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Yes, the Kansas City Chiefs defense is trending up. Here’s how.

The Kansas City Chiefs defense walked off the field Monday night with 54 points on the scoreboard for the Los Angeles Rams. 14 came from the Rams defense, and another seven came from a short-field touchdown.

That’s still 33 points that came from field-long drives by the Rams offense. Even against a top-three offense in 2018’s offensive-driven NFL, that’s not a good performance.

However, there were some serious bright spots from this week’s defense. I’d even go so far as to say I came out of this week’s game more optimistic than I went into it.

Drunk? Nope. Crazy? Probably. But this game showed some promise through the dark times.

This week — as I do every week — I’ll break down the numbers from Sunday’s game. We’ll hit the highlights, find where the Chiefs won, lost and bucked trends, and then we’ll move on to some clips of their good, bad and under-the-radar plays.

The numbers

Quarter/Down/Distance – Week 11

2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 Avg Week 11 Success
2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 Avg Week 11 Success
Q1 5.59 52.49% 7.35 30.43%
Q2 6.25 49.44% 2.89 77.78%
Q2-Under 2:00 6.63 53.57% N/A N/A
Q3 6.22 51.90% 6.88 64.71%
Q4 5.60 56.43% 5.96 70.83%
Q4-Under 2:00 6.47 57.45% 11.00 75.00%
1st Down 6.55 50.94% 7.17 54.29%
2nd Down 5.72 50.85% 5.52 60.87%
3rd Down 4.27 64.18% 5.00 64.29%
4th Down 6.14 38.10% 7.00 0.00%
Yds remain 0-3 4.38 37.38% 5.50 0.00%
Yds remain 4-6 5.29 48.04% 6.54 53.85%
Yds remain 7-10 6.41 53.72% 7.66 53.19%
Yds remain 11+ 5.33 79.10% -0.09 90.91%

We all knew that the first quarter was bad, but the success rate for it is absolutely horrific.

That shows that the Chiefs gave up chunk yardage play after play. That’s supported by the fact that the Chiefs forced one third down in the first quarter. Conversely, if you compare the success rate of the third quarter, you see a defense that did well 60 plus percent of the time, but the yards per play are high due to the big plays allowed.

The Chiefs once again struggled in short-yardage situations — allowing 5.5 yards per play when less than three yards remained and not securing a single stop. The defense was phenomenal again in long-distance situations, forcing negative yardage when they had the Rams in trouble.

Defensive Formation – Week 11

2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 % Week 11 YPP Week 11 Success
2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 % Week 11 YPP Week 11 Success
1-4 0.99% 8.75 62.50% 0.00% N/A N/A
2-3 15.65% 4.91 59.52% 30.77% 6.08 66.67%
2-4 53.42% 5.57 50.47% 41.03% 5.94 46.43%
3-3 5.71% 4.54 45.65% 28.21% 5.41 61.90%
3-4 22.24% 6.46 41.34% 0.00% N/A N/A
4-3 0.87% 0.00 71.43% 0.00% N/A N/A
4-4 0.87% 0.29 57.14% 0.00% N/A N/A

To nobody’s surprise, the Chiefs didn’t run their “base” 3-4 defense at all this week against the Rams 11 personnel. Instead, they relied on their preferred two down lineman, four linebacker nickel formation, which struggled this week. The Chiefs dime defense was quite good for the second week in a row, even though Daniel Sorensen struggled this week.

Of note — the Chiefs ran their three down linemen-three linebacker defense successfully this week, using it as their “run stuffing” formation. Most of the year, they’re really struggled in that formation, so it was good to see it find some success against a good offense.

Rush Numbers – Week 11

2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 % Week 11 YPP Week 11 Success
2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 % Week 11 YPP Week 11 Success
Rush 3 12.45% 5.43 50.72% 6.56% 2.75 50.00%
Rush 4 72.92% 6.12 52.23% 62.30% 6.89 58.33%
Rush 5-6 14.44% 5.15 53.75% 31.15% 5.95 50.00%

If you wanted Bob Sutton to be more aggressive, you got it this week.

That’s right—the Chiefs rushed five or more players against Jared Goff 31 percent of the time. This served two purposes this week, both in its ability to attempt to move Goff off his spot and make him uncomfortable, and perhaps the more important purpose this week — it kept running back Todd Gurley in pass protection on a number of plays.

Rather than the Rams try to “screen” their way out of it, they continued to move the ball through the air and through their tight ends and receivers. Gurley did find opportunities to get the ball in space — and he reportedly was hampered by a sore ankle after getting rolled up on by Dorian O’Daniel early — but they came fewer and farther between due to his pass protection responsibilities.

