Feb 2, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor (31) celebrates winning Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs: Tackling Issues May Trump KC’s Coverage Problems

We’ve discussed in this space a few times about where the Chiefs’ biggest problems are: pass coverage or pass rush. There is compelling evidence the Chiefs need to improve in both areas, but there seems to be a significant divide in which of the two to prioritize.

A specific area for those who want the Chiefs to be aggressive about in the draft — or even in free agency — is to find a free safety to play next to Eric Berry. Kendrick Lewis struggled significantly as the one-deep safety and the Chiefs didn’t have many answers beyond him. This, along with some of the concerns with Brandon Flowers fit and Marcus Cooper‘s youth, have fueled the coverage argument.

However, we may be missing the critical issue with the free safety position. Kansas City may not need a better cover safety, they may need a better tackling safety.

The logic behind this makes some sense. First, if you’re asking a safety to play one-deep, you’re not asking him to cover a player but instead play centerfield. A one-deep safety needs to get from sideline to sideline quickly and assist in coverage on medium and deep throws. Lewis had solid but not great speed, and was a smart player who could quickly identify where a play was going.

Lewis’ biggest issue was tackling. And if Lewis is the last line of defense in the secondary then that means there is no one behind him to make a tackle. Poor tackling plus slightly above-average speed equals bad things for a one-deep safety. Catching on to the problem here? A safety who cannot tackle or catch up to ball carrier is no safety at all.

We constantly refer to Seattle’s safeties, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, as the duo the Chiefs need to emulate the most. We do this not only because they were the safeties for the NFL’s best defense and are Super Bowl champions, but because the Chiefs have implemented a scheme similar to the one Seattle uses.

Total Snaps
Run Tackling Efficiency
Pass Tackling Efficiency
Combine Tackling Efficiency
Husain Abdullah (2011)54715.012.513.8
Eric Berry96813.313.013.2
Kam Chancellor95310.813.711.9
Earl Thomas9555.513.07.6
Kendrick Lewis10016.75.56.1
Quintin Demps6073.410.36.0

(Note: Abdullah’s 2011 numbers were used since it was the larger sample size.)

Let’s focus on the passing tackling efficiency. Pro Football Focus derives their tackling efficiency number by taking the tackles made divided by missed tackles. So Eric Berry is making 13 tackles per every missed tackle.

As you can read, Seattle’s safeties kept everything in front of them in the passing game. Thomas struggled helping out the running game but the two of them locked down the secondary in the passing game. In a passing league, preventing big plays from turning into bigger ones is important. To put it another way, it is one thing to give up a 15-yard reception but an entirely different thing to give up a 15-yard reception, miss the tackle, and let the receiver run for another 30 yards.

When you’re the one-deep safety, help isn’t coming, so the ability to be a consistent tackler in space is incredibly important.

Aiding the tackling theory is looking at who the Chiefs targeted during free agency and who they haven’t. Many have wondered with the Chiefs have not gone after someone like Chris Clemons. Well…

2014 Free Safety Free Agents
PlayerPFF Pass Coverage GradePassing Tackling EfficiencyCombine Tackle Efficiency
Chris Clemons+
Thomas DeCoud-
Antoine Bethea-4.913.015.7

DeCoud and Clemons have each been discussed by fans as potential targets for the Chiefs, but neither have received interest from the Chiefs. Bethea meanwhile received interest from the Chiefs before signing with the San Francisco 49ers. If this isn’t an indication the Chiefs want to have a better tackling secondary then what else could it be?

Catch Percentage
PFF Coverage Grade
Eric Berry6358.7+12.5
Earl Thomas2864.3+11.1
Kam Chancellor4170.7+4.5
Husain Abdullah (2011)2369.6+0.1
Quintin Demps2755.6-0.6
Kendrick Lewis-1.272.7-1.2

(Note: Abdullah was targeted 27 times, including playoffs, in 2013. QB rating against was 52.3, PFF grade was +4.7. Concussion issues at the end of 2011 hurt his overall stats and grade.)

