Most of the time, the focus is centered around the offense when discussing the Kansas City Chiefs. And rightfully so, as Patrick Mahomes is currently one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. Playmakers like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are playing as well as they ever have during their respective careers. However, this Chiefs defense is playing near their ceiling as well.
In the first year under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2019, it took the unit a few months to come together. Thankfully for the team, that improvement came at just the right time. In Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City was able to force inaccurate throws by pressuring Jimmy Garoppolo. A similar style is being utilized currently by this defensive unit. It led to an inspired effort in the AFC Championship victory over the Buffalo Bills. Moreover, this sort of strategy could lead them to a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy. And for the most part, the Chiefs have made their strides look so simple. What could the Tampa Bay Buccaneers expect in the Super Bowl? It may be much of the same from their first meeting against Kansas City.
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In the first AFC Playoff game, the Chiefs ran a ton of 4-2-5 looks against the Cleveland Browns. That was changed slightly to a good chunk of 4-1-6 looks against Buffalo. The main thing is, Spagnuolo and the Chiefs have been running their dime personnel at an extensive rate. Not only has this forced quarterbacks to make near perfect throws into tight windows, it has also allowed Kansas City to bring extra pressure. In fact, the Chiefs ran their dime package 75% of the time in the AFC Championship Game.
As a result, plenty of Chiefs defenders were given opportunities to get after the quarterback. They came after Josh Allen from all angles. And quite simply, the Bills offensive line and quarterback had little to no answers for it. About a quarter of the blitz attempts were plays in which the Chiefs brought five pass rushers or more after the quarterback. Along the defensive line, Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Tershawn Wharton, Alex Okafor and Tanoh Kpassagnon all registered positive pressure rates.
And as we have come to learn, Spagnuolo is not shy to bring blitzes with defensive backs. Sunday was the fifth straight game where Kansas City had a sack from a defensive back. L’Jarius Sneed has found his groove on these chances. He sets up extremely subtle, before firing with his rare speed. And often, Sneed is lined up on the weak side of the pass rush. The pressure from the slot confused Allen mightily. Others like Daniel Sorensen, Tyrann Mathieu and Rashad Fenton have capitalized on selective chances as well.
Taking Away Star Opponents
Entering the AFC title game, Stefon Diggs was red hot. That changed dramatically against the Chiefs, though. If it was not for a couple of splendid catches on a couple of YOLO balls by Allen, Diggs would have been nearly shutout. Spagnuolo schemed up an intelligent game plan to slow him down.
Kansas City continued to alter coverages, using both man and zone, to take Diggs away. They rotated late in order to jump routes. This led to multiple chances at a possible interception. Juan Thornhill had a couple of chances himself. The Virginia product is also looking as close to full strength as he has been all season, following last year’s torn ACL. Charvarius Ward was also well positioned for a rocket from Allen. By constantly switching players that Diggs was matched up with, the Bills receiver was forced to adjust on plenty of reps.
Kansas City did a good job of eliminating Buffalo’s chances in the middle of the field. Frequently, the Chiefs would allow the slot corner to dangle underneath, while a safety was kept over the top. By bracketing off routes and throwing windows, the deep passing attack that Buffalo loves so much, was nearly erased completely. Diggs finished with his lowest catch percentage on the season (54.5%) and his fourth lowest yards per target on the year (7.00).
Hitching Wagon To Hitchens
By far, this has been the best season Anthony Hitchens has had in the middle of the defense since coming to Kansas City. The Chiefs have asked him to play as the lone linebacker in the defense on a fair share of reps. His tackling and run defense has been more stout. More importantly, he has shed blockers and clogged up gaps at a higher rate. Hitchens has helped lead the Chiefs run defense to positive stops, despite playing with lighter boxes most of the time. That may change slightly in the Super Bowl. But the bottom line is, the Chiefs are placing the full trust in Hitchens that they originally envisioned when signing him a few years ago.
Diamonds In The Rough
We also may not be acknowledging the play of these Chiefs defensive backs enough. Ward has had his fair share of struggles. Yet, he continues to play sticky in coverage when left on an island while playing man. His awareness regarding body positioning and staying on top of routes has led to a reliable stretch of play for the last couple of years. Meanwhile, Bashaud Breeland has looked as comfortable as he ever has in his career. A journeyman throughout his time in the NFL, the Clemson product has truly been a do it all defender on the outside. His ability to stick with receivers down the field has improved this year. Furthermore, Breeland has been able to show off his physical side and instincts to a greater degree.
Even Fenton has remained steady over the last couple of years. The former sixth round pick has been a natural fit in Spagnuolo’s defense, due to his length, technically sound footwork and physicality at the catch point. The Chiefs have continued to hit on the chances they have taken at the cornerback position. Additionally, this was a spot that was viewed as a laughing stock on Kansas City’s roster before the defensive coordinator arrived.
What Could Bucs Expect?
Basically, the Tampa Bay offense should expect much of the same from the AFC Championship Game. In the first trip to Raymond James Stadium, Kansas City was able to get after Tom Brady a good deal. For a commanding offensive line that has been largely imposing this season, it was elementary how often they got to the quarterback. Consequently, the Chiefs created hurried throws and turnovers. The constant defensive stops made the Buccaneers become predictable.
That was a struggle for them during plenty of portions during the regular season. Can the Chiefs do that as well again? When Brady has faced pressure, he has not been as steady. Now for context, we must be clear in saying the Tampa signal caller has not seen a great deal of it. One would expect Kansas City to continue to bring extra rushers, and trust their instinctive and interchangeable defensive backs to stay over the top of routes.
Be on the lookout for more FPC Chiefs articles in the leadup to Super Bowl LV. For more great sports and NFL content, stay tuned to Full Press Coverage.
– Braden Holecek is the Kansas City Chiefs managing editor for Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on Follow @ebearcat9//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Follow @FPC_Chiefs//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js and Facebook.