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 Grade0.2-0.60.60.7-10.1
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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