Chancellor’s PFF coverage grade was not earth shattering, and Berry outperformed them all based on the metric. Both Thomas and Chancellor allowed more of their targets to result in completions than either Berry or Quintin Demps. If one assumes completion rate is the metric for quality of coverage, then the Chiefs had better or as good of cover safeties than Seattle.

The key here is neither Chancellor nor Thomas gave up many yards after the catch. The two combined to give up 168 yards (3.57 YAC/r) while Lewis allowed 5.83 YAC per reception and Berry allowed 6.16 YAC per reception. The ability to get to the ball quickly and then make the tackle is crucial to the way Seattle’s safeties play.

Speed is essential here, but so is a strong pass rush. The quicker a quarterback has to get rid of the ball, the less time the receiver has to separate. It also makes it harder for opposing offenses to attack downfield.

(Note: 117 of the 228 YAC yards Berry allowed this season came in the three games: Denver twice and Indianapolis. Bad matchup. Otherwise, Berry allowed a more reasonable 4.26 YAC/r in the other 13 regular season games. Trying to figure out what happened in those three games is going to be on my post-draft “to do” list.)

Look at it from this angle makes me think even more Sanders Commings is going to be the guy at free safety for the Chiefs. Everything people talk about with Seattle’s safety duo is their size (each over 200 pounds), quickness, physical nature, and ball-hawking skills. Keep that in mind and then read these scouting reports on Commings.

From Matthew Fairburn:

Commings is a guy that is constantly around the football making plays and he is at his best when playing press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Overshadowed by come of the bigger names on Georgia’s defense this season, Commings should have every chance to find as much, if not more, NFL success that his Bulldog teammates.


A cornerback with the build of a starting outside receiver (and the athleticism to have been a late-round MLB draft pick as an outfielder) will certainly generate interest among NFL scouts. As expected given his size, Commings can be physical and bully wide receivers. However, his footwork and quickness aren’t ideal for a corner, so there is a potential conversion to safety in his future.

From Alfie Crow:

The first thing you notice with Commings is he’s massive for a cornerback. At 223 pounds, he’s almost the size of a big strong safety or a small linebacker, but he has fluid enough hips to turn and run with wide receivers.

Sanders is big, strong, fast, physical, and can literally play centerfield. Sanders would be a perfect fit for the kind of safety the Chiefs need to run their defensive scheme. His versatility as a cornerback — something both Thomas and Chancellor would sometimes play — and to run with players downfield makes him a great weapon for the Chiefs. It makes sense why John Dorsey would be so high on him.

Of course, all of this doesn’t matter much if he cannot tackle.

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Tags: Kansas City Chiefs Sanders Commings

  • berttheclock

    I’m glad you mentioned the term “press coverage at the line of scrimmage”. One thing stood out in the SB game. The Denver receivers were picked up very quickly near the line of scrimmage. Decker had a tough time getting open and that press coverage messed up the timing for Manning. In the Colt’s game, Hilton was not pressed early and by the time he reached Lewis and Demps, he was in full stride and at top speed. One other point was that interception by Chancellor against Manning. He was playing up very close and was just behind another ‘Hawks defender when Manning misfired. If Sutton could have additional safeties of quality, he could even use the 3-3-5 system of the Saints on occasion, where Ryan brings up 3 safeties to confuse the QB, rushes one or two and drops the 3rd back into being a center fielder. The QB recognizes a blitz is coming, but, he has to guess from which side. But, to use a 3-3-5, you have to have 3 safeties with both speed and hitting power.

    • Josh Landers

      I think berry, commings, and Abdullah fit that description.

