The Chiefs run a base 3-4 defense and utilize a variety of sub packages depending on the down-and-distance and/or the offensive personnel grouping. Against the pass, Kansas City looks to pressure the quarterback into making quick throws while the defensive backs keep plays in front of them. Their secondary is often in Cover 3 protection down the field. For the Patriots to move the ball through the air, they need to contain the pressure and take advantage of the weak spots available in Cover 3 shells.
Kansas City’s Pressure Cooker
Through three weeks of the NFL season, the Chiefs have been able to generate pressure in the passing game by relying on their talent up front and blitzing in advantageous situations. The majority of Kansas City’s blitzes come from their sub packages, which are employed either based on the offensive players faced (typically 11 personnel) or when down and distance warrant extra secondary players.
First, let’s look at a few examples of the Chiefs generating pressure in the interior. On this play from Week 1, Tennessee faces 2nd and 11 and have 21 personnel on the field. Jake Locker is in the shotgun flanked by two running backs, and the Titans have a slot formation to the right. Kansas City is in their base 3-4 defense and show Cover 3 in the secondary. Here is the pre-snap look.
The Chiefs rush five ‒ the three down linemen and both outside linebackers. Watch the effort from Allen Bailey, a defensive lineman who is lined up over left guard Andy Levitre. A six year veteran regarded as a high quality guard, Levitre is obliterated as Bailey plows him over.
Another example of interior pressure leading to a sack for Kansas City comes on this 2nd and 10 play. The Titans have Locker in the shotgun with a single receiver split left and trips to the right. The Chiefs have a sub package on the field, with two down linemen and two linebackers on the line of scrimmage. The other two linebackers show double A Gap blitz but drop into coverage at the snap. This time it is Vance Walker lined up over Levitre and he also uses a simple bull rush to collapse the pocket in front of Locker and make the sack.
As you watch this play, notice just how widely the two edge rushers, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, are aligned. Their speed from the outside coupled with the interior pressure is a very dangerous combination for any offense to handle.
Now let’s look at the Chief blitz scheme from their sub packages. Against the Broncos in Week 2, Kansas City tried both their base 3-4 and various sub packages to slow Peyton Manning and the Denver offense. On this 3rd and 8 play late in the first half the Broncos have Manning in the shotgun with trips to the right and a single receiver split left. The Chiefs have their primary sub package on the field, with two down linemen joining two linebackers on the line of scrimmage, two linebackers in the middle, and five defensive backs. They walk both interior linebackers up and show double A Gap blitz.
The Chiefs send both linebackers on the blitz, while Dontari Poe comes around on a stunt. It takes recognition of the blitz and a quick throw by Manning to avoid a sack.
Here is a slightly different sub package blitz from Week 1, which forced an incompletion on 3rd and 8. Tennessee has 11 personnel on the field with a tight trips formation to the right and a single receiver split left. Kansas City is in a sub package with six defensive backs on the field, plus two down linemen and two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage. They have another linebacker and Husain Abdullah, a defensive back, shallow in the backfield showing double A gap blitz. Here is that initial look from the Chiefs.
Kansas City then walks safety Eric Berry up three yards off the line of scrimmage, over right tackle.
Berry comes on the blitz and his pressure forces the quick throw and the incompletion, as shown in the end zone angle.
The sideline angle tells a bigger picture. Even though they blitz both A gaps and send Berry as well, Kansas City only rushes five; dropping both outside linebackers into coverage. Since the Titans keep the running back in to block, they have six bodies to block five. They fail to recognize the blitz from Berry, and he comes in untouched towards Locker.
New England will need to do a better job in blitz recognition than Tennessee does here, and that begins with the quarterback position.
