Dec 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs free safety Kendrick Lewis (23) loses his helmet after nearly intercepting a pass against the Oakland Raiders in the second quarter at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs Pass Rush vs. Pass Coverage Conundrum

There are few things more important this offseason for the Chiefs than trying to figure out why the Chiefs defense collapsed in the second half of the season. Was it the Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers? Was it the secondary? Was it the injury to Justin Houston? There are a lot of combinations of potential reasons why the Chiefs went from having a dominate defense to a very shaky one.

This is a question I am going to try to figure out an answer for over the course of the offseason, as it is probably the most important question for the Chiefs to figure out between now and September. Obviously, this isn’t something which can be answered in one blog post, so it is going to be a lengthy period of discussion, research, and evaluation before some kind of serious answer is formulated.

However, I do have something I think is interesting to share with you right now.

Pro Football Focus posts individual grades for each individual player in every game during the season. They are really well respected for their ability to grade individual performances over the course of a season. Are they perfect? No. Are they the end all, be all of NFL analysis? No. But they are an immensely useful tool in getting an unbiased look at the individual performance of a player, unit, or team.

With this in mind, I went back and looked at the break down of what PFF graded the pass coverage and pass rush between weeks one and sixteen (I did not include week 17 because the Chiefs primarily used backups in the season finale). What I found was interesting as it relates to the correlation between a good pass rush and good coverage. Here are a few notes to consider.

- Kansas City had seven positive pass rush grades from week one through week eight, but only one positive pass rush grade from week nine to week sixteen.

- From week thirteen to week sixteen – a span of games which includes the home Denver game and the Indianapolis game – the Chiefs had a cumulative -14.2 pass rushing grade and +5.2 pass coverage grade. If you do not include the Denver game, Kansas City’s cumulative pass coverage grade was +13.7.

- The only positive pass rushing grade the Chiefs had after week eight was against San Diego at Arrowhead. KC posted a +3.4 pass rush grade for the game. However, +2.9 of that grade came from Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, both of whom ended up getting hurt in the first half and missed the remainder for of the game. Their replacements, Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo, combine for a -2.9 pass rushing grade.

- From weeks one to sixteen, Kansas City had five games were they had a negative pass coverage grade. Their total pass coverage grade was +19.6 in that span.

- KC’s pass coverage in the two games against Denver and the one against San Diego accumulated a -28 grade.  The Chiefs had a cumulative +43.6 pass coverage grade in the other 13 games.  It should be noted that a +43.6 coverage grade would rank second in the NFL behind the Seattle Seahawks. KC ended up finishing seventh in the NFL in cumulative pass coverage.

- In the playoff game against Indianapolis, the Chiefs combined for a -5.4 pass coverage grade. Dunta Robinson and Kendrick Lewis had a combined grade of -6.4, while Brandon Flowers, Marcus Cooper, and Sean Smith combined for a +1.4 grade.

Now, there is a lot more digging which needs to happen to fully understand what PFF’s grades are telling us about the Chiefs defense, but it is interesting the Chiefs pass coverage graded out as being more consistent than the pass rush. It is also interesting, when looking at the grades on a game-by-game basis, how a very high or very low pass rushing grade does not effect the pass coverage grade very much. The same is true of a very high or low pass coverage grade compared to the pass rushing grade.

Kansas City’s pass rush disappeared after week eight, minus the first half of the home game against San Diego. It wasn’t just a Justin Houston getting hurt problem for the declining pass rush, it was an issue which was building in the weeks before his injury.

The early numbers do indicate our dislike for Kendrick Lewis is valid, so do not feel bad about not wanting the Chiefs to re-sign him.

There is a lot more to come of this subject, but early indications seem to be the Chiefs pass rushing problems of the second half may be more problematic than the pass coverage.

