Happy Friday, friends. Today we Digest the Kansas City Chiefs, who’ve had a really weird season. They lost key players in Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles early on, and they lost their first three games huge, being outscored by a total of 109-27 in those games. They then went on to win four in a row, beating Minnesota and San Diego at home, and Indianapolis and Oakland on the road. Just when it seemed that they’d figured out how to play good undermanned football, they got crushed 31-3 at home by the Dolphins last Sunday. As TJ would say in Gut Reactions, who the heck knows?
Today, we’re going to try to figure out what the Chiefs really are, and what we can expect to see on Sunday afternoon. Really, what do you call a team that’s been blown out three times, blown out the first-place Raiders once (when they caught them on a Kyle Boller/rusty Carson Palmer day), and gone 3-1 in games decided by less than five points? That’s what we’re going to try to figure out today.
Games Watched: Week 6 at Oakland, Week 8 vs Miami
a. The Chiefs play a Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 scheme, and they aren’t doing anything up front that’s very exotic. The defensive linemen are assigned to two-gap, and the LBs are assigned to read and react to what’s happening in front of them. Unfortunately, the Chiefs don’t have great two-gap players up front, so they can end up getting gashed in the running game against a good offensive line. The adjustment is to move to more of a one-gap containment scheme, and they will do that from time to time. Here is overall snap data for the defense:
b. The starters at DE are former top-five picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. Neither is a natural odd-front player; Dorsey was selected by the Herman Edwards regime to be a 3-technique penetrator, and Jackson is an example of a guy who looked like he could be a 30-front End, but has proven not to have the skill set for it. NT Kelly Gregg is a smart veteran, but he’s more of one-gap player too, as he displayed throughout his career in Baltimore. The primary backups are DEs Wallace Gilberry and Allen Bailey and NT-DE Amon Gordon. Gilberry is built like a pass rusher in an even front, and he mostly plays on passing downs. Bailey is a promising rookie who also mostly sees the field against the pass.
c. At ILB, the leader is Derrick Johnson, who took most of the 2009 season to acclimate to this defense, and was even benched for a while, but who is now one of the best players on this defense. He’s not your typical downhill ILB in this scheme, but he’s incorporated his run-and-hit skills well into the overall plan. The other starter inside is Jovan Belcher, who is solid against the run, and doesn’t give you much in coverage or in the blitz game. The primary backup inside is Demorrio Williams.
Outside, the Chiefs’ only good pass rusher is Tamba Hali, and he’s very good. He plays almost exclusively at Right OLB, and he has six of the team’s nine sacks this season. The other starter is rookie Justin Houston, who has obvious talent, but has had a very up-and-down season. Houston is especially vulnerable in coverage against TEs. Andy Studebaker and Cameron Sheffield are the main backups outside. This table shows where the rush comes from, and who's generally covering:
|Pos||#||Name||Rush||Coverage||Rush %||Coverage %|
d. Coverage-wise, the Chiefs mix it up a lot, and this is where Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel brings a lot of value. Kansas City gives a QB a lot to look at and think about. As you see in the preceding table, this a four-man rush team that usually has seven in coverage. It’s mostly going to be Hali and the three DL coming, or if there are only two DL in a nickel situation, another LB or occasionally a nickelback will blitz. I expect to see roughly even doses of man and zone coverage Sunday, and some of the zone stuff will be exotic, because the Chiefs will prioritize setting the edge in the run game first, and confusing Tim Tebow second.
e. At CB, Brandon Flowers is a good player, and Brandon Carr is a decent one. Both are more natural in zone coverage, but can handle man, and Flowers has really improved to be a solid man cover guy. The Chiefs use four CBs regularly, whether it be dime packages or swapping out a CB for a S in some nickel looks. The main backups are Javier Arenas and the terrible Travis Daniels. Arenas isn’t really much of a cover guy, but you’d better be aware of him as a blitzer off the slot. He’s come 12 times this season, hit the QB three times, and pressured him two others.
f. The Safeties aren’t very good, and the loss of Eric Berry has really devastated the Chiefs. FS Kendrick Lewis was a fifth-round pick in 2010, and he plays like it. He lacks great range, and you have to be careful about asking him to get to a deep ball from the center of the field. Lewis does have good ball skills, and Crennel is big on that. The SS is Jon McGraw, and while he’s a useful box guy at times, he’s a huge liability in coverage. The main backups are Sabby Piscitelli, who has all of the size-speed-strength talent in the world, but is an awful football player, and Donald Washington, who is less talented than Piscitelli, and equally lousy as a player.
