The Secret to K.C.’s Success Is the Game-Changing D
With stars at corner and edge rusher, and flexible cover men across the rest of the unit, the Chiefs defense has all it needs to beat any opponent
With just under 30 seconds remaining in a tied game, Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin caught his sixth quick slant only to have Chiefs corner Marcus Peters rip the ball right out of his grasp, schoolyard bully style. That gave the Chiefs the ball in scoring range, which soon led to Cairo Santos’s game-winning field goal as time expired.
You couldn’t ask for a more microcosmic play of the Chiefs’ recent success. Yes, head coach Andy Reid runs one of football’s sharpest-designed offenses. He’s brilliant at creating easy opportunities for his quarterback simply through formations and route combinations.
But Reid’s offense is not why Kansas City has a league-best 17 wins in its last 19 regular-season outings. Kansas City’s playmaking defense is. Since Week 7 of 2015, the Chiefs have an NFL-high 45 takeaways. Their offense has scored more than 90 points off turnovers (second only to Carolina). More than 50 of those points have come on possessions that began in opponent’s territory.
What’s fascinating is we’re talking about a dynamic playmaking defense that usually plays man coverage or matchup Cover 3, which has a lot of man-to-man principles. Man coverage doesn’t naturally generate turnovers because the players who typically snag turnovers—defensive backs and linebackers—have their eyes on the man they’re guarding, not the field and ball.
Peters is responsible for a league-high 13 of Kansas City’s turnovers since their hot streak started. He’s the rare defender who, thanks to supreme transitional movement skills, can play high-level man coverage from a cushion. Sunday at Carolina brought several new exhibits of his route-jumping excellence. As soon as Peters gets over his vulnerability to double moves, he will be an unquestioned superstar. (And you could argue his big-play prowess gives him this distinction already.)
In Peters, the Chiefs have an elite piece at what many believe is football’s most important defensive position. And those who don’t put the cornerback position No. 1 usually reserve that pedestal for edge rusher. This happens to be where Kansas City’s other defensive playmakers reside. For the past few years, it’s been Justin Houston. (He wasn’t out there Sunday, but his injured ACL was recently deemed healthy enough to play on; he’s expected back any week now.) Prior to Houston, it was Tamba Hali, who still operates with an outstanding mix of leverage and tenacity. Now 33, Hali’s snaps are carefully managed, but that’s long been the plan. In 2014, Reid and Chiefs GM John Dorsey took provisions, drafting Hali’s eventual replacement, Dee Ford, in the first round. Ford has developed into an elite edge player himself. He can dip and bend the corner with speed and play low enough to generate power in a bull rush. (He got his 10th sack of the season on Sunday.)
When Reid took over in 2013 he hired Bob Sutton to coordinate his defense. Houston had good numbers at the time but had not fully blossomed. And so the Chiefs were without a bookend edge-rusher for Hali. To generate pressure, Sutton had to blitz, which he did with great creativity and aggression. The twist was that many of Sutton’s blitzes came out of a dime, not nickel, sub-package. That meant one less linebacker on the field and one more defensive back. This gave Sutton faster blitzers, which (besides the obvious benefit of impacting quarterbacks earlier in the down) left more room for pre-snap disguises, as faster blitzers can cover more ground.
Sutton continues to play dime; third-year safety Daniel Sorensen replaces linebacker Ramik Wilson in most passing situations. But with Houston emerging as a superstar in 2014, and now Ford ascending, Sutton hasn’t had to blitz as much in recent years. But against Carolina he did dip into his bag on a fourth quarter third-and-6, sending Sorensen right up the middle and safety Ron Parker right behind him. Both safety blitzers got home instantly, and Cam Newton made a hurried, undefined throw that Eric Berry picked off and took to the end zone.
This came on one of the few man coverages where Berry was playing in centerfield, not on tight end Greg Olsen. Which brings us to the other dimension of this K.C. defense: Not only does it have safeties who can blitz, it has safeties who can match up and cover. Berry’s skills here have improved magnificently over his seven-year career. Parker is a converted cornerback. Sorensen is not a premier athlete, but in a linebacker spot he can look like one against some of the running backs and backup tight ends he faces. And the one actual linebacker the Chiefs always leave on the field, Derrick Johnson, happens to be a swift, lanky, high-IQ 12-year veteran. The Chiefs have relied on him heavily in man coverage against running backs this season.
This is a defense with stars in the most important places—cornerback and edge rusher—and coverage flexibility at linebacker and safety, the two positions that (a) patrol the middle of the field, and (b) factor into almost every mismatch-making formula that modern offenses try to create with their flex tight ends and backs. In theory, the Chiefs are equipped to handle any NFL aerial attack. Which, these days, means they’re capable of beating any team.
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