How the Chiefs could work around Bashaud Breeland’s potential absence

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 13: Bashaud Breeland #21 of the Kansas City Chiefs tackles Will Fuller #15 of the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on October 13, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 13: Bashaud Breeland #21 of the Kansas City Chiefs tackles Will Fuller #15 of the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on October 13, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images) /

Here’s how the Kansas City Chiefs could make the pass defense work if they end up missing Bashaud Breeland against the Broncos.

The Kansas City Chiefs have arrived in Denver for their Week 7 tilt with the Broncos. All hands are on deck for the Chiefs, who are riddled with injuries right now. We learned on Wednesday that five starters will not play, and a sixth, cornerback Bashaud Breeland, did not travel to Colorado with the team due to a personal/non-injury-related issue. While things look bleak, the team did not yet concede that he won’t play, so Breeland is currently listed as questionable to play tonight.

If Breeland can’t go, that will leave the Chiefs without their top two corners, as starting nickel Kendall Fuller has been ruled out with a fracture in his thumb, suffered last week in the Chiefs’ 31-24 loss to the Texans. With only Charvarius Ward, Morris Claiborne, and rookie Rashad Fenton on the active roster, the Chiefs have an overt hole in the secondary. Fears are slightly tempered with the reminder that the Chiefs will be facing Joe Flacco and the Broncos’ 23rd-ranked passing offense, but the concern is valid.

Claiborne has only been with the team for two games, and while Ward has quietly exceeded expectations over the last few weeks, the two will have their hands full with wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders (who practiced fully this week and is ready to play) and 6’4″ second-year pro Courtland Sutton. These two corners should expect to play 100% of defensive snaps tonight.

This leads us to the question everyone is asking: What about when the Chiefs have to move to a nickel? Fenton has yet to play a single down on defense as a pro. If the team is indeed without the services of Breeland tonight, are the Chiefs prepared to immerse their rookie sixth-round pick into the lineup?

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has already answered that for us, and it’s an emphatic “no.” Without the services of Claiborne in weeks 1-4, the team carried just four active corners on the roster. In Week 2 we began to see a unique defensive formation, and the frequency of this unit’s usage has increased each week, especially after injuries piled up in Week 5 against the Colts.

In this formation, the Chiefs have used a three-man defensive front, one linebacker, three corners, and four safeties. If you guessed that it’s being used in passing situations, you guessed correctly.

The line typically has a nose head-up on the center with two ends, each outside the shoulder of the offensive tackles. Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly have routinely cycled through different personnel in these positions. Just to name a few, we’ve seen defensive Alex Okafor and Tanoh Kpassagnon line up in the nose, while defensive tackle Chris Jones slid out to end. The staff has been diligent to move linemen around, presumably to exploit mismatches and create confusion for blockers.

The linebacker in this set has been second-year pro Ben Niemann. It’s a role that a lot of people might have presumed would be filled by Darron Lee or Dorian O’Daniel, but Niemann has played it, and has not relinquished the role to anyone.

In the backfield, the Chiefs have deployed three corners (Fuller, Breeland and Ward) and four safeties. Ward and Claiborne won’t come off the field tonight, but I highly doubt Spags will insert Fenton into the lineup with other options available. It’s anyone’s guess how they will defend in nickel and dime situations, but I’m going to predict that instead of the third corner, we’ll see a second linebacker, and it’s probably Damien Wilson.

The element that will be used to create confusion is what Spagnuolo does with his safeties. What we’ve seen on film is that the Chiefs like to bring Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen down into the box, with Jordan Lucas and Juan Thornhill in deep halves. Playing to both players’ strengths in the typical robber role as a box safety, these two players are flexible enough to cover or blitz. When all is said and done, the unit ultimately begins to look like a small-ball 3-4 defense.

It’s no secret that Flacco loves to use his tight ends. One thing to keep an eye on tonight is how the Chiefs work to defend tight end Noah Fant. The 6’4″ 250-lb. rookie possesses elite athleticism and can create mismatches that will give the Chiefs fits. We have yet to see Fant’s “breakout performance,” but there’s no better place for a stud rookie to arrive than in an important division match on primetime, especially against a beleaguered defense such as Kansas City’s.

Take all of this with a grain of salt: Lately, Chiefs opponents are running the ball 40 times a game. The Broncos boast two quality running backs in Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, and unless the Chiefs get a big lead, we can expect that pattern to continue in Denver tonight. We can expect to see plenty of Kansas City’s base 4-3 defense (hopefully less than the 92 snaps the Chiefs played on defense against the Texans).

We’ll keep a close watch on the availability of Breeland between now and kickoff.

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