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How the Colts Defense Can Shut Down the Chiefs Offense

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After an impressive first round win over the Houston Texans, the Colts are back on the road to face the explosive Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL. The last time the Colts played the Chiefs in the playoffs, it was 2013 and the Colts mounted a 28 point comeback to stun the Chiefs and move on. A lot has changed since then...

Quick Facts

Chiefs Points Scored Per Game (Season) — 35.3 Points

Chiefs Points Scored Per Game at Home (Season) — 32.4 Points

Chiefs Points Scored Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 31.1 Points

Chiefs Total Yards Per Game (Season) — 425.6 Yards

Chiefs Total Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 374 Yards

Chiefs Passing Yards Per Game (Season) — 309.7 Yards

Chiefs Passing Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 269.7 Yards

Chiefs Rushing Yards Per Game (Season) — 115.9 Yards

Chiefs Rushing Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 104.3 Yards

Chiefs Yards Per Play (Season) — 6.8 Yards Per Play

Chiefs Yards Per Play (Last 3 Games) — 6.7 Yards Per Play

Chiefs Yards Per Point (Season) — 12.1 Yards Per Point

Chiefs Yards Per Point (Last 3 Games) — 11.9 Yards Per Point

The Chiefs have the best offense in the NFL. They have a quarterback in Patrick Mahomes who can make all the throws, keeps plays alive and is accurate anywhere on the field. They have a great receiving group and a very underrated running back in Damien Williams. Their offensive line is one of the best in football. This is easily the best offense the Colts have faced all year.

The Chiefs have a couple of injuries to key players:

  • Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (Canadian!), has been dealing with a fractured fibula for most of the season and is on Injured Reserve. He does have a “Designated for Return” tag, but it is unlikely he plays against the Colts.
  • Sammy Watkins has been dealing with a foot injury that caused him to miss the Week 17 matchup against the Raiders. His status is up in the air for the Colts matchup.

Slowing Down Patrick Mahomes

Patrick Mahomes is most likely going to win the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. He possesses special arm talent and can extend plays with his feet. Those two abilities have turned him into a must-watch player and one of the most exciting players in the NFL. Stopping Patrick Mahomes will not be easy, but it is possible.

Below are two passing charts from two of his most recent games. You’ll see some patterns emerge.

Mahomes vs Raiders (Week 17)

Mahomes vs Chargers (Week 15)

Mahomes can easily make all the throws from any position on the field. In the two games that were charted:

  • 26% of his throws came on or behind the line of scrimmage.
  • 52% of his throws came within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
  • 69% of his throws came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
  • He’ll take at least 2 or 3 throws very deep down the field.

Patrick Mahomes takes on average 2.91 seconds to throw the ball, which is amongst the top 10 longest in the NFL. He does a good job of buying time with his feet in and out of the pocket, but he’s extremely dangerous in scramble drills outside the pocket.

Inside the pocket, Mahomes’ passer rating is 117. Outside the pocket, his passer rating is 103.7. Under pressure, his passer rating is 77.3. On 3rd downs, Mahomes’ passer rating is 113.2.

To slow down Mahomes, you’ll need to restrain his top two targets, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. They are usually his primary reads and a lot of their offense relies on rhythmic passing, so restraining those targets will disrupt the flow of the offense. How the Colts should limit those players are examined later on.

The Colts will need to try hard and keep Mahomes in the pocket and not let him run free outside the pocket, because the Chiefs are excellent at scramble drills and a large chunk of their yardages happen when Mahomes is outside the pocket. How the Colts will contain Mahomes will be examined later on.

Limiting Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill

The two most dangerous weapons are: Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. They are polar opposites of each other, but taking them away will require a similar strategy at times.

You want to play tight man coverage against Tyreek Hill? Good luck, he’ll kill you. You want to try and press Travis Kelce with just anybody? Good luck, he’ll kill you. The way you beat these guys is with zone coverage.

Tyreek Hill

Here are Hill’s route charts from the last few games:

Hill vs Raiders (Week 17)

Hill vs Chargers (Week 16)

Hill vs Ravens (Week 14)

With Tyreek Hill, you need to keep a lid on him. Doubling him over the top is important to limiting his production. He gets targeted at least twice each game on deep passes (more than 35-40 yards down the field). If he catches one of those deep passes, it’s most likely going to be a touchdown. Assuming Malik Hooker plays (he is questionable), his play and his role will be crucial in shutting down Hill. This type of coverage is called an over/under bracket coverage.

The over/under bracket coverage essentially sandwiches the receiver with a defender over the top (usually a safety) and a defender underneath (usually the cornerback that lines up against him). Since Hill is a home run deep threat with burners, he cannot get deeper than the deepest man so it’s important to keep someone over the top of him.

The Chargers did a fantastic job of not letting Hill get open down the field thanks to double teams. With Hill being the primary deep threat on the team, taking him away will force Mahomes to throw a lot more underneath.

Travis Kelce

Kelce is arguably the best tight end in the NFL. He’s has a great catch radius, he runs very good routes and he’s extremely tough to bring down. He’s been a nightmare for NFL defenses over the past three seasons.

Here are his route charts over the past few games:

Kelce vs Raiders (Week 17)

Kelce vs Chargers (Week 15)

Kelce vs Ravens (Week 14)

Kelce loves to run a lot of crossing routes, because crossing routes are the best to combat man coverage and Kelce goes up against a lot of man coverage. The reason he goes up against a lot of man coverage is because he eats up zone coverage. There’s a reason he has at least 5 catches in every game (except Week 1) and has an impact on almost every game he plays in.