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  • Chris Tarrants

    Well Hali is getting old, Houston was dinged up, and Poe was getting double teamed. If Jackson or Devito could actually get a solid rush then maybe it would have slowed down the double teams and also rattled a few more QB’s. I really, really, really hate to say this but a defensive lineman in the first round might help emencely. There are so many fish to fry when it comes to this team and Sorsey is really going to have to earn his money to get this all fixed this offseason. While watching his interviews, he seems confidant that he will get it done. He either has a game plan or is a really big bullshitter

  • berttheclock

    The Chiefs play hybrids of the 3-4. Seattle uses a hybrid 4-3. KC had 47 sacks, whereas, Seattle had 44. But, the difference was in which position caused the most sacks for each defense. With the Chiefs, it came from the LBs, while, in Seattle, the defensive ends created the most disruption to QBs. Early in the season, the Chiefs had healthy LBs, especially, Hali and Houston, so, the front 3 set up lanes for them. Once, both were injured, the pass rush dropped off dramatically. However, notice in the Super Bowl, who really disrupted Manning. It was the two defensive ends, especially, Avril. I have argued for a better pass rusher for the Chiefs on the front three, but, if Sutton is going to continue his defensive schemes, the Chiefs might be better off picking up another LB who can rush. Nico Johnson was drafted, last season, but, he really is only effective in run defense as he lacks speed. So, perhaps, the emphasis should be on finding another LB with speed to rush. Maybe, in the lower rounds, the little known LB from South Dakota, Tyler Starr, might be the answer.

  • tomflex

    One of the reasons I feel the pass rush took a nose dive (here is my conspiracy theory)…I think the word came down from on high that certain QB’s were too important to the NFL’s potential playoff pie to risk injury….so….
    officials were issued blinders when it came to holding (mauling). Hali and Houston were getting dragged to the ground right in front of officials and getting no calls…it was incredibly obvious. All we got for our effort was injuries to our best pass rushers. Everyone keeps asking why the pass rush fell off….really?

    • berttheclock

      Is the NFL behind the times of many police departments across the land who eliminated the “choke hold” on suspects?

      • tomflex

        No kidding Bert…There was a time or two when it looked like Tamba’s head was going to get twisted off…

        • berttheclock

          Yeah, it looks as though Howie Long wouldn’t be as productive in the modern NFL. Remember how he developed a method to make it appear the offensive lineman’s arm was wrapped around his neck and he would be looking at the ref with his arms flailing while, he was gagging. After the flag, those offensive linemen would whine to the refs, “He started it”.

    • T.Hagen

      Definitely, the donkey’s were getting away with massive holding. That has to be climbing a uphill battle when the refs allow that crap. The donkey’s were the NFL darlings, so let’s protect the egg until the big game.

    • antony555

      Obviously sometime we would like to believe conspiracy theories, but the reality of the matter, and the author stated it in the blog.
      Now if are secondary did not suffer as much as it appeared due to a fall off of the pass rush, the. way our two best pass rushers fell off was not a result of them being shut down, but rather a change of the game plan per Sutton

      Does anyone else remember the excuses after the fall when there were weeks without a sack and hardly a hurry.
      It was stated you can’t pin your ears back every game but on the other hand giving up the pass rush all together and dropping more dB’s back in coverage is not the answers either.
      Actually playing Denver with the offensive line put together in pieces, and Peyton was completely clean, some way their game plan neutralized our pass rush all together first game after the bye.
      How in the world did we go from one of the top pass rushing units to 9th in the league with three unstoppable players, inside pass rush with Poe and the bookends.
      Coach Sutton lost confidence in the installed packages even before the injuries and with a solid pass rush you cannot tell me it doesn’t help the backers and the dB’s.
      Case in point the Colts and the broncos games, one pass rusher being Robert Mathis singlehanded terrorized Manning and caused the fumble by Alex Smith that changed the game.
      Solution: don’t change the play book in the middle of the season.
      Seattle did the same thing in the Superbowl , key no pass rush and I don’t care who the dB’s are and as good as hali is if he can’t play for sixty minutes and there is no one even remotely close to what he brings its time to hit the draft board and trade him and bring in someone who can drop back in coverage, and be that unstoppable pass rusher with a backup that excels as a pass rusher as well.

