New England travels to Kansas City for their first nationally-televised game of the season. Following losses against Tennessee and Denver, the Chiefs rebounded with a 34-15 win last Sunday in Miami. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton leads a fast, attacking unit with tremendous talent in the front seven. Kansas City uses a 3-4 as their base defense, but they deploy various sub packages depending on the situation. The defense has lost two players for the season to Achilles tendon injuries, defensive end Mike DeVito and linebacker Derrick Johnson, and safety Eric Berry is battling a high ankle sprain. The ability of this group to generate pressure in the interior and on the edges is cause for concern heading into Monday night.
The Defensive Line
Nose Tackle – Dontari Poe (#92)
At the heart of the defense stands this imposing nose tackle and freak of nature. At the 2012 NFL Combine he measured 6’3” and 346 pounds, but ran a 4.98-second 40-yard dash and logged a 29-inch vertical leap. The third-year player from Memphis was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2013, and it will not be his last.
We illustrated how Poe can generate pass pressure in the interior in This Week in Passing, and he is just as troublesome against the run. In this example, the Chiefs’ defense is in a sub package with Poe lined up over Tennessee’s right guard. The Titans give Dexter McCluster the ball heading to the left side, away from the nose tackle.
Watch how Poe works down the line of scrimmage, tracking down the ball carrier and making the tackle, holding him to a minimal gain. Poe has both the strength to handle the right tackle and the agility to flow to the hole and make a fine defensive stop. Sutton relies on Dontari against the pass and the run, leaving him on the field when the Chiefs bring on a sub package. The interior of the Patriot offensive line must contain this player on Monday night.
Defensive Tackle – Allen Bailey (#97)
Bailey is the other defensive lineman that Sutton keeps in for sub packages. In his third pro season, the former Miami Hurricane is a disruptive force for the Chiefs. We previously highlighted his work creating penetration in This Week in Passing, but Allen also excels in run defense. On this play, the Titans attempt a power lead play in the red zone. Bailey is lined up across the left tackle, 10-year veteran Michael Roos. In another “whoa” moment, watch how the defensive tackle uses pure strength against Roos, nearly lifting him off the ground and into the ball carrier to make the stop.
Sutton often uses Bailey on defensive stunts to take advantage of the player’s quickness. Here, the tackle is lined up over Miami’s left guard. Off the snap he angles behind the nose tackle into a different gap, engulfing the Tennessee running back for a three-yard loss.
One facet of this play ‒ Bailey’s pre-snap alignment ‒ will be of particular importance to the Patriots. He cheats back from the line of scrimmage, which allows him an easier path. This shot from the sideline camera illustrates his depth.
If Bailey continues to adjust his positioning prior to a stunt, New England must identify his altered alignment and use it to their advantage on Monday.
Defensive Tackle – Vance Walker (#99)
This Georgia Tech product is the weakest of Kansas City’s three starting defensive linemen and is removed when the Chiefs use a sub grouping. However, he is nonetheless a solid player and a very hard worker. Against the Dolphins last Sunday, Walker made a play downfield on a screen, covering a lot of distance to make the tackle after a gain of seven yards. Walker is another big body up front for Sutton, standing 6’2” and weighing in at 305 pounds.
Right Outside Linebacker – Tamba Hali (#91)
No stranger to NFL fans, the former Penn State Nittany Lion recorded his third season with double-digit sacks in 2013. Hali is an extremely fast player on the edge and Nate Solder will have his hands full blocking the linebacker on Monday night. Here, he lines up wide outside the Titans’ Michael Roos on a 2nd-down play. Tennessee has Roos try to block Hali with the assistance of a chip from the running back.
Hali uses speed and strength to avoid both blockers, and forces Jake Locker out of the pocket. That combination of physical talents poses a major threat to the New England passing game.
Left Outside Linebacker – Justin Houston (#50)
Houston mans the edge opposite from Hali, and while he benefits from the attention paid to his teammate he is a very solid player in his own right. The linebacker is in his fourth NFL season following a career at the University of Georgia and has been a starter for Kansas City since early in his rookie season. Hali and Houston work in tandem to create havoc on the edges. Returning to the previous play, watch the right side. Houston is in a three-point stance and off the snap he works upfield very quickly. When Hali forces Locker out of the pocket, he cannot roll to his right because Houston is in his face. This forces the quarterback to his left, away from the flow of the play. Locker has no choice but to tuck the ball and scramble for a minimal gain.
Right Inside Linebacker – James-Michael Johnson (#52)
When Sutton does blitz a linebacker, Johnson is the player whose number is usually called. With 11 tackles to his name already, the University of Nevada alum is a reason for trepidation on the part of the Patriots’ interior line.
On this play against the Titans, Sutton sends Johnson on an A gap blitz. The player does a good job before the snap, staying in a normal position and avoiding any tells. As the play starts, he explodes through the line and is in the backfield immediately.