The best way to combat Kelce is to use the same type of bracket coverage the Colts should use on Hill: Over/Under. The Colts need to sandwich Kelce or trust Darius Leonard on him. If they were to sandwich him, that would take him away, but it would leave the Colts less protected in other areas, especially if they’re doubling Tyreek Hill as well. So, while they’ll need to double him at times, playing Darius Leonard in man coverage with an inside release might be the most effective for a lot of the game. To help Leonard, the Colts can use their defensive end to help “chip” Kelce off the line of scrimmage, which should disrupt the timing of his route.

So while bracket coverage will be needed at times with Kelce, man coverage should be used just as much if not more to help limit his production.

Taking Away Damien Williams & the Screen Game

Damien Williams was the most underrated running back in the NFL in the month of December. In his three games as a starter, he’s averaged 107 yards from scrimmage on 16 touches. Considering the Chiefs ran 167 plays in their last 3 games, Williams was used on as the ball carrier or receiver on 28.7% of plays. While not a significant figure, it’s significant enough that he needs to be accounted for.

The Chiefs are the best team at utilizing screens. Andy Reid must have at least 8-10 screens in his repertoire and he uses a lot of them.

Below is a running chart of Williams’ past two games.

Williams vs Raiders (Week 17)

Williams vs Chargers (Week 15)

Many of Williams’ big runs have come on outside runs (stretches and tosses primarily), so containing the edge is important to stopping him in the running game. Force him to run inside and to consistently beat Leonard and Walker 1 on 1.

In terms of stopping screen passes, the key is to read the offensive line because the offensive tackles usually give it away and to not get too overly aggressive and blitz too often. The Chiefs have gotten some huge plays from their screen passes all season, so stopping that part of their offense will force them to be more creative. The linebackers need to be smart and read the backfield on passing plays, because the Chiefs will most likely call at least 3-4 screen passes throughout the course of the game.

Battle in the Trenches

The Chiefs have one of the stronger offensive lines in the NFL. Mitch Schwartz is the best right tackle in the NFL and has virtually shut down every major pass rusher he’s gone against this season. Eric Fisher has had his best pro season this year as a very good left tackle. The Chiefs have arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the league, so don’t expect much pressure from the Colts’ edge rushers. Their role should be to contain Mahomes and any outside runs, rather than purely rushing the passer.

The Chiefs are the 5th ranked pass protecting offensive lines in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, with an adjusted sack rate of 5.4%, which describes the amount of “sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent”.

The Chiefs have the 16th ranked run blocking offensive line according to Football Outsiders. They are rarely stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, but they aren’t a team that will consistently win on the 2nd level.

The Colts have been effectively utilizing a Double A-Gap front with both defensive tackles lined up in the A-Gap, both defensive ends lined up as 5 techniques and two linebackers focused primarily on the B-Gaps. This is a tough front to operate, because it requires two extremely versatile linebackers, but the Colts have two very talented ones in Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker so they make it work. This front has worked well for them and they need to keep using it, as it keeps the defense simplified and simplified is better for a young, athletic defense.

The Double A-Gap front puts a lot of pressure on the interior offensive lineman and considering Cam Erving and Andrew Wylie have had average-at-best seasons, it’s good to attack them and to force them to have big games. Hunt and Autry (who is also questionable) have been very disruptive in recent weeks, so the strategy should do well again this week.

5 Adjustments/Keys to the Game

  1. To slow down Mahomes, they’ll need to limit his top two receivers, Hill and Kelce, as well as collapse the pocket around him with a contain-first approach to ensure he doesn’t get outside the pocket to create plays.
  2. Limit Tyreek Hill by using a lot of bracket coverage (Over/Under) to eliminate his deep threat ability.
  3. Limit Travis Kelce by using a combination of bracket coverage and man coverage (with a chip) with Darius Leonard.
  4. Stop Damien Williams and the screen game by not blitzing too often and playing a disciplined gap control defense with a 4-3 front.
  5. Continue playing the double A-gap front to put stress on their weaker offensive guards and the edge rushers need to contain Patrick Mahomes in the pocket.

This spectacular offense needs an extra two adjustments (compared to the Titans and Texans offense)!

The key to the Colts is to stay disciplined, not blitz too often, play a lot of zone coverage, and to keep a lid on their offense. Blitzing too often will open up the possibility to dangerous screen passes, so the linebackers need to be on alert the entire game. Playing zone/bracket coverage will help limit the explosiveness of Tyreek Hill and limit the production of Travis Kelce, which will force the Chiefs to beat the Colts with their secondary receivers: Chris Conley, Damarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins (if he plays).

Being overly aggressive in coverage and in blitzes will also open up the possibility to big plays, which the Chiefs thrive on. Eliminating their big, explosive plays will limit the production of their offense.

It’s important to note that I use the term “slowing down” and “limiting” instead of “shutting down” or “stopping” because even against perfect defense, Mahomes can still make insane throws that can beat the right coverage versus a particular route concept. Mahomes is too good to shut down, so don’t expect him or the passing game to be shut down.

This is easily the biggest test for the Colts defense and it will test Matt Eberflus and the coaching staff like never before. The game-plan required for the Chiefs won’t require any drastic changes from their recent strategies, so the continuity should be a good thing for the Colts defense.