Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
— The only choice for Defensive Player of the Year.
But first, a look at the Chiefs‘ immense improvement in a crucial area …
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The Kansas City Chiefs were on the verge of taking over the AFC last season on the strength of a video game offense that lit up scoreboards with a young, generational talent at the controls. But although Patrick Mahomes gave Andy Reid a cheat code that enabled K.C. to drop 30-plus points on even the league’s stingiest defenses, the Chiefs‘ underachieving D kept the squad from reaching Super Bowl Sunday.
Fast-forward to 2019, though, and the Chiefs suddenly boast a defense to match their potent offense. Don’t believe me, skeptics? Just take a quick look at the numbers. Kansas City is holding opponents to averages of 19.1 points, 348.5 total yards and 219.0 passing yards per game this season. Those figures are way down from last year’s marks: 26.3 ppg, 405.5 ypg and 273.4 pass ypg. Most importantly, the Chiefs are winning on third down, allowing conversions just 35.8 percent of the time. This makes life difficult on opposing quarterbacks, as evidenced by the 80.9 overall passer rating allowed. The Chiefs also struggled in these two areas in 2018 (41.5 percent on third down, 92.7 overall passer rating allowed), and this year’s drastic improvement has given the team a legitimate chance of toppling the heavyweights on the way to a title.
When building a defense to complement a high-scoring offense, the D doesn’t need to rank among the top 10 in yards allowed, but it does need to excel in critical situations, specifically on third down and in the red zone. Given how explosive K.C.’s offense is — and how consistently Mahomes and Co. put points on the board — the Chiefs are routinely playing teams forced to chase points, which means more throwing and risk-taking from opposing quarterbacks.
With that in mind, the Chiefs need to be able to harass the quarterback and blanket receivers on the outside. If they’re successful knocking the QB around and getting him off of his preferred spot in the pocket, the Chiefs will force errant throws from uncomfortable quarterbacks, leading to interceptions on tips or overthrows.
On the perimeter, Kansas City’s blanket coverage challenges passers to make more tight-window throws to receivers facing harassment on the outside. From the cornerbacks utilizing bump-and-run technique (thus forcing receivers to fight for receptions and yards) to the safeties squatting on routes between the hashes, the Chiefs want to force opponents to work for their rewards in the passing game.
“When you’re building a defense that’s designed to play with a lead, you need to have multiple pass rushers and some playmakers in the secondary,” a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. “The Chiefs‘ offense puts up points in bunches, so you’re going to face more one-dimensional offenses trying to chase points. With a couple of disruptive players at the line of scrimmage and a few ballhawks, you can play good situational football and win games by winning third-down and red-zone situations, and the turnover battle. If you do those things, you will win a ton of games.”
Studying their personnel acquisitions over the past year, the team has upgraded its pass rush with DE Frank Clark joining DT Chris Jones along a re-tooled defensive front that features a four-man look after years of operating in a 3-4 system. The recent addition of Terrell Suggs gives the unit a veteran pass rusher to utilize as a designated playmaker down the stretch. The combination of legitimate inside (Jones) and outside (Clark) pressure presences has enabled the Chiefs to ramp up the pressure on opponents down the stretch. Jones’ eight sacks and 18 QB hits rank among the top five of interior defenders, and his 23.5 sacks and 47 QB hits since 2018 put him behind only Aaron Donald in this grouping. Clark leads the team with 11 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles to go with seven sacks and 11 QB hits. He’s one of only 10 players with at least seven sacks in each of his last four seasons, and that persistent threat makes him a thorn in the side of opponents far and wide.
In the defensive backfield, Tyrann Mathieu has been a spectacular addition as a playmaker in the middle of Kansas City’s defense. He’s been a Swiss Army Knife for the Chiefs as a safety/slot defender, routinely exhibiting the trademark instincts and awareness that have earned him All-Pro honors in the past. With 68 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions on the season, he’s been a significant upgrade over Eric Berry and given the team a fine leader and communicator in the back end. Also, the Chiefs struck gold on second-round pick Juan Thornhill, a center fielder with a terrific combination of instincts and ball skills. The rookie standout has excelled at free safety after playing multiple spots in the defensive backfield at Virginia. Thornhill has snagged three interceptions while exhibiting outstanding range and anticipation. He has a keen understanding of route concepts and his ability to set traps for the quarterback has solidified a vastly improved secondary.
From a scheme standpoint, first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo utilizes multiple fronts and personnel groupings to create chaos at the line of scrimmage. He will employ a variety of overload pressures and Cover 0 blitzes to complement traditional zone coverage with exotic games at the point of attack. This Cheesecake Factory game plan flummoxes opposing quarterbacks, as they try to sort out how the Chiefs are attacking over the course of the game.
The pieces of the puzzle have come together splendidly in recent weeks, with Kansas City holding back-to-back opponents without a touchdown. In addition, the Chiefs have held opposing quarterbacks to a 53.9 percent completion rate over the past five weeks, thanks in part to the unit’s improved play on deep balls. Reid’s troops are allowing just a 25.5 percent completion rate on downfield passes (10-plus air yards), with opposing QBs averaging 5.9 yards per attempt on such throws while posting a 1:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 18.7 passer rating. Those numbers lead the NFL by a wide margin over that span and highlight the improvement made by a unit that could push this team over the top in a title run.
