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


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

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.

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(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…

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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?

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(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.