenses can do is be, well, unpredictable. If you throw 100 different things at offenses, it’s hard to ever get a cadence on what you’re doing. Offenses can’t establish a consistent rhythm or find a series of play calls they like. It’s a constant change, which can take a long time to establish how you want to find success.
A junk defense also allows your best athletes to win. If you have the better athletes, you’re giving them space and runway to succeed. This is most true of a blitzing defense. Your LBs can now fly downhill to get pressure and your safeties are given a lot of space to run and tackle in space. If your defense is slower this won’t work, but the best athletic defenses can shrink space quickly and affect a QB’s ability to sit in a pocket.
The best benefit of a junk defense is how you can mold to your opponent. If you can run a whole bunch of types of defense, you can easily change to your opponent. One week, you can win by playing man coverage, but completely flip to zone that next week. Being able to attack weaknesses and win from a position of strength is huge. Winning in the NFL comes from having positions of strength, and if you can dictate what an offense has to do to win, you’re going to succeed defensively. When you’re playing one style of defense, you can’t do that. But, having experience and the ability to blend into what the offense is presenting is huge in the playoffs.
Now, junk defense can lead to big plays – both good and bad. You can get more turnovers and pressure playing a junk defense, but big plays are much more likely to happen. It’s a simple space argument. Think of it like basketball. You can chase a bunch of offensive rebounds, but if you do that, you’re allowing a much bigger runway into transition. Defending more space with fewer bodies is very difficult. It can be hard to be a sustainable defense when you’re giving up that much space, and the best QBs will shred space.
A junk defense is also very reliant on defensive backs. Your front will love a junk defense, but you better have the horses to run all these coverages. If you have CBs that only can play zone, you can’t get into man as easily (or vice versa). If you have a ton of great DBs who can do everything, great! The fact is, most teams aren’t afforded that luxury. A team may be able to attack certain weaknesses if you play a certain coverage. If you play man coverage but have a weak outside CB, they’re going to attack that every time. You need very versatile pieces to run this type of defense.
How Should Spags Approach This?
A combination of both is needed. But first, let’s dive into the personnel of the Chiefs on defense.
First things first, the safety room of the Chiefs has been transformed. Since Spags took over in 2019, his defense has been built around safeties. He has based out of Cover 2, and a lot of Tampa 2 on any passing down. His goal was to find any way he could to get Tyrann Mathieu in the middle of the field. By doing that, he could close the MOF, which forced lower percentage throws to the outside. That shell was something he used as a crutch for three seasons, and it was largely successful.
But, the Chiefs let Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen walk. Let me make this clear; I think those were the right calls. I do think Tyrann Mathieu is on the decline, and I didn’t like the idea of paying a 30-year safety who’s short 10+ million annually. Tyrann was a great player, but his performance in 2021 wasn’t as good. He wasn’t able to make some of the same plays as he did in 2019-2020, and his tackling was abysmal. Maybe part of that was a contract issue, but he’s 5’9 170 lbs. He’s not going to tackle more into his 30s. Sorensen needed to go after last year’s performance.
So, after the draft, I like the combination of Justin Reid and Bryan Cook. I wrote about Cook recently, but having an actual athlete and competent player in the Daniel Sorensen spot will do wonders for this defense. I truly believe we’ll look back next year and realize just how bad Daniel Sorensen was by just having a competent safety in his spot. Justin Reid may not be Tyrann Mathieu in terms of his ability to control the MOF, but his tackling ability, size, and range are just better at this stage of his career. I think Brett Veach won there.
The other big difference is how the Chiefs addressed the cornerback position. The Chiefs decided to let Charvarius Ward walk, which I didn’t love. 14 million is a lot for a CB, but I thought Ward showed enough progress in 2021 to keep him around. But, the Chiefs did address CB in the draft. Trent McDuffie gives the Chiefs a legit CB talent with upside for the first time since Marcus Peters, and I liked the Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson picks. Both the ladders have legit size and speed, which translates to being able to play on the outside in the NFL. McDuffie’s a TBD for me, but he could play in either spot for the Chiefs. The Chiefs somehow got cheaper at CB, but I would argue they have more options now than last year.
Now, the front for the Chiefs is largely the same. George Karlaftis will help, but he doesn’t change much for the front as a rookie. Besides him, the DL is the same personnel. The LBs are different, but it’s mainly replacing old with young. Leo Chenal will replace Willie Gay’s role as SAM LB, and Nick Bolton should insert into MIKE. That group has limitations, but the speed/size upgrades at that spot were needed and should help.
So, in terms of the defense overall, I think there are clear strengths and weaknesses. I think the Chiefs got bigger and more athletic this year, mainly in their secondary. Justin Reid and Bryan are big safeties. They add an ability to come downhill and tackle much more than Mathieu/Sorensen. The Chiefs’ defense is also much more explosive. Replacing Hitchens/Niemann for Bolton/Chenal just gives the Chiefs so much more pop downhill. All around, the Chiefs are faster and more explosive.
Yet, the group has weaknesses. First, it’s extremely young. The only full-time veterans who have played at least 5+ years are Frank Clark and Chris Jones. That’s it. The team hasn’t built a lot of chemistry and lacks NFL experience. Also, the DL for the Chiefs is not much better. Even with Melvin Ingram back, it’s largely the same. Karlaftis helps, but the Chiefs didn’t get better at rushing with four. I could argue they got worse because of age.
So, after all these factors, I think I’m going to decide that the Chiefs should junk up their defense. I believe in this safety room and what they can do athletically. Having their tackling ability and range will help cover a lot of ground in a more aggressive approach. I also feel the Chiefs have the cornerbacks to pull it off this year. McDuffie’s going to be good Day 1, and I trust L’Jarius Sneed enough to succeed in a man scheme. If they get a decent CB3 to play well, their secondary has a chance to be legitimately good.
This also helps the Chiefs’ front. Playing a more aggressive junk defense can help Chris Jones out. The goal of this front this year is going to be to open as many opportunities for Jones as possible. He’s the only player who can win one-on-one in this front besides Melvin Ingram occasionally. Jones ran out of gas by the end of the year (another article!). Some of that will have to be ways to get Jones a breather, but lessening his load by giving him more space will help. Having other good pass rushers helps more, but a blitzing scheme can do wonders to open advantageous matchups.
Now, are there drawbacks? Sure! The Chiefs will have a ton of breakdowns. This defense is young and inexperienced. Still, I trust the personnel and coaching staff enough to be able to grow as the season progresses (see 2019) to where they’re going to be clicking more by the end of the season. Even if it’s not perfect, having those mistakes and equity will benefit long-term. They won’t have to install new defenses every offseason but will have experience playing and blending in so many different ways.
I want to leave you with one last note; look at the Bengals last year. Lou Anarumo was widely criticized for running an insane defense without any real structure, but it was dominant in the postseason. Why? Because they could blend into whatever opponent they were facing. That was most true during the AFC Championship. It took a while, but all that equity built up playing game-to-game helped catapult them to the Super Bowl. Their defense carried them all playoffs. That could be different for the Chiefs, but if the coaches and players can develop enough in a whole bunch of areas, it’ll make them much more adaptable for the playoffs.