Oct 13, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo (51) warms up before the game against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs Linebacker Depth A Hidden Flaw in the Defense

Nov 17, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) returns a fumble in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago we began the discussion about what was the root of Kansas City’s defensive problems: pass rush or pass coverage? It is a question which is likely to take all off-season to figure out, which is a shame because it’d be a lot easier to throw a few GIFs, stats, and Kendrick Lewis hate meme’s into a post, solve the world’s greatest problem, and call it a day.

As with everything, blame goes to a whole bunch of different places. Maybe the group not getting enough attention is the linebackers, the heart of Kansas City’s defense. The Chiefs linebackers are broken up into two tiers: all-World and Scrubs. It is not too hard to figure out which players belong to which group.

Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Derrick Johnson are monsters in Bob Sutton’s 3-4 scheme, and the numbers back this up.

Tamba Hali
Justin Houston
Derrick Johnson
PFF Coverage Grades44.810.8
PFF Pass Rush Grades15.319.52.7
Total Pass Rush/Coverage Grade19.324.413.5

Hali, Houston, and Johnson combined for a 37.5 pass rushing grade and a 19.6 coverage grade. For perspective, there were only five teams in the NFL with a cumulative pass rushing grade better than the Hali-Houston-Johnson trio. Their collective force is so incredible, the rest of the defense needs to only be average as a whole in order to make the Chiefs one of the five deadliest pass rushing defenses in the game.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Chiefs’ pass rush defense was not average. The Chiefs finished the season with a 23.2 pass rushing grade from Pro Football Focus, which means the cumulative pass rushing grade from players not named Hali, Houston, or Johnson was minus-14.3. While the defensive line was not much of a help to the pass rush game – and we will talk about them later in the offseason – the backup linebackers were the primary cause for the cumulative grade drop.

Behold: The Scrubs.

Akeem Jordan
Frank Zombo
Josh Martin
James-Michael Johnson
Dezman Moses
Nico Johnson
PFF Pass Coverage Grade0.2-
PFF Pass Rush Grade-1.4-7.5-2.4-0.7-2.4-0.1
Total Rush/Coverage Grade-1.2-8.1-1.80.0-3.40.0

There are a few things to notice here.

First, Frank Zombo was awful. Kansas City absolutely has to improve on Zombo’s spot on the roster either through the draft or free agency. The player doesn’t have to be expensive or taken in a high round, but does need to be a more complete player. Zombo was very good against the run this season, receiving a +6.3 grade, but his pass rushing and coverage ability combined to be so bad that it negated all of the good things he was doing against the run. John Dorsey needs to find a guy who has a +6.3 grade for one particular skill, but is also at least average at everything else. At least then said player’s skill will be more productive and valuable to the team.

Next, we notice Sutton had little to no trust in any of his backup linebackers to either get after the quarterback or do well in coverage. Akeem Jordan played all 16 games and was only targeted 12 times. (In fact, “the Scrubs” were targeted only 29 times this season, with five of them coming in the final game of the regular season at San Diego. Jordan and Zombo account for 19 of those targets.) This is by design, and not the opponents refusing to take shots at him. Sutton essentially kept him out of any pass coverage situations.

When Jordan was targeted, he was awful. Jordan allowed 11 receptions on 12 targets, which went for 125 yards, a touchdown, and a quarterback rating of 137.8. This essentially left Johnson in coverage all game long, preventing Sutton from using him often in blitz packages. Of Johnson’s 701 snaps played against the pass this season (including the playoffs), Johnson rushed on 80 of them. Knowing Tyson Jackson and Mike DeVito were not going to make much of an impact rushing the passer and Johnson was contently in coverage, it makes sense why Kansas City’s interior pass rush was basically Dontari Poe or bust.

And Johnson was very productive in his limited pass rushes. Only Houston had more quarterback hits than Johnson on the team. In Johnson’s 75 regular season pass rushes, he totaled four sacks, seven quarterback hits, and 12 hurries – or to put it another way, he was disrupting the passer in a little over 30% of his pass rushes. Tamba Hali disrupted the quarterback in 14% of his pass rushes. Obviously everyone knew Hali was coming and accounted for him on every snap, so scheme matters in efficiency there. However, it does indicated how effective Johnson can be when rushing the passer.