Coverages – Week 11

2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 % Week 11 YPP Week 11 Success
2018 % 2018 Avg 2018 Success Week 11 % Week 11 YPP Week 11 Success
Man 55.05% 5.69 51.48% 75.41% 5.78 52.17%
Zone 44.40% 6.17 53.66% 24.59% 8.00 46.67%

The Chiefs wanted to lean on man coverage this week. Specifically, off-man coverage, with the Chiefs in press-man about 58 percent of the snaps this week. They mixed in a fair number of Cover 2 man looks to go with their Cover 1, and leaned on the Cover 0 in the red zone — and at the end of the game, which forced Sean McVay to throw.

The Chiefs ran over a third of their zone snaps in the first quarter, and those snaps in particular, were poor, giving up 15 yards per play. Sutton sprinkled it in a little here and there after that, relying on his man defense to do the job.

Something good

Chris Jones has been an absolute monster this year. Outside of Aaron Donald, you’d be hard pressed to find an interior lineman that’s doing as much damage to an offense as Jones has done, especially over the last couple of weeks.

Jones is even wrecking blocking schemes to sell the run when the opposition is throwing off of play action, as shown above. The Rams offensive line slants and appears as if they’re going to block down, which sells the run to the Chiefs front. Jones, however, gets off the snap quickly and is able to penetrate the B-gap before left tackle Andrew Whitworth is able to cover it. Jones ends up past Whitworth before he can get his hands on him. Whitworth grabs and holds Jones, but he’s too strong and is able to close on Goff for the sack.

Jones’ blend of size, speed, and play awareness all seem to have been put together this season, and it’s showing up in spades for the Chiefs front. He’s turning into a game-wrecker, and just in time for some important games.

Justin Houston’s return from injury has been a welcome sight for Chiefs fans. He’s not his 2014 dominant self — and we shouldn’t expect him to be with his injury history — but he’s still a good technician that offers run defense and pass rush ability that they’re not getting from any other EDGE rusher not named Dee Ford.

The above snap is a prime example of what Houston can be for this team. Off the snap, Whitworth into a good 45-degree set, but Houston gets into Whitworth’s chest and gets to half man with low hips. He grabs the inside arm and pulls Whitworth forward with his inside hand, and then dips his inside shoulder. With Whitworth off balance, Houston is able to rip his inside arm through, bending and keeping the inside shoulder underneath Whitworth’s armpit, giving him the leverage to turn the corner and get to Goff for the strip-sack.

Houston was never the speediest guy, but he was always able to transition that speed to power well in the past. Now, a step slower, Houston is transitioning his game to more of a technician, able to beat tackles with his rush plan and execution of his move set, rather than simply being quicker and more explosive with his rushes.

Something bad

The Rams played a very uptempo game this week. Often breaking the huddle and sprinting to the line to snap the ball, Los Angeles was able to confuse and catch the Chiefs defense off guard, especially early in the game.

One of the biggest examples of this happened on the above play. The Chiefs are in Cover 1, and the Rams break the huddle to rush to the line. The Rams come out in an empty formation with a 3×2 alignment. The passing strength of the formation has three wide receivers in trips, opposite the tight end and running back on the weak side. Steven Nelson plays on the right side of the defense but will have coverage responsibility for one of the wide receivers in the trips opposite of him.

By the time it’s properly identified, the ball is being snapped with Nelson running across the secondary, trying to get to his coverage responsibility. Goff quickly locks in on the tight end, resulting in a 5-yard gain, but Nelson’s receiver could have had that and more, had the quarterback identified the error.

Dorian O’Daniel got to play a significant number of snaps this week, and he played pretty well against a good offense. His range and speed to get into space, as well as his vision to take the proper angle are better than any of the other inside linebackers on the roster right now.

While he fared okay in coverage against Gurley and poorly in zone, I wanted to highlight a bit of a trend we saw this week out of O’Daniel. The Chiefs had Anthony Hitchens play downhill most of the day — see below — and had him stay near the line of scrimmage to fill escape lanes and prevent Goff from scrambling for big yardage. However, O’Daniel worked to mirror Hitchens movements on a few of these instances, reacting late to the running back into the flat after play action.

O’Daniel works back to the center of the field, ignoring his coverage responsibility in the flat. He reacts well to the pass and recovers to save the play from gaining bigger yardage — something he did on more than one occasion — but this is a play that should have been stopped well shy of the marker, if it were thrown at all.

These are teachable moments, and situations that O’Daniel will grow accustomed to as he gets more comfortable as an inside linebacker at the pro level. However, it was a trend that stuck out this week that hadn’t in prior weeks from a guy that’s been talked about a lot in Chiefs circles.

