The Chiefs defense has looked great all year, but it has not been tested much. Peyton Manning may be dealing with an ankle sprain, but Manning in a wheelchair is more dangerous than backups the Chiefs have faced in the last month. If the Chiefs plan to slow the Broncos offense, remain undefeated and silence doubters, Andy Reid and coordinator Bob Sutton need more than a game plan. They need a blueprint.
Luckily, we drew one up for them. The following article shows just how the Chiefs defense can shut down the Broncos passing game. It uses examples taken from Chiefs game film, with a special emphasis on the best offenses the Chiefs have faced this year. It's a blueprint based on Sutton's own schemes, but it is customized to tackle the unique problems created by Peyton Manning and his receivers.
It turns out Sutton does not have to do anything too complicated or technical. The Chiefs just need to keep doing what they have been doing. But they must do it better than ever.
Chiefs Defense: The Basics
Before we gorge on diagrams and GIFs, we should take a broad view of what the Chiefs try to do defensively. Here is Sutton's philosophy, condensed into bullet points.
Outside linebackers James Houston and Tamba Hali line up in an extremely wide formation, further outside than even most "Wide-9" pass-rushers, on many plays. Houston and Hali are the driving force behind the pass rush, and the pass rush is the driving force behind the defense.
Cornerbacks Sean Smith and Brandon Flowers are often assigned man coverage with minimal safety help. While we will see some examples of bracket coverage, Sutton prefers to use "Man-1" coverage, with a single deep safety. The Chiefs sometimes line up showing Man-1, though they frequently roll into the coverage after the snap by bringing a safety down to cover a receiver man-to-man.
Linebacker Derrick Johnson, safety Eric Berry, and other midfield defenders are expected to be adaptive and react quickly. Berry plays close to the line of scrimmage constantly. Linebackers and safeties are asked to cover a lot of ground and handle frequent man-to-man coverage responsibilities.
Chiefs defensive backs blitz incredibly often. Sutton calls many overload blitzes, with three or four defenders (including cornerbacks) blitzing from one side of the formation, while only a lineman rushes from the other side.
Sutton uses 2-4-5, 2-3-6, and 1-3-7 personnel groupings on passing downs, and 2nd-and-10 qualifies as a "passing down" for him. It is not unusual to see only one or two defensive linemen filling gaps between the tackles on third down. Linebackers like Johnson are expected to be able to plug run gaps so the Chiefs do not get gouged by draw plays.
When everything is working in harmony, the Chiefs defense is nasty. The rush linebackers make it easier for the cornerbacks to play man-to-man. The cornerbacks are good enough in man coverage to free a nickel defender as a blitzer, which makes life easier for the rush linebackers. Johnson, Berry, and others take away anything easy in the middle of the field. Weak offenses have been completely stymied, and better offenses have gotten stuck in a boom-and-bust situation, trading productive plays for too many sacks and turnovers.
Let's take another moment to broadly outline how the Broncos match up against the Chiefs defense.
Tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin are likely to have trouble with the speed of Hali and Houston. This will lead Manning to seek quick passes in the middle of the field and use audibles to call running plays or max-protect blocking schemes.
Smith and Flowers are good enough to cover Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker effectively in man coverage. The Broncos have had trouble with tight man coverage in recent weeks, in part because Manning's deep accuracy is no longer great, in part because press coverage upsets the Broncos timing. Manning will still challenge the K.C. cornerbacks (he had plenty of success throwing deep along the sidelines against the Chargers), but the Chiefs showed against the Cowboys and other opponents that they will trade one or two deep completions for sacks, turnovers, and general disruption. In long down-and-distance situations, Manning is again more likely to look to his inside receivers.
Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas provide a big edge for the Broncos against the Chiefs, as they do against most defenses. We will look at some ways the Chiefs dealt with an outstanding slot receiver like Welker early in the season.