  • micah stephenson

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! And thank God! I been saying this the whole time, and I quote “if you can’t get after the QB it doesn’t matter who the DBs are” Thanks for taking the time to look up all the stats. In the 1st 9 game we had 35 sacks in the last 7 hardly any at all except the Redskins game. In the 1st 9 game the secondary was consinder awesome. The last 7 games they were considered suck! there is a direct correlation between rush pass and the pass coverage. No pass rush = DBs not being able to hold the wrs all day long. How does a long play develope unless the QB is givin all day? Our pass rush and the depth needs fixing MORE than the secondary.

  • micah stephenson

    Your word has more merit than mine. I’m glad you wrote this. We need more pass rush. Yea K.Lewis ain’t all that, but the secondary is solid. Replace Lewis, play Berry back in zone coverage, and get more pass rushers and this D will b the best in the NFL.

    • KCMikeG

      Absolutely perfect Micah! That is exactly what we need to do. So how can you get this to Sutton?

  • Stacy D. Smith

    I think the passrushers were also a bit gassed over the second half of the season. This is where quality depth will need to come into play going forward.

  • freshmeat62

    The first 8 games the Chiefs were in attack mode. Occasionally the QB would get outside and make some yards. I think someone on the coaching staff, either Reid or Sutton, panicked. The 9th game, I noticed it looked like Sutton had called off the dogs, especially Houston, and had him playing more contain of the QB than before. I believe it was the game after the bye week that Houston was hurt, and Zombo, while at times it looked like he may have been trying to put pressure on the QB, just couldn’t do it. When Hali was then hurt, it was just Poe and an occasional blitz for any pressure.

    I wonder if Hali has lost a step. He had so many close calls at getting to the QB, but just missed. It’s time to be watching for his successor.

    The need that stands out right now is FS, but I’m not real concerned about that position though because it’s so obvious, that I’m sure that it will be addressed, and anybody they bring in there will be an improvement. I think the area that will help the team the most is a pressure guy, or 2, on the front 7. W/ Hali, Houston, Poe, DJ, and at least 1 more guy attacking, throw in an occasional blitz, and this could be a dominate defense.

  • KCMikeG

    HOOORAY!! Thanks Ben for taking on this critically important analysis of what ended our season and prevented us from winning the AFCW. I have been calling out in my posts for AA to try to figure it out. I have been back and forth between the pass rush or coverage too. There is no doubt Lewis needs to go as it clear he can’t get the job done. Sad too because he really stepped up when Berry went down with the ACL. It seems like he really never came back 100% after hurting his shoulder. He has been hesitant if not timid, always late to the play and never with a big hit when he got there. I’m with Micah on thinking that with a new SS and Berry back in zone we will be solid. Cooper is so aggressive in tight man coverage that with a pair of safeties that can light up anyone trying to burn him deep it will change the whole story. Flowers changed positions and was never 100% healthy. IMO he will be back and much improved. Smith was actually the most solid defender and fixing the safety issues will only make him better. I have high hopes that Commings and Parker will add the depth we need when we go dime package. Hopefully Demps and Abdullah, who also show potential, will have to fight for a spot.
    Jackson is gone and I would be ok with DeVito leaving too. So I’m on the draft DE or FS with our first two picks bandwagon. For now. Looking forward to more of your in depth analysis. I am surprised that the highs or lows of coverage/pass rush doesn’t have a significant statistical impact on the other. I hear all the time how our pass rush exposed our coverage.

    • berttheclock

      Good points about the defensive backfield, but, as to the Super Bowl, I still remember Avril hitting the arm of Peyton, plus, the other DE putting fear into him, as well. Best friend of any defensive back is to have the QB flat on the ground still trying to hold onto the ball or have the ball knocked out of his hand. With Sutton’s system, the LBs have a far better chance overall of doing that than DEs. That said, should a top pass rushing DE who can play the 3-4 fall to 23, then, snatch him up. But, I would really like to see a fresh pass rushing LB come into the system.