  • berttheclock

    I realize this is a very fine thread about safeties, but, I still remember how Eric Weddle of the Bolts was able to come up and jam Dexter McCluster when the Chiefs were first trying to use him in the slot. Weddle even had a game ending INT when he read a screen pass to Dexter and jumped the pass. However, the major reason Weddle was able to concentrate on Dexter was the Chiefs did not have a 2nd wide out of worth to play opposite Bowe. Weddle didn’t even have to worry about a TE getting open as mostly the TEs had to stay in to block. This really showed the importance of KC needing to pick up both a wide out with quickness, speed and separation abilities which would require a safety to come over and help their CB and a better TE to keep safeties honest. Opposing safeties have had it far too easy against the Chiefs. BTW, Ben, I am glad you showed the tackling prowess of Bethea which showed he was a far better hitter than trying to cover receivers in the open. Against the Chiefs, he didn’t have to worry much about any Chiefs wide out getting open too far down field and he could just come up and lay the wood on underneath passes.

  • Stacy D. Smith

    Part of making a stop is being in the right position. Lewis was routinely out of position. His lack of recovery speed only made the problem worse. If you can’t be in a position to make a tackle, chances are you won’t be in position to provide good coverage either. I think it’s “both and” not “either or.” I want a guy that can cover and make a stop.

    Clemons is pretty even-handed in that regard. As is a guy like Calvin Pryor.

    • tgaletti

      After Lewis hurt his shoulder early in his career he was never the same tackler. Did he always look to be out of position to keep from re-injuring his shoulder ? Let’s hope Commings shoulder injury doesn’t limit his aggressiveness in tackling. I liked the way Commings played in college and hope he can play the same way in the pros. We shall see !!!

      • berttheclock

        My only worry about Commings was his second injury. Remember, he was injured in camp, healed to the point he was allowed to play, then, reinjured his shoulder. So, my question is was he released too soon or is this going to be an ongoing concern?

        • tgaletti

          I noticed Lewis’ style of play changed dramatically after injuring his shoulder , for fear of re-injury !!!! He just couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver a big hit when it was needed !!!!

          • berttheclock

            Fuuny thing about the brain remembering not only the injury, but, the recovery time as well. The Doctors can tell you all is AOK, same with the trainers and coaches, but, that little old brain still has to be convinced. I still believe the dropsy problems of Avery began with his severe injury with the Rams.

        • Kisersosay

          I worry about his injury history…..Shoulder in HS, others in college, Only played all games for one season. Not sure we can depend on him to be there. Also is not a great tackler. I remember reading one scouting report that said he would let others get in on the tackle and then try to strip. Wonder if that has anything to do with his injury history….

  • Tristian

    Im only gonna say this once. Lewis couldn’t cover my grandma running down the field and thats why hes gone. If his biggest problem was tackling think how many less big plays we would’ve given up and how much teams would’ve had to work more to get down the field. Im not saying his tackling wasn’t a problem im telling you when we refer to lewis we aren’t saying anything about his tackling are saying how T.Y. Hilton is still running by him. And Eric Decker. Would you rather miss a tackle or would you rather take the wrong angles in the deep middle? The latter as we saw is guaranteed to give up 6 points

    • Ben Nielsen

      In a one-deep, a missed tackle almost assures a touchdown.

  • berttheclock

    Ben uses the PFF of plus 4.70 for 2013 for Abdullah. Compare these numbers in salary. KC re-upped Abdullah to a 2 year $2,270,000 deal with a $750 K signing bonus. Now, in another city, a safety signed a one year deal, last year, for $2 M, produced the highest tackling amount among the d-backs, but, ended up with a minus 3.4 PFF for 2013. For that he was awarded a new 2 year contract of $6.3 M with $1.65 M for 2014 and a signing bonus of $850 K per year. Now, which GM did the better work, Dorsey in signing Abdullah or the Titan’s GM for re-inking Bernard Pollard?

    • mnelson52

      The GM did the better job for Abdullah and the agent did a better job for Pollard. I like the way Dorsey works.

  • freshmeat62

    All of these stats are nice, but I go by what I see on the field. Truth be told, I’m too lazy to do all that work myself, so thanks to all of you stat freaks.

