The AFC West was expected to be one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, but the surprising emergence of the Kansas City Chiefs as a playoff contender threatens to debunk that notion. The Chiefs have dispatched a pair of opponents in impressive fashion, showcasing a team that is efficient and effective on both sides of the ball.
With a tantalizing matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles on NFL Network's "Thursday Night Football" coming up, I decided to examine the Chiefs' fast sprint out of the gates. Here are three keys:
1) The marriage between Andy Reid and Alex Smith is off to a great start.
It wasn't a surprise when Reid, shortly after his arrival in Kansas City, aggressively pursued Smith to be his starting signal-caller. The Chiefs' new head coach is one of the most prolific developers of quarterback talent in the business, helping a host of players achieve success in his system, including Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Jeff Garcia, A.J. Feeley, Koy Detmer and Kevin Kolb. And Reid admits that he's long had eyes for Smith.
Smith struggled to get his career off the ground after being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, but the veteran signal-caller came into his own over the past two seasons, experiencing fantastic improvement in his passer rating. Additionally, Smith mastered the art of playing winning football, guiding the San Francisco 49ers to a 19-5-1 record in his two years under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh. Although Smith was unable to reclaim his starting job after a concussion forced him off the field and allowed for the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, the veteran apparently displayed enough talent, moxie and leadership skills to make Reid want to pounce.
From a schematic standpoint, adding Smith was completely sensible, based on his exceptional football IQ, athleticism and game-management ability. He understands how to orchestrate the game from the line, and he also possesses the dual-threat skills to operate efficiently in a scheme that is deeply rooted in West Coast Offense concepts. Smith promptly gets the ball out of his hands on quick-rhythm throws, but he also has the ability to efficiently work through progressions, routinely hitting a second or third option. This allows Smith to exploit the inability of opposing defenses to cover every receiver, particularly the check-down or safety valve near the line of scrimmage. Additionally, he is a crafty runner with better speed, quickness and running skills than many defenders expect. Thus, he can pick up yardage when the play breaks down -- or he can surprise defenders with designed quarterback runs.
Another thing Reid loves about Smith is the veteran QB's superb efficiency in the red zone. Smith was one of the best red-zone performers in the NFL prior to being injured a year ago, and he remains stellar with his decisions inside the 20-yard line. Reviewing the Chiefs' red-zone action so far in this young season, Smith's quick decision making and pinpoint ball placement have been crucial to Kansas City's success. He routinely puts the ball in spots where only his guy can catch it, or he simply throws it away to avoid a negative result. Little things? Sure. But the little things often make all the difference down the stretch.
In the screengrab below, taken from Kansas City's Week 1 shellacking of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Chiefs break the huddle in an empty formation, with three receivers to the left. Junior Hemingway is aligned closest to the offensive line, with Dwayne Bowe positioned just outside of him in the slot. On the snap, Bowe will come underneath Hemingway on a shallow crossing route. Hemingway will run a bender to the back of the end zone:
Smith simply must read the reaction of Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. When Posluszny jumps Bowe's crossing route, the linebacker leaves open space for Hemingway to exploit:
The result is Hemingway's first career touchdown.
Notice the ball placement on the video replay. Quarterbacks are taught to throw end-line passes high and away from defenders, to avoid interceptions in traffic. As you can see, Smith delivers an absolute strike.
In the next screengrab, taken from the Chiefs' Week 2 win over the Dallas Cowboys, the offense is aligned in a trey formation, with Bowe positioned to the far right. The team is running a Y-stick nod concept, with Bowe executing a delayed drag underneath the tight end. Once again, Smith is instructed to read the reaction of the middle linebacker (Sean Lee) to determine where to go with the ball:
When Lee aggressively jumps the stick route, Smith immediately looks for Bowe on the drag:
2) Bob Sutton is building a defensive bully.
When Reid announced Sutton as the Chiefs' defensive coordinator in January, it didn't elicit a strong response from Kansas City fans. But those within the NFL community viewed the move as a brilliant one, based on Sutton's esteemed reputation as a defensive assistant. The long-time coaching veteran served a variety of roles during a 13-year tenure with the New York Jets -- including a stint as defensive coordinator (2006-08) -- while earning respect within coaching circles for his sharp mind and attention to detail. Additionally, his experience coaching Rex Ryan's multi-faceted, hybrid 3-4 defense has proven extremely valuable in Kansas City, as the scheme ideally suits the ultra-talented defensive personnel on the Chiefs' current roster.
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Watching the All-22 Coaches Film of the Chiefs' defensive domination in the season's first two weeks, it is apparent that, in addition to molding the scheme around the talents of his top players, Sutton is utilizing some of Ryan's innovative tactics to pressure quarterbacks -- mentally and physically. The Chiefs have used a variety of sub-packages, exotic blitzes and cleverly simulated pressures to confuse quarterbacks in the pre-snap phase. With defenders flying around from random positions after the snap, opposing quarterbacks have been indecisive with the ball in their hands. Also, constant movement and random pressure have prevented opponents from effectively running the ball, due to the indecision these tactics cause at the point of attack among blockers. Without sufficient room to run between the tackles, opponents are averaging just 2.8 yards per rushing attempt, a big reason that the Chiefs enter Week 3 with the No. 3 overall defense in football.