Finally, we have previously outlined a weakness in the Patriots’ pass protection on play-action plays, specifically when they try to have a pulling lineman block the defensive end backside. If the coaching staff still has not burned those pages of the playbook, here is a look into the future. On this play from Week 2 the Broncos have the lead and the ball late in the 3rd quarter, but face a 1st and 25 situation. They have 12 personnel on the field, with a wing formation to the right and a slot to the left. Kansas City is in their base 3-4. The Broncos fake a counter play to the left side. Manning tries to come out of the fake and throw but he immediately has to take it to the ground to protect the ball.
The Broncos pull both right guard Louis Vasquez and tight end Jacob Tamme backside to help in protection. Vazquez is quickly beaten by outside linebacker Tamba Hali. Coming out of the play-action fake Montee Ball tries to help get a block on Hali as well, but the linebacker is too quick and powerful, so Manning plays it safe and goes down. This is very reminiscent of the Week 1 play when Miami’s Cameron Wake beat both Michael Hoomanawanui and Stevan Ridley on play-action and forced a strip sack of Tom Brady that turned the tide of the game.
New England will need to be aware of the various ways Kansas City generates pressure in the passing game on Monday night.
Attacking the Kansas City Cover 3
If the Patriots are able to solidify protection and keep a clean pocket for Brady, the signal caller should be able to find holes in the Chiefs’ Cover 3. As outlined in Dave Archibald’s great piece on coverages, Cover 3 is a scheme in which both cornerbacks and the free safety drop into deep thirds.
(Diagram Courtesy of Jessica Bell)
There are a number of weak spots in Cover 3, primarily on intermediate routes in front of the two outside cornerbacks. Here is one way the Titans were able to attack that area of the field. Tennessee has 21 personnel on the field and puts their two receivers in a slot to the left. Kansas City is in their base 3-4, showing Cover 3 in the secondary. The outside receiver runs a go route and the cornerback stays on that route. The slot receiver, Nate Washington, runs a deep out occupying that intermediate area vacated by the cornerback. Berry, the free safety, cannot get there in time to prevent a completion and a 19 yard gain.
Another vulnerable area of the Cover 3 is in the short flat, especially to the backside. As indicated in the above diagram, the strong-side short flat zone is typically covered by a strong safety while a linebacker typically covers that same zone on the weak side. Teams can design routes that attack this weak side flat by getting the ball to a playmaker in that area while matched up with a weaker coverage player.
Watch the Broncos use this concept here. On 2nd and 6 they have Manning in the shotgun and a mirrored formation with a tight end and wide receiver to each side using 12 personnel. Kansas City is in their base 3-4 and they show Cover 3 in the secondary. The two cornerbacks are each 10 yards off the ball and the free safety is nearly 20 yards deep. They have identified the right side of the Broncos’ formation as the strong side and shade their strong safety in that direction (at the top of the screen.)
Watch the routes the receivers run on this play: All four of them run a five yard out.
This is a very simple pattern, a play you are more likely to see on Friday nights than Sunday afternoons. Manning’s read is based on identifying the weak side in the Cover 3 and throwing to the corresponding outside out route. Emmanuel Sanders is open in that short flat zone to the weak-side and Manning gets him the ball for an easy six yard gain.
One final facet of this play gets back to the strategy of having a less capable coverage player in that weak-side zone. Manning’s throw is made easier by the failure of rookie Dee Ford, the outside linebacker on the weak-side, to get into his zone. Instead the rookie chooses to cover Tamme off the line of scrimmage, expanding the throwing window for Manning. The coverage is run much better to the strong side, as both the linebacker and the strong safety work to their assigned zones. By looking weak-side, you have a less skilled coverage player to pick on, who might make a mistake like Ford does, simplifying the throw.
Kansas City’s defense through the first two weeks of the season looks to generate pressure in the interior and on the edges, blitzing on occasion up the middle. Their secondary favors a Cover 3 approach, looking to keep plays in front of them and minimize the possibility of deep plays down the field. If New England can contain their pressure game and exploit the weaknesses in their Cover 3 scheme, Brady and the receivers will enjoy a very successful appearance on Monday Night Football.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.