Manning's ability to audible can provide a huge edge against defenses that show lots of overload blitzes and leave interior gaps empty. Manning has had trouble with complicated 3-4 defenses in the past, however, from Bill Belichick's vintage Patriots schemes to the fronts the Chargers threw at him a few years ago. So stating that "Manning can pick these blitzes apart" is a dangerous oversimplification. Manning will check down and audible to runs when he does not trust what he sees from a shifting front. This plays into the Chiefs gameplan: Sutton wants Manning creeping down the field and receivers paying for every yard.
The Chiefs have the right combination of personnel and scheme to do battle with Peyton Manning: multiple fronts, a great secondary, the ability to generate extreme pressure with just four or five rushers. As a basic illustration, Figure 1 shows the Chiefs lined up in simple man-1 coverage with Kendrick Lewis (23) at deep safety. The formation and coverage are taken from a third-quarter play by the Browns against the Chiefs, with Broncos personnel subbed in for the diagram.
Note how wide Hali (91) and Houston (50) line up: Houston is actually outside of the flexed tight end. This is typical, and we will see it in later diagrams. Brandon Flowers (24), a small cornerback, moved into the slot to cover small-savvy Davone Bess in the actual play, so he handles Wes Welker (83) in this example. The matchups include Sean Smith (27) versus Demaryius Thomas (88), Marcus Cooper (31) versus Eric Decker (87), Eric Berry versus Julius Thomas (80), Derrick Johnson (56) versus a back, Akeem Jordan (55) in underneath zone coverage. There is no glaring mismatch here, especially with Houston likely to get into Manning's face before Decker has time to beat Cooper, the least experienced of Kansas City's defenders.
Man-1 Behind the Blitz
Let's add some higher algebra, and some blitzing, to the Chiefs' man-to-man mathematics.
The next diagram comes from a 3rd-and-long play in the third quarter against the Texans that resulted in a sack. Flowers (24), again lined up inside so Cooper can cover a bigger receiver, blitzes inside of the wide lane taken by Hali (91). Johnson (56) also blitzes on the offensive right side, though his main job is to occupy a guard and create space for Flowers. Factor in Dontari Poe (92), and the Chiefs have four defenders attacking one side of the formation.
The Chiefs may be blitzing a cornerback and inside linebacker, but this is no jailbreak: the Chiefs still have five defensive backs and a linebacker in coverage, enough to play man with a deep safety. That's the versatility of this 1-4-6 personnel grouping and Sutton's personnel. Berry is trusted in man coverage on a slot receiver. Cooper and Smith have tight man on the outside receivers, and Lewis (23) replaces Flowers in man coverage on the tight end. Jordan (55) is not in good position to cover the back, but he and Lewis may be playing an inside-out concept on the back and tight end (it is impossible to tell from film), and the blitz reaches the quarterback before the back can release on anything but a flat route. Granted, the Chiefs were able to open up their playbook against the Texans; Peyton Manning would probably find the running back for a six-yard completion on a play where Case Keenum took a sack.
Let's look at a similar offensive concept from the Cowboys game. On third-and-10 in Chiefs territory late in the fourth quarter, Sutton sends both Berry and Cooper on a blitz from the offensive left, even though they appear to me lined up in man coverage against two receivers you don't want to mess around with: Jason Witten (82) and Miles Austin (18). Despite the double-blitz look, the Chiefs are only really rushing four defenders, with both Hali and Houston dropping into coverage.
The Cowboys blitz again illustrates the versatility of the Chiefs' man coverage, single high safety, outside-rush principle. As usual, we see the outside cornerbacks (Flowers and Smith this time) locked in one-on-one coverage. Lewis again creeps up and replaces the blitzing defensive back, although he is not playing exact man coverage on Austin. The Chiefs play a man-zone concept, with Lewis and Johnson switching assignments when Witten and Austin cross. Tony Romo (9) has been throwing to Witten in the face of blitzes for years, but Berry's quick rush and Lewis' arrival in coverage leaves Romo with no safe passing window, so his throw is wide.