While I'm certainly impressed with Sutton's creative play design, his ability to put his guys in the best position for success really stands out to me on tape. This has allowed him to build a defense that is stout down the middle and disruptive on the edges. Let's focus on a few key players:
After a disappointing rookie season following his selection as the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Poe was considered a "workout warrior" who would fail to live up to his lofty draft status. However, Sutton has found a way to really get Poe going in Year 2. He already has notched 3.5 sacks while consistently creating disruption at the point of attack, thanks to a remarkable combination of size, strength and short-area quickness. Opponents have been unable to slow him down from his nose tackle alignment, thus eliminating the inside running game and spawning immediate pressure on the quarterback up the gut.
In the screengrab below, Poe is prepared to straight bull-rush as part of a three-man rush, with eight defenders dropping into coverage:
What's unique about the Chiefs' setup here is that their personnel package includes two defensive linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs. While most teams wouldn't be able to generate an effective rush with just two big bodies on the field, the pure strength and power of Poe nets the Chiefs a sack.
In the following screengrab, Poe is aligned at nose tackle as part of a three-man line. On the snap, the Chiefs will bring a simulated pressure (four-man rush), with the nickel hitting the B-gap:
Poe quickly defeats his blocker with an arm-over move and destroys the pocket on his way to sacking Tony Romo for a 7-yard loss:
Johnson has quietly emerged as one of the top linebackers in the NFL over the past few years. He is an instinctive playmaker with a knack for slipping blocks on the way to the ball. Johnson has led Kansas City in tackles in each of the past three seasons, and he continues to thrive as a tackling machine in Sutton's scheme. Johnson routinely is positioned behind a shaded defensive tackle, allowing him to roam from sideline to sideline without obstruction. Additionally, he has been featured on a variety of blitzes. Although Sutton's scheming hasn't led directly to a splash play from Johnson, it has kept the Pro Bowler in the mix and allowed others to benefit from his presence.
In the screengrab below, the Chiefs are in an exotic sub-package, with Johnson aligned at middle linebacker. On the snap, he will blitz through the opposite A-gap, with linebacker Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry executing a stunt to that side:
With the offensive line distracted by the constant movement at the line of scrimmage, Johnson is able to shoot through the open gap to harass the quarterback:
Although Johnson doesn't net the sack, Poe and Berry combine to bring down Blaine Gabbert for a 5-yard loss.
JUSTIN HOUSTON and TAMBA HALI
The Chiefs have a pair of athletic pass rushers (Houston and Hali) who strike fear in opponents with their collective combination of speed, quickness and burst. Houston, a third-year pro, is coming off a 10-sack season in which he displayed immense potential as an edge rusher. He is a natural "bend and burst" pursuer who has the acceleration to hunt quarterbacks down from the backside. Hali, an eighth-year pro with 62.5 career sacks and 23 forced fumbles, has been terrorizing opponents off the edge since his arrival as the 20th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. He is a high-motor rusher who is nearly impossible to block off the edge in one-on-one situations. Sutton has taken advantage of both players' skills with a variety of exotic sub-packages that provide them with favorable matchups on the line. Few opponents have a pair of bookend tackles capable of snuffing out both guys, meaning the Chiefs have the ability to constantly harass opposing quarterbacks.
Berry is the new prototype at the safety position, combining the size, speed and athleticism of a cornerback with the aggressive mentality of a linebacker. He is a fearless enforcer between the hashes, which makes him a valued asset in the middle of the field. Sutton has tapped into Berry's versatility by using him in coverage on dynamic tight ends (he held the Cowboys' Jason Witten to three grabs for 12 yards) or slot receivers while also featuring him selectively on pressures from the second level. Berry's ability to function as a Swiss army knife in the back end forces opponents to account for his whereabouts at all times, creating play-making opportunities for teammates.
3) Reid has the Chiefs playing winning football.
One of the overlooked aspects of coaching is successfully teaching young players how to pay attention to the details -- on and off the field. It's hard to get first- and second-year guys to understand the small margin for error in the NFL. While every coach preaches ball security, emphasizes execution and demands accountability, Reid truly has his team adhering to a winning formula. The Chiefs currently enjoy a plus-four advantage in the turnover battle, rank eighth in rushing yards per game and sport a perfect red-zone efficiency rating (6-for-6). Additionally, the team has kept penalties to a minimum (16 for 65 total yards), playing mistake-free football for the most part.
Now, the Chiefs certainly can improve upon their third-down conversion rate (32.1 percent) and become more explosive on offense. But the fact that they have eliminated the self-inflicted wounds that plagued their 2012 season is a testament to Reid's coaching.