With a defense that’s beginning to play like a top-five unit, Kansas City is rounding into form as a legitimate title contender.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Why Chandler Jones MUST win Defensive Player of the Year. If you haven’t been paying close attention to the Arizona Cardinals this season, you probably don’t realize Chandler Jones has taken the crown as the NFL’s top defender. You might be conditioned to spit out the name Aaron Donald or Stephon Gilmore as the leading DPOY candidate. Those are great players who deserve recognition, but I’m here to tell you that handing the award to anyone other than Jones would be a travesty based on how No. 55 has dominated opponents in 2019.
The eighth-year veteran is on the verge of becoming the seventh player to lead the NFL in both sacks (19.5) and forced fumbles (8). He also has an outside chance to break the single-season sack record (22.5, Michael Strahan). Eclipsing Strahan’s mark would certainly put him on the Mount Rushmore of pass rushers over the past decade. I know that statement might raise some eyebrows in the football world, but Jones’ 60 sacks over the past four seasons lead the NFL. No one else has more than 52 in that span.
Let that marinate for a bit.
Jones is the NFL’s most disruptive defender this season, and he’s been a dominant force off the edge since migrating to the desert after being traded from the New England Patriots for a second-round pick and Jonathan Cooper in 2016. The edge rusher made a Pro Bowl during his time with the Patriots, but he has taken his game from good to great since joining the Cardinals, as evidenced by his four-year sack totals in New England and Arizona (36 with the Pats vs. 60 with the Cardinals).
The Cardinals‘ aggressive blitz tactics might help him get more one-on-one sack opportunities, but the 6-foot-5, 255-pound edge defender has the first-step quickness, balance, body control and closing pursuit to overwhelm blockers at the line of scrimmage. Moreover, Jones is a crafty technician with karate-like combat skills and quick hands to separate from clutches and grabs. He’s one of the rare pass rushers who has the capacity to win with power or finesse moves off the edge, which keeps offensive tackles on skates when they’re attempting to slow him down in passing situations.
I know it might be hard for some folks to wrap their brains around the notion of the league’s best defender playing for a sub-.500 team on a unit that ranks near the bottom of the charts, but the Defensive Player of the Year award should go to the most disruptive force in the game. Jones is that player in 2019, and handing the award to anyone else would be an injustice.
2) Packers built to succeed without peak Aaron Rodgers. Longtime fans of the Green Bay Packers have grown accustomed to watching their team overwhelm opponents behind an offense that obliterates foes like heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder. Just like Wilder sends opponents stumbling to the canvas with a barrage of haymakers, the Packers have routinely delivered spectacular knockouts behind a high-powered attack with Aaron Rodgers at the helm.
However, this season under first-time head coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers‘ offense has become more of a counter-puncher than a knockout artist. The good news for Green Bay: This version of the team might be better suited to go on a Super Bowl run than the ones that came up short in recent years.
LaFleur has placed a greater emphasis on complementary football with a more balanced offense supporting an opportunistic defense and a solid special teams unit. The more run-friendly offense lacks the pizzazz of the previous units, but it enables the Packers to adopt a ball-control style to pair with a stingy defense that’s peaking down the stretch.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on looking pretty or dominating in the way that befits your explanation,” Rodgers told reporters after the team’s Monday night win over the Vikings. “But it doesn’t matter how we get it done as long as we get it done.”
To that point, the Packers have been able to win 12 games and clinch the NFC North title without Rodgers being at the top of his game. While he has a league-best 24:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season, No. 12 has posted a 63.4 percent completion rate (18th in the NFL) while averaging 245.3 pass yards per game (16th) and owning a 97.9 passer rating (11th). Rodgers has gone seven straight games without reaching 250 pass yards, including three straight games with fewer than 225.
Those numbers not only fail to meet the standard established by the two-time MVP but they also reveal a quarterback who isn’t producing like a top-10 player at his position.
Yet, the team is one win away from finishing with its best record since 2011 (Rodgers’ first MVP campaign) with the offense scoring fewer points per game than it has averaged over the previous seven seasons (23.5 compared to 25.3) and the QB failing to match his average pass production (245.3 compared to 266.4 pass yards from 2012-18) and passer rating (97.9 compared to 102.5 from 2012-18).
Why are the Packers playing their best football in years without Rodgers performing at his best? It’s really simple. Aaron Jones is emerging as a premier playmaker (1,415 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns) and the defense is playing lights out. The Packers have the ninth-ranked scoring defense (19.5 points per game) and they’ve held their last four opponents to fewer than 16 points.
With the defense and running game thriving, Green Bay has been able to win with Rodgers acting more like a game manager than the offense’s primary playmaker.
“I’ve always just tried to do what the team needed,” Rodgers said. “There have been times over the years when I needed to do some of those things I’ve done over the years. This year, it’s different, based on the personnel we have and the scheme that we’re running. I’m trying to be opportunistic, but we’ve got a pretty good run game going.”
Now, the Packers will still bring knockout power into the playoffs, with Rodgers capable of delivering a vintage performance at any moment. The eight-time Pro Bowler can put up a 300-yard game against any defense if he gets into an early rhythm, and that possibility should make observers pause before dismissing the Packers‘ chances due to a 2019 resume that isn’t brimming with signature wins.
“If Rodgers gets hot, we’ll take our chances against anybody,” a Packers executive recently told me. “It doesn’t matter who we play or where we play them. If No. 12 gets it going, we can beat them all.”
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.