This is basically the same group against which Knowshon Moreno has the only two 100-yard rushing games of his career, except they’ve swapped out Ray Edwards, Mike Vrabel, and Eric Berry for Kelly Gregg, Justin Houston, and Kendrick Lewis. Yes, I agree; this year’s group is a downgrade.
a. The Chiefs came into this season thinking that they’d build off of last year, where they ran the hell out of the ball with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, and tried to hit big plays in the passing game to Dwayne Bowe off of play action. The preseason loss of TE Tony Moeaki was devastating, because his work in the middle of the field opened up a lot for Bowe, since teams couldn’t help as much with a safety on him. Then, the loss of Charles after 37 snaps was even more brutal.
As such, the Chiefs have struggled to find a consistent identity on offense for much of this season, and it’s still a work in progress. The Broncos defense matches up particularly well with them, as we saw last season, and that’s even before two of KC’s best players were hurt.
b. The QB is Matt Cassel, and he’s a mixed bag. He can make every throw, but he’s not particularly accurate, and he sails a lot of them. He’s a good athlete, and he can run, but he often runs at the first sign of trouble, and he’s not so dangerous that defenses have to see that as a bad thing. The main thing is to pressure Cassel, because these are his pressure vs no-pressure splits.
|Dropbacks||Runs||Att||Comp||Comp %||Yds||YPA||TD||INT||Sack||QB Rating|
That tells quite a story, huh? Some QBs, when you bring pressure, will just carve you up. Cassel is not one of those QBs. Really, he’s like a more athletic Kyle Orton, when it comes down to it.
c. At RB, the Chiefs use a committee, which is what they did even when Charles was healthy. The starter is nominally Thomas Jones, and he’s a solid veteran presence, but he’s delivering only three yards per carry this season. If he’s not completely washed up, let’s say that he’s in an advanced stage of his decline. The main ballcarrier lately has been Jackie Battle, who will remind you of a slower and less explosive Michael Bush. Battle is 6-2, and he runs upright, and without much shiftiness. The Chiefs also use Dexter McCluster, and his position versatility between RB and WR dictates an extra CB to me. (I’ve always said that, but teams mostly don’t do it.)
d. The WR corps is interesting. Last year, KC was way too dependent upon Bowe, and they learned that when he is controlled by a good CB, the offense gets very limited. Incidentally, the lesson was best taught by Champ Bailey, who limited Bowe to zero catches on three targets at KC, in a game that the Chiefs had to fight hard to win 10-6, while overcoming Kyle Orton’s 9-for-28 throwing day. This year, Bowe has been Bowe, but he’s joined by Steve Breaston and first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin. Breaston is a good slot guy, and Baldwin is big, if not particularly physical or polished. The one who worries me is Breaston, because he knows how to get open, and he catches the ball. He’s converted 45 targets into 29 catches (64%), while throwing to Bowe is only a 53% proposition this season (39/73). Bowe and Breaston have combined for 1,096 of the Chiefs’ 1,620 receiving yards, and the third-place guy is Baldwin with 108 yards on seven catches. That concentration with two players is a major sign of a low-functioning passing offense.
e. In the absence of Moeaki, the Chiefs are getting nothing out of their TE position in terms of receiving production. The starter is Leonard Pope, who isn’t much of a blocker or receiver. He’s kind of like a backup-quality receiving TE who’s being forced to start, if that makes sense. Jake O’Connell and Anthony Becht are better blockers, who are used mostly in that role.
f. The following is participation data for the Chiefs’ skill position players. They prefer 21 personnel, but sometimes go three-wide. There’s not a lot of effort to set up matchups with personnel groupings, except through the too-occasional clever use of McCluster. (They don’t use him correctly, if you ask me.)
g. The Chiefs offensive line really isn’t too good. The best player is old friend Casey Wiegmann, who can still get it done in the zone-blocked running game. The LG Ryan Lilja and RG Jon Asomoah looked limited to me in the two games I watched. Lilja has always been, and Asomoah looks like he’s playing closer to his floor than his ceiling. LT Branden Albert should be a Pro Bowl-caliber Guard, but instead he’s a merely decent Tackle. The Right Tackle Barry Richardson is rated as the third-worst OT in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, just ahead of Levi Brown and Jeromey Clary. He looks bad in both protection and the running game.
The bottom line is that this is a pretty bad offense. In their one blowout win, 28-0 against the Raiders, 14 of those points came on interception returns. For the season, the Chiefs have produced nine passing TDs, three rushing TDs, and 11 FGs, for a total of 117 offensive points in eight games, which is 14.6 per game. The Broncos offense has been pretty bad this year, but it’s a good deal better than Kansas City’s.
Beating the Chiefs Defense
a. The Broncos are going to want to run the football against Kansas City. It’s the best answer to beating them, just as it was last season. Remember when Orton couldn’t complete a pass in the second game, and Moreno tore the Chiefs up with 161 yards? To respond to all of the silly tradition-humping about why the Zone Read can’t work in the long term, I wanted to remind everybody that it’s basically just a shotgun run behind an unbalanced line. QBs have been handing off the ball to RBs behind unbalanced lines for 100 years. If defenses could just “stop it,” they’d stop it, and teams would have gone away from doing it.