The running back does a decent job of picking up the blitzer, but the linebacker has penetrated deep into the pocket. The impact between blocker and blitzer knocks the running back into his own quarterback and the downfield pass is underthrown. This blitz is successful even without sacking Locker as it causes a poor throw.
Left Inside Linebacker – Josh Mauga (#90)
A college teammate of Justin Houston at Georgia, Mauga is in his fifth NFL season and his first with the Chiefs. He sat out 2013 with a back injury but battled back to earn a starting spot under Sutton. Through their first three games his 19 tackles lead the team, with 18 of them solo takedowns. He is a solid player against the run and excels in underneath zone coverage.
From his right inside linebacker position, Mauga drops into his zone and does an excellent job of identifying the underneath crossing route. He times his tackle quickly and holds wide receiver Brandon Gibson to a minimal gain with no yards after the catch.
If Sutton’s unit has a weakness, it is in the secondary. Aside from safety Eric Berry, the group is effective but not an advantage for the Chiefs. This is likely the reason Kansas City uses a lot of Cover 3 in the defensive backfield, seeking to minimize big plays downfield.
Left Cornerback – Marcus Cooper (#31)
Of the two cornerbacks, the second-year player from Rutgers is the stronger in man-to-man coverage. Because Cooper is a bigger defensive back at 6’2” and 192 pounds, he does not give up much against the league’s bigger wide receivers. Here he is matched up with Demaryius Thomas in Denver.
Thomas is split wide to the right and runs a short hitch route. Cooper is very physical on this play, using his hands to jam Thomas and then breaking quickly on the throw to knock the ball to the turf. If the Patriots seek to attack Cooper in the passing game, look for New England to use motion and stack formations (video) outside to prevent the cornerback from getting a solid jam on their receivers.
Right Cornerback – Sean Smith (#21)
The veteran from the University of Utah enters his second season in Kansas City following four years with the Dolphins. Against his old team, Smith showed a weakness in man-to-man situations whichTom Brady should look to exploit on Monday night.
Smith is outside on the right, covering Brian Hartline man-to-man. The defender’s first mistake is in failing to get a jam on Hartline off the snap, allowing the receiver a free release downfield. Hartline looks to run an inside route but then makes a cut to the outside on a corner route. As the receiver makes his break Smith loses him, turning his hips awkwardly in the process. Hartline is able to gain separation from the defender and is open for a big play, though Ryan Tannehill chooses instead to throw to another receiver, Mike Wallace, who is uncovered.
Strong Safety – Eric Berry (#29)
The fifth-year player from the University of Tennessee was named a first-team All Pro in 2013, the first Kansas City safety given that honor since Deron Cherry in 1998. Although listed as a strong safety, Sutton has used the player as a free safety on the majority of his plays in 2014. Even when aligned in the deep middle, Berry comes up quickly and makes plays in run support.
Despite standing 12 yards from the line of scrimmage, the safety quickly recognizes both the run play and the available cutback lane. Berry speedily closes down on the ball carrier and holds this to an eight-yard gain.
He can also cover a lot of territory from the deep middle alignment, as he does on this wide receiver screen from Week 1 against the Titans.
Berry suffered a high ankle sprain against the Broncos in Week 2 and missed the Miami game. Should he be unable to play Monday night, Kansas City will start Ron Parker in his place. Parker is a cornerback who looked uncomfortable against the Dolphins playing the deep center fielder role. Returning to the Wallace reception discussed earlier, watch the play from Parker (#38).
Parker is so deep downfield he is not in position to make a play on either receiver, Hartline or Wallace. He compounds the problem with a poor effort in his tackle attempt. If Berry is inactive against New England, Brady and the offense need to attack Parker in the passing game.
Free Safety – Husain Abdullah (#39)
While listed as a free safety, the former Washington State Cougar plays closer to the line of scrimmage in more of a strong safety role. Though a capable player against the pass, from his position near the line of scrimmage, Abdullah performs a pivotal role for Kansas City against the run. Here the safety cheats inside the box prior to the snap and diagnoses the Denver stretch run to the left. The defensive back scrapes off his blocker well and holds Montee Ball to a short gain.
The defender is also a force in run support even when aligned in a more traditional safety position. In this example Abdullah is nearly 15 yards removed from the line of scrimmage in the Chiefs’ Cover 2. The Broncos run a stretch play to the left, but the safety flies up to make a tackle and hold Ball to a four yard gain.
The secondary is the weak spot in the Kansas City defense, particularly if Berry is unable to go. There will be opportunities to attack through the air, and New England must take advantage of those chances.
Sutton’s defense is strongest up front, and therefore poses an immense challenge for the Patriots. Their three best players are likely Bailey, Hali and Poe, and all three are on the line of scrimmage in Kansas City’s sub package. If New England is going to leave Kansas City with a 3-1 record, the offense will need to control the line of scrimmage and contain defensive pressure. Given their inability to do so against Oakland and Miami, such tasks loom large.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.