Opponents have had most success against the Chiefs' Man-1 concept by challenging Smith and Flowers. Dez Bryant had a strong game against the Chiefs, as did Browns speedster Josh Gordon. Manning will certainly take his shots, though as stated earlier, his sideline passes sometimes sail, and Sutton will gladly trade a long gain for an interception or some sacks.
The Broncos are more likely to exploit the nickel and safety matchups in the middle of the field and attack the holes created by the Chiefs blitzes. Manning is the best quarterback in NFL history at using these tactics, but the Chiefs do have some countermeasures.
Brackets, Deuces, Rolling Zones
All of the outside man coverage and overload blitzing in the world will not help the Chiefs if Wes Welker picks them apart with 10-yard passes from the slot. Covering Welker with a deep safety while the nickel defender blitzes on play after play is a recipe for hot reads and easy catches. But Sutton can mix up his coverages. The Chiefs faced a quarterback named Manning with a great slot receiver early in the season -- Eli Manning and Victor Cruz -- and Sutton used a type of bracket double coverage called "Deuce" to confuse Eli's reads and limit Cruz's effectiveness in critical situations.
Figure 4 shows the Giants in catch-up mode in the fourth quarter. Cruz is the Giants' #1 receiver, but he is so much more effective in the slot that he usually moves inside when the Giants deploy three or more receivers. Brandon Flowers was injured in the Giants game, but we re-inserted him in the diagram as the slot defender: as other diagrams show, Flowers often takes the slot receiver. Pre-snap, the Chiefs look like they are either in Cover-2 zone or some variation of their man-1 look, with a defensive back likely to blitz.
In fact, the Chiefs are double-covering Cruz (80) and flexed-out tight end Brandon Myers (83), with Sean Smith and Cooper man-to-man on the outside receivers. The coverage concept here is usually called "Deuce;" it is hard to pinpoint on film, but Chiefs defenders do lots of pointing and gesturing before and during this play, so the coverage is easy to deduce. Flowers, lined up over Cruz, is responsible for short routes and crosses over the middle. Quentin Demps (35), playing deep, takes over if Cruz cuts toward the sideline; if Cruz runs a straight vertical route, Demps takes him, while Flowers peels off to cover an underneath zone. Berry and Lewis use a similar technique on the other side. As usual, the Chiefs get outside pressure, and Manning's pass to Cruz is tipped by Houston; even without the deflection, Eli was aiming for a tight window near the sideline.
Have a look at the GIF. You can see Dunta Robinson (portrayed in our diagram by Flowers), point to Demps as Cruz breaks outside.
The deuce concept should work well against Welker, Julius Thomas, and the other receivers the Broncos use to work the middle of the field. It also works well in concert with the Chiefs' other concepts: examine Figure 4, and it is not hard to envision a blitz from the Myers side of the formation.
The next diagram shows just how aggressive the Chiefs can be when blitzing from the slot side of the formation. Facing 3rd-and-11, the Giants line up with three receivers (including Cruz) and one back on the right side of their formation. The Chiefs respond with what appears to be man coverage at the line, with three deep defensive backs. It looks like some kind of three-deep zone before the snap, but in fact it is yet another blitz. The Chiefs blitz both "Flowers" (Robinson in the actual game) and dime defender Hassim Abdullah (39). They then roll the three deep defenders. Lewis takes an underneath zone to the Cruz-Myers side, Demps provides deep support, and Johnson slides across the field to take away any passes in the middle of the field. Cruz is essentially double-teamed on the seam route, even though his initial defender flushes Eli from the pocket. Hali strip-sacks Eli after a brief scramble: exactly the kind of big play Sutton gambles for.
Figure 5 shows many of the elements we have seen again and again in the other diagrams. The outside cornerbacks are once again locked in man coverage. Defensive backs blitz to create a heavy outside rush, but because linebackers (Johnson and Houston) drop, the Chiefs are only rushing four defenders and have adequate manpower in coverage. The athleticism, versatility, and experience of the Chiefs defenders allow Sutton to take risks most defensive coordinators cannot take.