The reason that the Zone Read works better than a traditional handoff is because the danger presented by the QB on the backside causes pursuit to be slower from that side. That means that the RB has to beat fewer defenders when he has the ball. Just think about this as if the QB is never going to carry the ball, ever. It’s a simple handoff play, and the offense has six blockers against five or six defenders on the play side. Doesn’t the offense win that matchup a great deal of the time? Any coach in the world would take a hat on every hat in that situation.
Defending the Zone Read, especially in the NFL, is like playing the 2005 Phoenix Suns. It’s different than what any team is used to, and coaches have to ask players to do things differently than what comes naturally, or what they’re used to. The problem is, athletes revert to the habits in their muscle memory, and they play on instinct. Think how many times the Suns got teams to play at their fast offensive pace, because it was fun and natural, and the other team felt like it was doing well. The problem was that the Suns were much more efficient at playing at the fast pace than their opponents, so a team that averaged 95 points per game would score 105, and lose 115-105.
Defensive Ends and OLBs, depending on the scheme, are used to setting the edge, reading the action, and then crashing down for backside pursuit. The Zone Read forces them to play differently, and there’s opportunity there.
Blargh! It’s a college play! Blargh! It’s a gimmick and trickeration, and it offends my conservative values! No, it isn’t any of those things. The NFL version of the play is a handoff to the RB with a devastating cutback option to it, if it’s there. Tim Tebow only kept the ball three out of 17 times last Sunday, and he gained 72 yards on those three carries. Trust me, this play works, and will continue to work.
b. What will be interesting to see is if Tebow can take some good shots down the field against a stacked box. I tend to think that this is the week where the deep ball finally leads to a couple of big plays. I like anybody who Brandon Carr is covering, or a slot guy against Arenas. The Broncos don’t have great deep speed outside, but with good play design, they can get something done there.
c. I want to see Tebow correctly identifying man vs zone and going to the right place with the ball, on time. He has been improving at this with every game, and we need to see continued improvement. We’ll also need him to show the improved intermediate accuracy that we saw last week, and continue to improve on it further.
d. I like the screen game against Kansas City better than I did against Oakland. KC is a pretty slow defense, and I think that there will be a lot of yardage to be had with some well-conceived screens.
e. The Chiefs are the last AFC West team to see Tebow as a starting QB, and it will be interesting to see what they do to contain his run threat in the dropback passing game. People talk about using a spy like it’s a cure-all option, but it takes a guy out of the rush-coverage mix, and there’s still no guarantee that Tebow isn’t going to beat the dude in the open field. Assuming Tebow continues to improve as a passer, it’s going to be ever riskier to spy him.
Stopping the Chiefs Offense
a. I really like this matchup for the Broncos. The first priority has to be to generate outside pressure on Cassel, and force him to step up. He really likes to run when he gets pressured, because he knows he’s not a very accurate thrower on the run. I expect to see a concept like this for a few key plays of the game Sunday:
There's a five-man rush from a blitz look, with a DE-OLB stunt on the right side. The three corners and the SS are playing man, as shown in yellow, and the FS is in centerfield. This play has two objectives: sack the QB, and failing that, force him to run in the middle of the field, where the MLB is ready to tackle him for a short gain at best. The MLB is basically a spy, and he can also help out on short crossing routes. This sort of thing is Dennis Allen football.
b. I’m not really too worried about the running game for the Chiefs, but the Broncos will need to show good gap discipline and tackle well. The personnel advantage clearly lies with Denver if both teams execute as well as they possibly can in the running game.
c. Coverage-wise, I like a lot of man-to-man to go with the blitzing that I’m pretty sure we’ll see a lot of. Champ Bailey needs to be on Bowe for every snap of this game, and I’m sincerely hoping that the Broncos learned the obvious lesson from Calvin Johnson a couple weeks ago that putting a big-time receiver in the slot shouldn’t mean that the offense will get a nickelback matchup.
I like the idea of singling Bowe with Bailey, and doubling Breaston with Chris Harris and a safety on key plays against 11 personnel. I believe in Andre’ Goodman one-one-one against Baldwin, and while there’s a size advantage that can be exploited, it’s going to take the kind of accurate throw that Cassel is hit or miss on.
d. When McCluster is on the field, he’s a WR as far as I’m concerned, and he needs to have a CB specifically assigned to cover him. He’s the only speed player the Chiefs have at RB, and he needs special attention for that reason.
This game could go either way, and you have to respect that the Chiefs are at home, but not too much when they got pounded by Miami there just last week. I’m going to be picking the Broncos to win this game, because I think it’s pretty clear that they’re better on both offense and defense than Kansas City is, and they’re definitely better on special teams. It’ll be fun to see what happens on Sunday.