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Examining the Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Dominance in Denver

The Chiefs defense owned the Denver Broncos on Thursday night. What were their strengths, weaknesses, and highlights during the game? Let's take a look.
Chiefs Defensive Dominance

Thursday night was an emotional roller-coaster for us Kansas City Chiefs fans. It started on the low with the opening touchdown by the Denver Broncos, rose with the touchdown by Mecole Hardman, dropped DRAMATICALLY with the injury to Patrick Mahomes, and then rose gradually again with the consistent dominance by the defense. At this point, there’s nothing the Chiefs can do about Mahomes, other than pray he comes back healthy and soon. Matt Moore had a fine game, but this team wasn’t designed to make a run without Mahomes. Or was it? Let’s take a look at the defense, and try to analyze how much leg room the Chiefs have in managing Mahomes’ return in my newly named series “Defense in Depth”.

Defense in Depth: Breaking Down the Chiefs Defensive Dominance Against the Broncos

After two losses where the Chiefs time of possession (ToP) was way off-balance, the Chiefs got back to the run on offense and held the ball longer. This gave the defense more time to rest and plan for their next series, and the results showed. The Chiefs defense, particularly the front seven, dominated the game. The line controlled the line of scrimmage and that controlled Denver’s offense to the tune of only producing 205 yards. The Broncos should consider themselves lucky that they only turned the ball over once when there were at least three opportunities on fumbles lost by quarterback Joe Flacco.

While fans have claimed Frank Clark has been off to a slow start, he put those doubts to rest on Thursday night. Here, he swims on the right while Alex Okafor speeds around the left, and they meet in the middle to pummel Flacco in the pocket. The ball comes out but it’s recovered by Denver. Okafor has been terrific, and his speed has been an asset around the edge. This first sack was a true indication of the chaos to come.

Even on the plays where the pass rush didn’t hit home, they did influence the play. Here, Flacco is forced to his right by Damian Wilson and Okafor and takes a chance on a deep pass to Fant. He actually almost makes this throw, but tight end Noah Fant can’t make the catch. While the front seven did well on this play, the secondary, not so much. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is right on Fant but lets him track across Claiborne’s path to make a play on the ball. Luckily, the ball is dropped. However, if this play is made (and in just about any other game it most likely is), the discussion about this play would be more ranting about the secondary than raving about the front seven.

Linebacker Reggie Ragland had a great game on Thursday, and that was capped off by his fumble recovery for a touchdown after Mahomes went down. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo draws up a solid play and both Ragland and Hitchens sell it well. It shifts the offensive line to the right by having Clark push inside and Wilson rush the edge, while Hitchens and Ragland rush between the tight end that’s blocking Wilson and the left tackle blocking Clark. Only the running back is left to block in that gap, meaning the remaining defender has a free shot on the quarterback. Hitchens, being that free defender, lands a hit on Flacco and forces a fumble, and Ragland gets off his block in time to get to the ball and take it into the end zone. This was the drive after Mahomes got injured, and no doubt the NFL, and more specifically, Chiefs Kingdom, was nervous. This was a play that shaped the game. The defense was there to ball out, whether Mahomes was on the other side or not.

Safety Juan Thornhill has been good on the backside, but here he is beat by a great throw by Flacco. He recognized where Flacco was going to go with the ball, and starts running to that side of the field to squeeze the window. Flacco lands a dime just outside Thornhill’s reach and Courtland Sutton catches it for a 41-yard gain.

This goes to show that if the pass rush can’t get home, the secondary is still vulnerable to big plays. While a new, shutdown corner would be a welcome addition to take away the first read (to include deep routes), the Chiefs need to plan as if they won’t have that since, as of the time of me writing this, they don’t. Even though this isn’t really Thornhill’s fault, taking away Flacco’s confidence that he can make this throw against this secondary would help.

This is an example of what can happen if the pass rush is having a good night and is getting into the quarterback’s head. Flacco doesn’t have his first read and tries to go to his right on a slant. Because the pressure on the line is caving the pocket in, he can’t step up or reset his feet, so he chances a throw without a solid foundation. His pass is low and the pass goes incomplete.

While the defense isn’t credited for this play, it really should be counted as a win by the defensive line for creating a heightened sense of urgency by Flacco to throw the ball, and by taking away the space for him to deliver accurate throws.

The State of the Defense

This is a hard defense to diagnose. Right now, they’re 13th in total defense. They’re 14th against the pass, but 25th in average yards allowed per game. Here is some food for thought: The Chiefs defense leads the league in total plays run, with 482 total plays. They are 10 plays ahead of the second-place Bengals and 15 ahead of the third-place Washington Redskins. They haven’t been helped by an offense that, the two games before Thursday, couldn’t stay on the field, but that should be something that is included in conversations about this defense.

The front seven played great on Thursday, but they need help in the secondary. They showed that, when the quarterback holds the ball for too long, they can make plays and take control of the game. However, when the quarterback can get the ball out quickly or has extra time or room to make a throw, the secondary is vulnerable and will give up big plays. Help is needed, and a scheme isn’t quite enough to mask the weaknesses this defense possesses. That said, this was a great step in the right direction. Sunday night this defense faces a huge test in the Green Bay Packers. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is not Joe Flacco (#analysis). Rodgers can use his mobility to escape pressure and punish this defense. They could be in for a long night. However, with stronger play by the secondary and against the run like Thursday night’s game, they might just have a chance.

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