The Chiefs have to find a third down middle linebacker to make opponents more honest next season. It doesn’t matter whether the player’s skill is pass rush or pass coverage. What matters is giving Sutton more options with Johnson as opposed to having to leave him in coverage 88.6% of the time.

A final thing to note is how little any of the backup linebackers played. Johnson played 100% of the snaps in 12 of the 15 regular season games he played in. The only three games he did not play the full game were blowouts against Jacksonville, Washington, and Oakland.

Hali played all of the snaps in 10 of 15 games. His injury against San Diego and seven missed snaps against Indianapolis in week 16 prevented him from equaling Johnson’s usage.

Even Zombo, who filled in for Houston after his injury, played in 100% of the non-blowout games against Denver, Indianapolis, and the season finale against San Diego.

Not one of Josh Martin, Dezman Moses, or James-Michael Johnson could knock Zombo out of the game for even one snap in the final quarter of the season. It doesn’t say much about your ability when after training camp and twelve weeks of practice you cannot knock out a guy like Zombo for one stinking snap. How in the world is Sutton supposed to scheme for a team like Denver when three of his linebackers are not good enough to step foot on the field for one meaningful snap?

Sutton cannot effectively run his defense without better depth at linebacker. Further, the Chiefs are not going to get the full value of Hali or Johnson remaining years if they are playing 100% of the snaps game in and game out. There has to be something resembling depth on this squad, even if that depth is limited in what they bring to the field. At least they would be bringing something.

Two musts on the off-season checklist are a third down inside linebacker and another edge pass rusher. Nico Johnson’s strength is stopping the run so he should be able to take care of Jordan’s role. Neither the edge rusher or the third down inside linebacker needs to cost the team a ton of money or draft picks, so don’t be thinking superstar players or first round draft picks. But Dorsey does need to spend something of significance in order to get some kind of production out of the back-half of his linebacker roster.

Finding depth at linebacker would do wonders for the team’s pass rush and pass coverage. It isn’t the only answer, but it doesn’t help when the Chiefs are essentially play short-handed in every game they play against quality competition. Between Zombo, Martin, James-Michael, Moses, and Nico, the Chiefs punted four defensive roster spots this season. If the Chiefs are going to get better, they cannot afford to do that again.

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  • berttheclock

    Assembling this crew last season was based on stopping the run as the best pass rushers were already there. With the injuries to both Hali and Houston, the flaw by the others in not being legitimate pass rushers was exposed. I doubt if 23 will be used for an ILB, but, look at such as Tyler Starr out of South Dakota in the mid rounds. Unfortunately, should he live up to his boast about blowing the top off the 3 cone drill, others will want him. His name has come up at other NFL web sites

  • Montez K.

    Well written. I think this problem could be worse than the WR issue…I think this is a compelling argument to justify a DE at 23. We need another pass rusher, whether it comes via DE or ILB. My opinion of positions of need: FS, DE, ILB, WR, TE

    • Montez K.

      In that order…

    • Ben Nielsen

      I’m more comfortable with tight end than most. I’d rather add another corner or pass rusher before looking at tight end. I understand the argument for getting another tight end, though.

  • micah stephenson

    CHURCH! PREACH MY BROTHA! We need more pass rushers and pass rush depth. I’ve seen people saying every single DB (-Berry) is the problem. Yes Lewis had a bad yr, but our secondary is solid. We need more pass rushers, better blitzs, and an occasional zone plays.

    • JLKC355

      This is the first time I can say I agree with you Micah, saving Lewis horrific play the secondary is solid just need to coach up the technique. The issue with the pass rush is more talent based IMO after Poe, Houston, Hali, and Johnson we are very thin which is why Berry is exclusively a LB in the subs.