Peyton will find Welker for some short completions no matter what the Chiefs do. Sutton's goals will be to limit Welker's completion rate and limit yards after the catch. Pressure and tight windows will keep Peyton-to-Welker from being automatic. Anticipation and tackling can keep seven-yard passes from becoming 14-yard gains. Bracket concepts and rolled coverage will allow multiple Chiefs defenders to flow toward Welker when Manning targets him, and Chiefs interior defenders have been excellent tacklers all season. If Welker catches eight passes on 12 targets for 70 yards, that's a win for the Chiefs defense. If he is 10-of-12 for 120 yards, it's a loss.
Adjustments to Adjustments
One way Peyton Manning attacks pressure defenses is by exploiting miscommunications. Blitzing defensive backs is a risky, tricky affair. By motioning a receiver pre-snap, the offense can force the defense to make major changes to a blitz concept: man coverage assignments change, potential blitzers may suddenly have to drop, and so on. One quick offensive change can form a half-dozen defensive changes, and Manning is exceptional at using this to his advantage.
Sutton's defense, however, has been excellent at on-field communication this season. We already saw an example of defenders clarifying a subtle coverage concept before and after the snap against Victor Cruz. The following GIF shows the Chiefs quickly adjusting to a wrinkle by the Browns. When Davone Bess goes in motion to the left to create a bunch formation on that side, several K.C. defenders must change assignments. All the pointing provides a clear picture of what is going on. Flowers (24) declares that he is locked onto Greg Little (15). Demps (35) declares himself the high safety. Smith (27) and Lewis (23) appear to indicate that Smith will take the receiver who breaks outside and Lewis the one who breaks inside, a standard man-to-man tactic against bunched receivers.
The Browns run a clever route combination here. Bess starts outside, then angles behind Little. Smith is in terrible position to cover him. But the Chiefs still had an aggressive blitz on, with Berry and Johnson criss-crossing en route to Jason Campbell. The quarterback does not have time to step up and throw to a briefly open receiver.
All defenders point, communicate, and adjust coverages pre-snap. But not all defenses excel at it. Experienced defenders like Flowers, Berry, Smith, Demps, and Lewis make these adjustments smoothly, allowing Sutton to keep blitzing, even when opponents specifically scheme to attack those blitzes.
Peyton Manning can still win this chess match, but he cannot anticipate any easy checkmates.
No one expects the Chiefs to do to Peyton Manning what they did to Campbell or Jeff Tuel. But it is reasonable to expect them to do something close to what they did to Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Victor Cruz caught 10 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs. Dez Bryant was 9-144-1. Top receivers will generate big plays against the Chiefs because they will face a lot of single coverage outside or favorable matchups in the middle.
For Sutton, those big plays are a compromise. They come in exchange for sacks, turnovers, rushed throws and third down stops. The Giants and Cowboys were a combined 4-of-25 on third down conversions. When Sutton opens up his playbook on obvious passing downs, he leaves even veteran quarterbacks with some unappealing choices.
No defense in the league have an answer for every puzzle Peyton Manning can throw at them, but the Chiefs come close. Few teams have two cornerbacks good enough to risk man coverage against Thomas and Decker all game. Few teams have the depth in the secondary to blitz defensive backs and still have plenty of manpower in coverage. The Chiefs can get heavy pressure with four pass rushers. They send several outstanding tacklers flowing toward the ball on every short pass. Sutton provides almost as few easy answers as Manning does. Success will come down to who benefits the most from compromise solutions: whether a sideline bomb under pressure results in 40 yards or an incompletion, whether Manning finds Welker on a 3rd-and-8 pass, or Derrick Johnson rolling into a zone.
The Chiefs have the capability to hold the Broncos offense in the 21-24 point range. That's quite an accomplishment. Whether that will be enough for a victory is up to the Chiefs offense.