    What my eyes tell me, besides Lewis missing tackles, which he did a lot the last couple of years, he was out of position too many times. I remember later in the year, when Manning, Rivers, etc were picking on Cooper, Lewis was nowhere to be found when he should have been support. I attribute that to slow reaction time, and slow speed. I became a Lewis fan when he and Berry started together their rookie years. I thought he did a good job and that he would progress into a real ballhawk thru the years. Turns out he may have been a product of Crennel’s defenses. He doesn’t fit into Suttons, and I think the injuries the last couple of years have affected him also. I sincerely hope he does well w/ Romeo again.

    Abdullah sounds like an upgrade, and Commings, if he can stay off IR, has huge potential. I don’t know that the Chiefs should take a S in the early rd’s. But one I’ve become infatuated w/ that may be available in later rd’s is Dontae Johnson of NC St. I’ve never seen him play, just what I’ve read about him. He had good combine numbers, and the drills he did on his pro day, the results were good. Now I don’t know what he has between his ears, as that is very important in reading whats coming at him, but physically, sounds like someone that may be that diamond in the rough.

    • berttheclock

      Walter Football, for whatever that is worth, has him being a sleeper in the lower rounds at CB. He has played LB before.

      • freshmeat62

        The pubs I’ve read say he started out as a FS but was moved to CB the last couple of years. His college stats are rather pedestrian, but then he hasn’t been beaten up either So he has experience at both. I’m wondering why he’s not rated higher than he is considering his combine and pro day numbers, and his size.

  • A1 Yola

    I hear folks talking about Safties delivering “big hits”, the rule about hitting a defenseless player has taken that away for the most part. I don’t believe tackling has anything to do with the “hit” you put a guy, it’s being in position and Wrapping up a guy. I’ve seen players got hit, spin and keep going down the field! Tackling is accomplished with your arms. You can “hit” a guy, but if you don’t bring him down, what’s the point?

    • freshmeat62

      I have to agree w/ you. I am so sick of seeing these guys try to put a shoulder into a guy, only to see him miss or bounce off, and the runner keep on going. I think the best I ever saw at wrapping up was Bobby Bell. He would make so many open field tackles by putting his arms all the way around the runners legs and take him down.

      • A1 Yola

        Perfect example: The Chiefs last game again gas the Raiders! Nobody tried to arm tackle JC, if they would’ve, it would’ve been a different day statistically for him. And what’s up with guys not “laying out” for a tackle? I’ve seen so many players “letting up” instead of “laying out” it’s pathetic.

      • mnelson52

        I agree for the most part. You have to make the tackle. Fortunately for the Hawks they hit hard and made the tackles. By the end of the SB, it looked like Denver receivers didn’t even want the ball for fear of being hit.

        • mnelson52

          Hitting receivers hard, works the same as constantly getting to the QB. It changes their efficiency immensely.

    • berttheclock

      Fine, but, did you see some of tackles Bethea made against the wide outs of the Chiefs. They were of the “Welcome to MY neighborhood” variety. The kind where should Bethea come up on a wide out and the ball is coming towards his hands, where are his eyes going to be? However, I have read how little tackle practice is taken by most NFL teams for fear of injuries to players.

      • A1 Yola

        Oh yea! Antoine Bethea is an excellent Take down artist! I’m still finding it hard to believe the Colts let him go. From what I recall of him, he spends alot near the line of scrimmage. He’s not gonna run anybody down though. He’s good closing in on short routes, like the Chiefs ran last year.

        • berttheclock

          Now, for the flip side of that, do you recall Brian Bosworth trying to tackle either Okoye or Bo Jackson?

          • A1 Yola

            I’m only 35, so I can’t really recall Okoye vividly. I was into Transformers and G.I. Joe back then!

          • berttheclock

            You should look up the You Tube of the Jackson attempt. Classic usage of how not to tackle a run away express and be able to continue trying to play football. The vastly over hyped Bosworth ended up in both cases just being a “Splat” on the turf.

          • freshmeat62

            Talking about Bo and “splat”, I remember Deron Cherry just came back from an injury, when in a game he took Bo head on. This time it was Bo that went splat and fumbled.

