The New York Giants are suddenly confident following their 25-3 upset win in Week 7 as they look to take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8.
For their part, the Chiefs just suffered a 27-3 loss at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and seem to be reeling.
The Chiefs have struggled to gain traction on either side of the ball this season, with injuries and inconsistent play leading to a 3-4 record. And with the Chiefs’ sputtering below .500 they suddenly find themselves, and their post-season chances, backed up against a wall.
Kansas City’s defense has not played up to expectations, nor their Super Bowl pedigree, this year. In terms of raw stats, they have fielded one of the worst defenses in the NFL. That would suggest that this could be an opportunity for the Giants to finally gain some traction of their own on the offensive side of the ball.
But will it really be that easy? Is the Chiefs’ defense as bad as it seems? Let’s take a closer look and see where opportunities, and risks, might lie.
Few, if any, defenses in the NFL are truly 4-3 or 3-4 any more. Almost every defense has evolved to use some kind of "multiple" front. However, many defenses still have strong tendencies toward either odd or even defense lines.
The Chiefs' defense, as we might expect from Steve Spagnuolo, is based on fronts that use four down lineman. It isn't exactly accurate to say Kansas City runs a 4-3 defense, as they use a nickel package as their base -- like pretty much every other defense in the NFL. The Chiefs also make relatively heavy usage of a 4-1-6 nickel front.
The Chief’s starting defensive ends are Chris Jones and Frank Clark, both of whom are veteran linemen capable of being disruptive from a variety of alignments. While Jones isn’t playing up to his Pro Bowl form, he is still an above-average pass rusher. Clark, meanwhile, has posted a slightly below-average pass rush win rate this year, but when he does win quickly he generates pressure at a pretty good clip.
The Giants would also do well to keep an eye on reserve EDGE Michael Dana, who leads the team with three sacks while playing about 60 percent of their snaps.
Neither Jarran Reed nor Derrick Nnadi, Kansas City’s starting defensive tackles, have produced much for their defense. Neither is a particularly disruptive pass rusher and the Chiefs’ run defense has been a source of major concern. Backup defensive tackle Khalen Saunders could be a threat on the interior, however. He boasts the defense’s highest pass rush win rate and generates pressure at a pretty good clip for an interior lineman. So far he’s been a reserve lineman, playing about 30 percent of the defensive snaps, but that could change if the Chiefs decide to shake up their defense to try and pressure Daniel Jones.
All told, Kansas City’s defense hasn’t produced the kind of pass rush we’re used to seeing from Spags’ defenses. They’re 28th in pass rush win rate and have only produced eight sacks on the season — worst in the league. That being said, they are generating some pressure on quarterbacks, with the league’s eighth-most number of hurries (sixth in hurry rate), and a middling level of overall pressures.
Of particular note, in light of the Chiefs’ stunning 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans, is their porous run defense.
The Chiefs currently have the worst Run Stop Win Rate in the NFL, and are allowing 4.7 yards per carry — fifth-worst in the NFL. The Giants have struggled to mount a consistent rushing attack throughout the season, but this could be an opportunity for them to make headway on the ground.
That being said, we should probably also take the Chiefs’ defensive production (or lack thereof) to this point with a grain of salt.
There’s an argument that defensive performance is — to a certain extent — a reflection of the offenses that defense has played. And the Chiefs have had a run of difficult-to-defend offenses.
So far the Chiefs have played the first, fourth, seventh, eighth, eleventh, and twelfth pass blocking teams in the Cleveland Browns, Washington Football Team, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, and Tennessee Titans. Their only “easy” pass rushing matchup has been the Los Angeles Chargers who are currently tied with the Giants with 52 percent pass block win rate (25th in the NFL).
There’s a similar story in the running game, as Washington, Philly, and Baltimore are the first, second, and third-best run blocking teams in the NFL, with the Browns and Bills coming in at eighth and 12th, respectively. And while the Tennessee Titans have a surprisingly poor 18th overall run block win rate, Derrick Henry is just tough for anyone to tackle.
The Chiefs’ defensive front could present opportunities for the Giants’ offense, but they shouldn’t be taken lightly and could be poised to begin playing better. This is particularly true if the the Kansas City offense finds traction against the Giants’ defense and puts pressure on New York’s offense to keep up.
Giants fans likely have a soft spot in their hearts for Spagnuolo — I know I do, and I personally have a world of respect for Spags. His adaptations of Jim Johnson’s blitz schemes played a central role in forming how I think about defensive football.
In some ways, the Chiefs’ current defensive play is disappointing, and a bit painful, to see from Spags. However, the general scheme itself still looks a lot like the classic Spagnuolo defense we all remember.
Key to Spagnuolo’s defensive philosophy is the blitz, and a willingness to send pressure.
