Despite sacking Matt Ryan five times, hitting him five times, and forcing a fumble, the KC Chiefs pass rush did not have their best day against the Colts.
In a disappointing 20-17 defeat against the Indianapolis Colts, there were a lot of negatives for the Kansas City Chiefs, but there were some positives. The primary positive was the defense having a very solid game, allowing only 259 yards and 3.8 yards per play.
Many people will say that the Chiefs’ pass rush specifically had a great game when in reality, it wasn’t as strong as it looked. Actually, in a way, I would say that their performance against the Colts was their weakest of the season so far.
Let me explain. I’m not saying the unit had a bad game they had a solid game, but this box score is a little misleading, in my opinion.
Let’s take a deep dive into the numbers from this season, with data acquired from Pro Football Focus:
- Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals (Quarterback Kyler Murray) ($):
- 37 Dropbacks
- Blitz %: 27.0%
- Pressured 16 times
- Pressured on 43.2% of his dropbacks
- Sacked 2 times
- Sacked on 12.5% of his pressures
- 2.86 seconds per throw
- Week 2 against the Los Angeles (Quarterback Justin Herbert) ($):
- 50 Dropbacks
- Blitz %: 22.0%
- Pressured 18 times
- Pressured on 36.0% of his dropbacks
- Sacked 2 times
- Sacked on 11.1% of his pressures
- 2.69 seconds per throw
- Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts (Quarterback Matt Ryan) ($):
- 43 Dropbacks
- Blitz %: 34.9%
- Pressured 12 times
- Pressured on 27.9% of his dropbacks
- Sacked 5 times
- Sacked on 41.7% of his pressures
- 2.48 seconds per throw
For reference, here are what those numbers mean:
- Number of dropbacks: The number of times the QB dropped back to pass.
- Blitz %: The percentage of dropbacks in which the QB was blitzed by the defense.
- Number of pressures: Total pressures of the passer of any kind (generated by the defense).
- Pressure %: The % of dropback in which the QB was pressured.
- Sacks: The number of times the passer was sacked.
- Pressure to Sack %: Percentage of Pressures Turned into Sacks.
- Time-to-Throw: Average Time to Throw on all dropbacks.
Looking at the data, the Chiefs generated LESS pressure in this game than in the two prior games consistently despite blitzing at a higher rate. At the same time, they converted their pressure into sacks/fumbles at a higher rate than in the first two games of the season, which is commendable, but one can argue that was only possible because they faced a passer who is at a point in his career where he’ll struggle to escape pressure/sacks as easily.
While it’s true that the Indianapolis Colts have a better offensive line than the Chargers, they don’t have a better offensive line than the Cardinals. The Colts were also down their starting left tackle Bernhard Raimann. The fact remains that the Chiefs saw their production rushing the passer decrease from the first couple of games.
In the game against the Colts, according to PFF ($), only two of seven pass rushers with at least ten pass rushing snaps had a pass rush win rate (Percentage of “wins” vs Blocking on non-penalty Pass Rush Snaps) above 9%, Carlos Dunlap (18.8%) and Khalen Saunders (16.7%). Frank Clark was at 8.8%, Chris Jones was at 7.7%, George Karlaftis at 7.1%, and Derrick Nnadi and Tershawn Wharton were each at 0.0% in 12 and 23 pass rush snaps, respectively.
In the Week 3 loss, the Chiefs generated pressure against Matt Ryan on 21.4% of his dropbacks when they didn’t blitz, compared to 37.0% against Kyler Murray and 28.2% against Justin Herbert. When the Chiefs did blitz Matt Ryan, they generated pressure on 40% of such dropbacks. Matt Ryan was sacked on 7.1% of his dropbacks when not blitzed compared to 20% of his dropbacks when he was. Ryan was 20 of 25 for 153 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 118.8 when Kansas City did not blitz but 7 of 12 for 69 yards and no touchdowns for a 74.7 passer rating when they did bring a blitz.
The reason those statistics are significant is that there’s a giant difference between pressure generated from blitzing and pressure generated from the front four. It’s the equivalent of a quarterback throwing a lot of screen passes and check-downs to boost his completion %. The point is that relying upon lower degree-of-difficulty methods to get pressure is not a wise strategy to win a Super Bowl. Blitzing removes coverage players and turns them into pass rushers, against which strong passing offenses like the Chiefs of a few years ago, will light up because they have the receiving talent to get open quickly.
Blitzing was the correct gameplan, as it proved effective, but if the Chiefs are as heavily reliant on blitz packages to generate pressure and sacks in the future as they were against Indianapolis, they’re going to get lit up against more complete offenses.
Although it may have appeared the Chiefs had a fantastic day rushing the passer in Week 3, in reality, they did a much better job finishing against the Colts than actually generating pressure on a consistent basis. Despite the increased number of sacks, Matt Ryan was actually kept clean on a higher rate of his dropbacks than Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert. A lot of that can be explained by the fact that Ryan is one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the NFL and is far from the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Kyler Murray in terms of escapability.
If the Chiefs faced a quarterback who could avoid sacks at an elite level, they absolutely would not have recorded five sacks, five quarterback hits, and two fumbles. The defense also would have allowed more than 20 points, 13 if you exclude the 4-yard touchdown drive after the Skyy Moore muffed punt.
Don’t get me wrong, I was pleased with the performance of the defensive line, but six of the 16 pressures and three of the five sacks generated on Sunday were from non-defensive linemen: Nick Bolton, Justin Reid, Bryan Cook, and L’Jarius Sneed. That is not going to work in the playoffs as they cannot afford to consistently take away players from the back 7 of the defense to get pressure. Having one or two fewer player(s) to cover receivers leaves them extremely vulnerable against offenses with potent passing attacks. That effectively puts their corners on an island, and to their credit, they have lived up to the challenge so far.
Although the pass rush unit has improved markedly, I do not think they currently possess the talent to consistently win against decent offensive lines alone without reinforcements from the linebacking group and secondary. Chris Jones is excellent but there’s nobody else in his position group that scares offensive lines, though Khalen Saunders is trying to change that. Frank Clark isn’t an elite, or even good, pass rusher and has had health problems. George Karlaftis is a rookie and I’m not sure if he’ll reach a level where he can win against solid offensive tackles this season. Carlos Dunlap has been a great pickup but he’s long in the tooth and I’m not sure how well he’ll play down the stretch. Mike Danna is a solid player but he doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of offensive lines when on the field.
If one or two players, other than Chris Jones, can step up and be consistent forces rushing the passer, then they have a chance to be a problem come playoff time. This is a unit that’s heavily reliant on Jones. When he’s cooking, it opens up so much for the defensive ends, but when he’s not having his best game, the unit struggles to generate pressure consistently. Even though I’d prefer an upgrade in the interior next to Chris Jones, if I were Brett Veach, I’d still consider acquiring an edge guy like Robert Quinn from the Bears, for the right price. A team can never have too many good players on the defensive line and depth is always important for a playoff run.
The Chiefs have improved their pass rush from last season, but it still has a lot of growing to do. Although it appeared the Chiefs had a great day attacking Matt Ryan, they weren’t as consistent as they were in the prior two games. In most games, they will get away with frequent blitzes but would be playing with fire against great quarterbacks, such as Tom Brady and Joe Burrow.
Blitzing is like icing. It serves an important purpose but can ruin the cake if not executed correctly. Blitzes are not inherently a bad thing for a defense, as they can be extremely effective when executed both well and in the right situation, but there is a difference between blitzing because they can and blitzing because they have to.