There’s no need to panic about the Kansas City Chiefs run defense

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 29: J.D. McKissic #41 of the Detroit Lions runs the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter in the game at Ford Field on September 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 29: J.D. McKissic #41 of the Detroit Lions runs the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter in the game at Ford Field on September 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /
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How much of the Kansas City Chiefs run defense struggles are concerning and is it bad enough to be the reason for a major loss down the road?

There’s no secret that the Kansas City Chiefs defense has struggled to stop the running attack of opposing offenses throughout the first quarter of the season in 2019. In fact, it’s been an issue for a few years now, which is frustrating considering the hype leading into each of the last two seasons about an improved run defense.

However, that doesn’t always mean that it’s as bad as it may seem given box score stats. It also shouldn’t be used as the reason that teams have beaten the Chiefs in the playoffs over the last five years.

When looking at the defensive unit against the Detroit Lions in Week 4, it was clear that Matt Patricia’s team came with a game plan that was specifically made to take advantage of Kansas City’s weaknesses. The issues with the run defense have primarily come from the defensive tackles not being able to get a push into the backfield (instead getting pushed themselves down the line of scrimmage). This allows big holes for running backs to cut inside and get vertical for a nice chunk of yards.

Throughout the first three games of the season, teams were game planning to take away defensive end Frank Clark and that continued with the Lions this week. The run game was primarily away from Clark once again this week and/or he received extra attention on double teams and slide protections. Even on many of those protections with the outside zone concepts that the Lions were using, Clark was still often able to set a strong edge forcing the running back to cut back inside. However, the defensive tackles and linebackers were not there to make the play.


Something that has been concerning evaluating the defensive line is how end Alex Okafor plays against the run. Teams have consistently left him to be blocked by tight ends, allowing the right tackle to move down the line for a double team or climb to the second level. We saw more of that this week against the Lions while also seeing it happen with a wide receiver who was able to take him out of the play.

As you can see in the play above, the WR is lined up just outside of the TE and takes Okafor, which allows the TE and RT to swing outside as lead blockers. This gives them favorable matchups against defensive backs in space. The WR does an excellent job of making contact and, as they work towards the sideline, he uses almost like a rip move to wall off Okafor, allowing for a clean running lane.

Okafor was primarily brought in to be a run defender, as he has done well the last two seasons against the run for the New Orleans Saints. That has yet to carry over during his time in Kansas City and in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system. That’s his primary job opposite of Clark. He’s had some splashes rushing the passer through the first four games, but his run defense has been a liability which brings back a lot of memories of former Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford. Emmanuel Ogbah, who is a rotational end primarily in the pass rush, has actually been more productive against the run than Okafor.

Okafor is left almost unblocked on this run to the right side, which the Ravens cut back up the middle barely getting a hand from the LT before he gets taken out by the TE coming across for the backside block. Teams are consistently doing this knowing that Okafor won’t be a threat from the backside before the TE can get to him.

Jones also gets washed on this play and, surprisingly enough, is helped by Anthony Hitchens to plug the hole at the top to some degree. Unfortunately, Damien Wilson stays too wide which allows the LT to get his hands on him instead of staying with the B gap.

The other problem stems from the second level of the defense where linebackers are over-pursuing their gaps on these plays allowing for those big holes up the middle to go for even bigger gains. Instead of penetrating gaps and making tackles around the line of scrimmage, linebackers are often blowing right past the running lane and/or allowing blockers to get into their frame and take them out of the play.

Here you can see Clark understand that the offense is wanting to push him down the line of scrimmage. While he’s not able to get off his block, he anchors himself to prevent being pushed further while also shading his helmet to the outside shoulder of the left tackle, forcing the running back inside. Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi are unable to wall off the interior of the line with Jones getting combo blocked by the left guard and center, and Nnadi is one-on-one against the right guard, unable to get any kind of push into the backfield.


Teams have taken advantage of Kansas City’s mistakes when defending the run and it’s not all been the same. Take the Baltimore Ravens last week, for example. Baltimore ran a good mixture of zone and gap schemes, but they did a lot of it with bigger personnel by bringing in an additional lineman or extra tight ends.

By bringing in additional offensive linemen and extra tight ends, the Ravens were looking to win by overpowering the Chiefs defense beating them physically, whether that meant pulling blockers from the backside of the line or additional blockers on the play side allowing for free release to immediately attack the second level. Unfortunately, they didn’t have to bring in extra personnel to overpower them most of the time, as the Chiefs line has not been dominant or able to get penetration up the middle to warrant more help.

While the Chiefs were forced to play contain against Jackson here, which provided the pause that you see in the play above, you can also see the Ravens offensive line dominate with pure physicality, even when both Nnadi and Xavier Williams were along the interior.

Detroit came in with the game plan of running primarily outside zone concepts where the entire offensive line would slide in one direction in unison while using combo blocks. Then they would climb to the next level to allow the running back to choose a path. The Lions still ran some effective gap blocking schemes, but they made their bread and butter through the zone system.

Unlike in weeks past, the Lions also came out in mostly 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) personnel packages while using pre-snap motions to get the defense into a favorable matchup and confused.

The part I found most interesting is they used running back J.D. McKissic quite often in these 21 personnel packages, but he wasn’t lined up in the backfield. Instead he was moving around in the slot and was the consistent player in motion pre-snap. In doing so, Spagnuolo kept his nickel defense on the field which allowed for lighter boxes—primarily 6 man boxes—and lighter personnel. This confusing the defense and didn’t allow them to make adjustments following the motion.


There are still plays where the defense looks confused about their assignments. It’s clear that they are still getting familiar with one another and the system which will lead to giving up some yardage. Most of this usually comes from the linebacker position group, who we have seen numerous times arguing about assignments prior to the snap.

Hitchens and Wilson are disagreeing on the assignments of the play here pre-snap. Hitchens tells him to move over into the A gap which takes away Wilson’s ability to plug the hole and allows a good chunk up the middle for Baltimore.