      • KCMikeG

        I think there will be a number of enticing picks available at #23 like DE Tuitt or FS Pryor. OLB Dee Ford would be the piece we were missing when Hali and/or Houston went down. He could rotate in with Hali to keep him fresh and performing at a level to earn his salary. As much as we need help on the defense WR Benjamin and TE Amaro would be hard to pass up though if they are there at #23. It all comes down to Dorsey’s faith in Commings & Kelce being able to fill those spots.

        • DoubleD

          Hageman seems like another good possibility at 23.

          • KCMikeG

            Isn’t he one from Minnesota who stood out at the Senior Bowl? I like DT Jernigan from FSU & Easley from Florida too. Although with an ACL’s first year back and the adaptation to the NFL speed and skill level would probably lead to a slow start.

          • DoubleD

            Yup that’s the guy. He looks pretty explosive to me. 5 technique, versatile as 43 DT or 34 DE. I like his upside a lot.

      • antony555

        Agreed per my comment!

  • berttheclock

    In the hybrid 3-4 defensive system used by Sutton, the main sacking attacks come from the LBs. If any of the front three gets a sack, such as Poe smashing into Tony Romo, it is icing on the cake. That leads me to believe KC needs more of a pass rush from the LBs, instead of trying to find a DE. I have mentioned Tyler Starr out of South Dakota not only because he is fast, but, he might fall to the 3rd round, in fact, that might even be too high unless he really climbs the ladder at the Combine. I don’t see, using Sutton’s system, where a top DE taken at 23 would really gain what we need. Now, should Sutton suddenly switch to a 4-3, perhaps.

  • phantomebb

    I hope you realize that because Pro Football Focus grades only individual performances that the data they give is EXTREMLY limited in its uses. It might might be good for offensive lines only. There are coverage sacks and pressure that causes good coverage that PFF doesnt take into account or if they do there value system is bad. I dont trust them after they gave Alex Smith a worse grade than Andrew Luck in the playoff game somehow. .. Smith had the best performance of any Qb in the playoffs this season.

    • micah stephenson

      Well the colts did score more than we did and our d is better than the colts so……

      • phantomebb

        Umm no. The Chiefs had the 32nd ranked defense the last half of the season and the worst one in the playoffs.

  • Jason J Morrison

    i know everyone is entitled to their opinions and here is mine i am might make someone upset and if i do. deal with it.

    I personally feel that the Safeties, DBs, and LBs who cover the receivers is where the problem is. I say this because during the Denver and San Diego games for sure the QBs were getting the ball out within 2-3 seconds. It does not matter who or how many pass rushers you bring your not going to get to the QB that fast. If the coverage can hit them at the line and knock them off of their routes and timing and cover for about 5+ seconds then i feel that could help fix the pass rush and maybe get more holding calls called. not to mention maybe next time Andy Reid tell the refs that Denver has a bad habit of tripping players which is very illegal.

    Secondly i dont know if Sutton likes to play the bump and run type coverage but i feel that would help along with the proper scheming for the rub routes and crossing routes that Denver and San Diego like to use. Sutton needs to study the films of the Seahawks to get help and figure out how to scheme proper defenses to shut down PFM and Crybaby Rivers. but this is just my opinion.

    • DoubleD

      Excellent observations. I agree.

  • sidibeke

    It is a great question and one I think directly relates to where KC focuses its draft and FA action. Obviously, we can probably only sign one big name FA, if even that. Then, we have a 1st and a 3rd rounder, both of which you hope to get starters. So, obviously we need an upgrade at WR. On D, though, which is the priority? FS? A pass rushing DE? Pass rushing LB depth? An ILB who can cover TEs and receivers out of the backfield? I’m leaning toward the pass rush end of things as a higher priority, then FS. If we can get to the QB better, even Lewis can look good (don’t get me wrong, we should still let him walk and take a FS in round 3).

  • DoubleD

    This is such a great question and something I’ve been wondering a lot about myself. I feel another aspect of this maybe needs to be looked at is the quarterback you’re up against and how quickly he releases the ball. Manning and Rivers get rid of the ball really quickly if there is an open receiver underneath. Is the pass rusher can’t get to the qb because he gets rid of the ball so quick, does that negatively impact the pass rusher’s PFF score?