      • micah stephenson

        The 1st time you agree with me??? You must not read my comments much. Lol.

  • ArrowFan

    It will be a sad day when DJ gets injured and there is a good chance we loose Tamba after next season. Maybe Nico is hiding some decent coverage skills? He seemed to do a good job during last years preseason. Zombo definitely seems replaceable what is he getting paid?

    • berttheclock

      Why would anyone wanting to exist in the NFL hide their speed? That is the main problem with him and one brought up by scouts when he left ‘Bama. He lacks speed to pursue and takes bad angles. He was drafted for his run containment value.

      • ArrowFan

        I was eluding to Nico hopefully showing an improvement over Jordan. In fact he grades better than Jordan already all be it with the small sample size and all. Ideally Jordan plays backup next season and Nico can improve our D not only in the run game but in the passing game as well. For the most part neither one is on the field for 3rd and long anyway.

  • berttheclock

    In their respective combines, Derrick Johnson ran a 4.52 40 and had a 7.21 in 3 cone drill. Justin Houston, at his, ran 4.62 40, but, flashed a 6.95 cone drill. Nico Johnson, due to recent surgery for a hernia did not attend the combine, but, did run a couple of 40s at his Alabama Pro Day. His times were 4.73 and 4.89. He did not do a cone drill.

  • Stacy D. Smith

    I think Zombo was better than some give him credit for. If memory serves, he had had positive PFF grades in more than one game.

    • berttheclock

      I believe Zombo was just returning to his 2010 Green Bay form. In 2012, he missed half the season with a hamstring injury, then, was placed on IR. Plus, in 2011, he broke his scapula and left the Packers limited at his position. His 2 sacks, last season, were half of what he had accomplished in 2010, but, he played more minutes in 2010. Add an interception to the mix and consider he is only 26 and the equation changes. Plus, the fact of life where low picks or, as in the case of Zombo, an UDFA in the first place, add to keeping within the cap. He did have a 4.71 40 at one time. He only played in 23 of 48 possible games with Green Bay as he and his trainer’s nursing staff kept dating. But, in KC, he played in all 16 games and claims he is in great physical condition.

      • Stacy D. Smith

        Were it up to me, I’d re-sign him.

        • berttheclock

          Interesting you mention Moses, as he was one of the LBs the Green Bay site said had to step up after one of the injuries to Zombo. I believe Walden ended up getting most of the playing time. But, I remember reading during the summer, where writers for the Packers, thought Moses would be kept, however, he had some nagging injuries and fell behind.

          • Stacy D. Smith

            Walden’s a former Chief himself (he’s a 7-year vet though). Moses was a rookie. In spot duty, he played well. I think he could contribute here too given the chance.

  • micah stephenson

    Is it just me or did it seem like in the 1st 9 games it was a lot of 4, 5, & 6 man blitzes, and in the last 7 games more 3 & 4 man blitzes? Did Sutton call off the dogs or did he run out of dogs to call off? With limited pass rush Berry was forced to play up at the los instead of center field. Looks Like DJ didn’t get to blitz up the middle as much I hoped. Devito gives us no pass rush. Jackson very lil P rush but is gone anyway. Bailey has potential but we still don’t know what he can do full time. You see the numbers above on our back up players. Tamba and DJ are getting older, so we still got A LOT of work to do to get this team in the shape I want it in.

  • Chuck Burrell

    I’ve been saying this exact thing since the Indy game. An ILB that can cover changes what we can do with Johnson and Berry. It’s an immediate upgrade in terms of our defensive secondary

  • KCMikeG

    Andrew Jackson from Western Kentucky would give us both skill sets you are looking for at ILB. He is a total steal in his projected round #7.

  • Suzi Conger

    Good read

  • Andy

    Good job. Makes you think. I do trust our new management over the last, to know what we need. Over the years I would get so frustrated knowing what our weakness are, but management seems lost. Last year Dorsey and Reid plugged a sinking ship, now we need to keep adding and building depth.
    I like JM WR in FA, draft defense early and often, with a sprinkle of an OL .