          • berttheclock

            Great. When, I think of splat I remember a frat brother of mine at KU who was a 5th year scholarship backup. His very last play was in practice, where, he decided to take on Curtis McClinton (Later with the Chiefs) in the hole and threw his shoulder in the thigh pads of McClinton. When, he awoke, he walked off the field, cleaned out his locker and said “Thank you, KU, very much for the five year ride.”

          • A1 Yola

            Didn’t see that play on YouTube, but I did see that Okoye was a Wrecking ball of a running back! The league has shied away from huge RB’s lately, they’ve sacrificed durability for speed and agility. AP & MF are the tallest RB’s in the league. New England has a Big Back though, but they passed it to him more than handed it to him last year. I like Bell of the Donks too.

          • berttheclock

            Try youtube.com/watch?v=xJ_BNwOCQys

            Actually, less of a splat and more of how not to try to hit high.

      • A1 Yola

        The lack if practicing tackling is showing throughout the League. Terrell Pryor setting an NFL record, Alex Smith with 400 yards rushing?! That’s not supposed to happen.

  • Bigtexjayhawk

    Loston from lsu. Make it happen dorse!!

    • berttheclock

      Not a bad choice. Johnny Robinson type?

  • jeffromac23

    My problem with our defensive backs is sometimes a reciever or running back would be running right at them and they would stand flat footed instead of going towards them leaving them open to just a slight move and a missed arm tackle let alone the fact they let them get another ten yards before ever attempting to engage them.

    • Daniel Mayfield

      True! But can’t go way to fast to where the players can make a side step and get past you real easily. Gotta be ready. Not so much flat footed but ready for the right position. Depends on the players coming at you too.

      I think it’s crazy how some safeties, or whoever, try to make shoulder tackles in the open field and they are they last defender to stop them.
      Shoulder and plain helmet tackles, IMO, are the wrong way to do it anyway. To get it done, rap your arms around them or grab them with your hands. Don’t just dive with your shoulder or your head.

  • berttheclock

    Hey, completely off thread, but, a suggestion for those who question Dorsey’s ability to find talent to cool it for a moment. In Green Bay, Jarrett Boykin is being primed to take over for Jones at wide out. As a result of injuries to other receivers, he was able to put together a string of fine games, last year. But, originally, he was an UDFA from Virginia Tech who tried to walk on to the Jags only to be cut. However, Mr Dorsey of GB swooped and signed him in 2012. Another example of Dorsey never sleeping at the switch.

  • Michael Shaw

    FINALLY!!! I was hoping someone else thought the way I did about our teams inability to tackle!!!! GO CHIEFS!!!!

  • Kisersosay

    I had to laugh a little when I read this. ” Lewis had solid but not great speed, and was a smart player who could quickly identify where a play was going.” It may be a case of mind over body but I never saw Lewis react quickly once he identified where a play was going. In fact I thought he was slow to identify and was out of position most of the time. His speed was too slow to make up for it. If you have great anticipation you can overcome a speed deficit. If you don’t you get what we got with Lewis. Think about the last time you saw our safety break up a pass deep down the sidelines or even deep middle. I can’t even think of one time last year where that happened. Hopefully we can fix that this year either with Sanders, or by moving Berry over to FS if we are able to draft Pryor in the first round. I have to say I am concerned about Sanders injury history and his availability. He is a risk so I am ok with a Safety in first round. But I am good with a WR also as we need both.

  • Daniel Mayfield

    I think Commings could be a good player. Reading about his size and ability, I think he had potential.
    Fans need to remember, Reid likes to build players!
    Yeah, he had his injury and that might be a problem. But if Lewis would have worked with Reid after his injury, he might have been better on his tackles.
    With Commings size and ability, and if his shoulder is in good shape, I think he can be could along with Berry. Berry, Abdullah, and Commings(in good shape) would be good for the team.

    I posted earlier….they should tackle with their arms 1st. Don’t go diving with their shoulder or helmet, especially in the open field when their alone.

  • sidibeke

    Or stay healthy. I hope he sees and stays on the field in 2014 and shows us he’s our guy.