The elephant in the room that not very many want to talk about is Sorensen’s performance over the past two weeks. A guy that’s never been the quickest, Sorensen appears to have had some of his athleticism sapped from the injury he suffered this preseason. It’s an understandable situation that he’s in, and he’s out there trying to tough it out, hoping to make an impact at a position in which the Chiefs haven’t gotten good production out of this year.

That said, Sorensen got picked on this week. The final scoring drive of the game went at him three times in a row, culminating in the above play. The Chiefs are in Cover 1, and Ron Parker starts shifting forward into a Robber role before the snap. Goff already knew it was man coverage due to pre-snap motion, and Parker’s shift ID’s it as Cover 1. Goff knows he’s got his tight end one on one with Sorensen on the outside fade, and he knows that Eric Murray as the single-high safety isn’t going to be able to press the boundary from his position.

On the snap, Sorensen hops and gives outside release, but his feet cross and he turns his hips late. The tight end is even with him immediately, and Goff has his preferred matchup. Sorensen can’t keep up, and it’s a nice throw for a 40-yard dagger at that won Los Angeles the game.

I’m not upset at Sorensen here. He’s giving it his all coming off of a rough injury. I’m upset that Sutton and the secondary stuck with a call that offers minimal to no safety help to a guy that is a step slow and isolated outside against a tight end. I’m even more upset that a field goal doesn’t do anything for the Rams on this drive, yet Sutton called three straight plays with single-high safeties. With his affinity for split-safety looks while protecting a lead, this would have been the perfect time to keep a safety over the top of Sorensen — beaten on two straight plays — and Orlando Scandrick, who had been poor for the majority of the evening.

Protecting that lead at the end of the game was paramount. McVay and the Rams offense went right at a weak link, and the Chiefs defense couldn’t find a way to adjust and stop it.

Something you may have missed

Hitchens has come under fire this season for some lackluster play, and for good reason. He’s definitely struggled in a new position, and with new keys and expectations in the system. This week, things changed for him.

As I stated above, a focus for this week was having Hitchens play a much more downhill game as the strong-side inside linebacker next to O’Daniel. It’s been stated several times — most notably by fellow contributor Matt Lane — that Hitchens best spot might be at SILB. He’d have the freedom to shoot a single gap, keying off of a fullback or the guards in front of him, and wouldn’t be relied upon as much to flow to the ball to make the stop.

It’s not a play that will show up as a major positive in the box score, but Hitchens looks so much more comfortable playing downhill and shooting the A-gap on the above play. He slows the running back and shuts off one of the inside gaps while Jones’ pursuit and Jarvis Jenkins’ split of the double team are able to finish the play.

Hitchens needs to be free to play more like this within the scheme. He’s a guy that can set the tone with physical play in the interior and can help destroy some early down plays with penetration. It’s a positive step forward for Hitchens, and gives us a glimpse at what he can be if he’s paired with a WILB that can play the majority of the downs for the Chiefs.

The bottom line

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Rams

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

I said last week that we saw a glimpse of what the 2018 Chiefs defense could be — rushing the passer and forcing the opposition into mistakes and turnovers. This week confirmed that for me, and that’s why I have optimism.

This defense is not good. Very few defenses are good this season. Teams are putting up record numbers, and defenses are by and large what the Chiefs defense has been for most of the year: bad.

I know it’s funny to say it after a 54-point Rams performance, but this defense is trending up for me.

This pass rush is legitimately scary. Ford, Houston, and Jones wrecked a very good offensive line this week, and guys like Allen Bailey and Xavier Williams got to get in on the action because of that. When this pass rush is clicking, even an offense as potent as the Rams can sputter and stall. That’s all you really need when you can turn around and give the ball to Patrick Mahomes.

Yes, the safeties that Sutton is willing to play are all pretty poor. Scandrick continued the downturn I called out several weeks ago, showing his age and getting badly beat this week. The run defense looked better, but with a banged up Gurley and the Chiefs selling out with one of their linebackers, the Rams didn’t need to run.

And yet they were a dropped interception away from icing it for the offense. They came up with a huge stop to give the ball back with plenty of time and a timeout remaining at the end of the game. They tacked on seven of their own and gave Mahomes the ball deep in Rams territory.

That’s the game plan for this Chiefs defense right now. We know the deficiencies. We know that teams can run, throw to running backs, and find tight ends open. We know that they’re not good.

But we know that they can get after the quarterback and force turnovers. With an offense like the Chiefs have, a defense that can turn the ball over, force a couple punts, and even score is pretty much all this team needs to be one of the final four teams left.

Doing just that to this very good Rams offense on the road gives me optimism that they can do just that.

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