The Chiefs are currently blitzing at the sixth-highest rate among all defenses, and Spags has no problems sending five, six, and seven-man pressures. Granted, he still uses four-man rushes as the basis for his defense, but he still likes to send linebackers and defensive backs to disrupt opposing offenses.
Veterans Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann are fine linebackers — not exceptional, but solid. Neither is particularly gifted in coverage or rushing the passer, but they can do their jobs and are generally sound tacklers.
The player to watch here is rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, who was selected 58th overall out of Missouri. Bolton was a favorite of Giants’ fans, and he is quickly turning into a dynamic defender for the Chiefs. He is listed on the depth chart as their WILL linebacker, but is all over the field. He plays a classic “WILL” alignment, the middle linebacker position, and on the line of scrimmage as a SAM.
Bolton shows great awareness, recognition, and mental processing in coverage — as well as solid range.
Here we see Bolton, No. 54, drop into zone coverage on the far side of the field. Rather than biting on the play-action (or curl route run by the running back after the play action), Bolton keeps his eyes in the backfield. Because of that, he sees the fullback chip before releasing into a wheel route and is able to adjust accordingly. Bolton reacts quickly once he sees Herbert adjust his base and commit to throwing to the fullback, showing good speed downhill and a great angle to limit the gain to just 8 yards.
Bolton is also involved in the Chief’s blitz designs, as well as being showing a familiar downhill trigger for anyone who watched his college tape. He’s currently tied with Myles Garrett and Haason Reddick for the NFL lead with nine tackles for a loss.
As I said above, while the Chiefs’ defense isn’t playing up to what we would expect from Spagnuolo, nor their own Super Bowl pedigree, the general shape of a “Spags” defense is there.
As such, Kansas City loves to use aggressive coverages. They’re commonly in Middle Of Field Closed (MOFC) coverages, usually Cover 1 mixed with Cover 3. However, the Chiefs also like to run a relatively high rate of Cover 0 as well — which shouldn’t be surprising from a team that isn’t shy about sending 7-man pass rushes.
They also run a relatively high rate of Cover 2 shells, but surprisingly few Cover 4 or Cover 6 defenses. Surprising both due to the trends of defense in the NFL (which favor quarters coverages to deal with spread offenses), and the history of both Spags and Andy Reid with Jim Johnson.
Teams have typically attacked the Chiefs in the shallow part of the field, with the majority of the passing attempts against their Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3 shells coming at 5 yards or less.
From the individual personnel side of things, the Chiefs’ secondary has been in a state of flux — and disappointing.
Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has been their one consistent starter on the outside, playing all seven games so far. Sneed is coming off of a great rookie campaign where he allowed just 59 percent completion and came away with three interceptions and seven passes defensed in nine games. However, he has regressed as a full-time starter this year, giving up 71.4 percent completion and notching just one pass defensed. Part of the problem might be all the uncertainty around him. Fellow starter Charvarius Ward missed four games with a quad injury, and Sneed has had to play both outside and the slot, putting a lot more on the second-year player’s plate.
Ward has returned to action and could be in-line to start against the Giants. And while Rashad Fenton, who has given up 72 percent completion while defending 4 passes, has earned praise for his work ethic, Ward would seem to be an improvement.
2018 Minnesota Vikings first round pick Mike Hughes seems to be the Chiefs’ primary nickel corner. He is a compact (5-foot-10, 189-pound) cornerback who has impressive short-area quickness. Hughes has also been effective in his role with the Chiefs, allowing 59 percent completion while knocking down three passes and forcing two fumbles in
Giants fans might be interested to find out how former Giant DeAndre Baker is doing in his new home, and the answer seems to be “about the same as in New York.” Baker has yet to really break into the Chiefs’ defense, and has played just 99 snaps in four games despite starting in Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles following the injury to Ward.
Baker’s familiarity with many (well, some) of the Giants’ offensive players could lead him to the field this Sunday, but it’s also worth noting that he was a healthy scratch against the Tennessee Titans.
Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu are expected to be the Chiefs’ starting safeties. And while Thornhill was a highly regarded safety coming out of Virginia, the player to watch here is Mathieu.
Mathieu is still one of the most unpredictable and dynamic defenders in the NFL, with the skill set to play just about any position in the defensive secondary. He’s missed the first game of the season, but has played every snap of every game since. Mathieu has the potential to be a game-changing player and is used in every phase of the Chiefs’ defense. The Giants will not only want to keep an eye out for him in coverage — he has a knack for making offenses pay for mistakes in his area — but he is also a frequent blitzer for the Chiefs.
Much like the Chiefs’ defensive front, there could be opportunities for the Giants to exploit against the Chiefs’ secondary — particularly if they get some of their receivers back. However, they also have talented defenders who have faced a number of tough match-ups already this season. The Giants’ can’t afford to take these players lightly, nor be careless with the football.