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Chiefs vs. Chargers - Game Preview: Stats, Matchups, and Storylines
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If you’re looking for a poetic reason that the Chiefs lost to the Ravens last Sunday night - consider that now Andy Reid could become the first head coach in NFL history to win 100+ games with two difference franchises, and he would earn that honor in the friendly confines of Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs (1-1) and Chargers (1-1) meet Sunday at Noon (CST) in the first divisional game of the season for both teams, and both teams are coming off tough losses decided in the final minutes of their games last Sunday.
The Chiefs dropped a 36-35 thriller to the Ravens that we all don’t want to talk about anymore. The Chargers watched former Missouri Western standout Greg Zuerlein drill a 56-yard field goal for the Cowboys as time expired to give them a 20-17 victory.
The Chiefs’ defense is coming off a poor performance. The offense didn’t close it out late, and the Chargers are a completely different test than the Browns and Ravens.
But Patrick Mahomes has never had a losing record as a professional quarterback, and something has to give, right?
Here’s to hoping the Chiefs’ AFC West dominance, which looks like 31-5 since 2005, continues.
Thanks to our friends at Pro Football Focus (subscribe here!), here are seven stats/nuggets to know heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Chargers:
Chargers’ QB Justin Herbert has the 3rd-highest percentage of “intermediate” throws of any QB in the league. What it means - nearly 30 percent of Herbert’s throws come 10-19 yards down the field, and that’s a high percentage. He’s not afraid to throw it around.
Chargers’ RT Storm Norton allowed a team-high 9 pressures last week against the Dallas Cowboys. That’s a lot, and his 10 pressures allowed on the season are the second-most of any OT in the league. If the Chiefs do have a quality pass-rush department - we should see more success on Sunday than we have over the past two weeks.
Chargers’ RB Austin Ekeler has the fifth-most routes’ run of any RB in the NFL so far this season with 52. It’s important because he’ll probably be targeted quite a bit on Sunday.
Ekeler’s “y/co” (yards after contact) of 3.38 also ranks sixth-best in the NFL right now, which combined with his ability to catch the ball and create problems for linebackers in space, make him a real problem, particularly for where our defense has struggled recently.
Through 2 games, Patrick Mahomes is completing 92.3 percent of his passes (36 of 39) when the ball is thrown in 2.5 seconds or less, but only 53.6 percent (15 of 28) when thrown after 2.5 seconds. He’s still the best player in the league and it’s a small sample size, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Last week against the Ravens, Chiefs’ safety Tyrann Mathieu showed off his versatility - lining up all over their defense, including 19 snaps in the box as a linebacker, 29 snaps at free safety, and 24 snaps in the slot. It resulted in a pair of interceptions and one that was returned for six points. We’ve all seen it.
Much like Mathieu, Chargers’ safety Derwin James lines up all over the place for his defense - amassing 45 snaps from the slot last week, and no other spots more than 7 snaps, but the week prior in Week 1 - had 19 or more snaps played in the box, slot, and also at free safety.
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Here are some more in-depth thoughts about Sunday’s matchup from Matt Lane, Kent Swanson, and Craig Stout.
Scheme Spotlight: Chargers Run Defense
One of the biggest principles in Brandon Staley’s defense is the commitment to light boxes. The preference is to play a ton of nickel defensive personnel and keep two deep safeties pre-snap only inserting one of them into the box post snap. This often presents favorable numbers in the run game for the offense as at least one gap is going to be unaccounted for.
It sounds too good to be true and against the Los Angeles Rams in 2020 that was the case. The spinning down S - or occasionally the nickel defensive back - inserted that final defender into the run fit and often times from such an angle and distance that an offensive linemen couldn’t realistically block them. On top of that, the defensive line plays what is called “1.5 gap technique” which means every DL is responsible for a primary gap but is position to impact a secondary gap as well.
Combining these two styles of play, the Staley defense is trying to lure offenses into running the football and then converging on them in “new” ways. It worked great for the Rams but the early return on investment for the Chargers has been significantly less impressive.
From just simple alignment, the Chargers were never in position to defend these Tight Zone runs. The Dallas Cowboys were able to get free climbers to the second level or double team a DL into the path of a second level defender regularly. The most advanced thing the Cowboys did was run Right Zone instead of Inside Zone in which the biggest difference is the aiming point of the running back is more midline and direct.
The Chiefs most predominant run this year has been Outside Zone followed by Inside Zone. This could be a good week to get the latter rolling a little better than the first two weeks when they get some looks like these with the middle of the field so wide open. The key is going to be consciously attacking the defenders with blockers and runners rather than trying to allow the defenders to dictate the pace.
Gap runs - like Power and Duo in these clips - are tailor made to attack this kind of defensive approach to run defense. The defense wants the offense to move laterally so they can work the 1.5 gaps while in gap schemes, the offense is usually coming directly at you. Additionally, when there is going to be a light box if you can pull an OL to create yet another gap on a specific side of the ball, it becomes even harder to make up for the lack of defenders.
Coming into this season there was a ton of talk about how the Chiefs may be adjusting their run scheme given the new additions. Creed Humphrey, Joe Thuney, Trey Smith, and Orlando Brown all have extensive experience playing in gap schemes and you could easily make the argument that their skillset better fits that style of run.
Unfortunately that hasn’t happened for the Chiefs; according to Pro Football Focus the Chiefs are sitting at a 23% gap run scheme. This is down from 31% in 2020 and even 37% in 2019. If there was ever a game to commit to this new rumored scheme, this could be it given the schematic advantage it presents over this style of run defense.
The Chiefs certainly shouldn’t sit back and run the ball 75% of the time in this game. They probably shouldn’t even near 50% in the run:pass ratio but they need to have success when they do. The Chargers are going to try to lure them into running the football and you can really turn that philosophy on it’s head if you can rumble for 5+ yards every carry. Churn out a few big runs vs these favorable looks and then look to attack downfield off play-action, another area the Chiefs haven’t found great success in so far in 2021.
Mahomes vs. Herbert part two
This is only the second time we’ll have seen Mahomes and Herbert matchup in a game — and the first time we’ll see these two square off in Kansas City.
The Chiefs didn’t play most of their starters in week 17 of the 2020 season after securing the AFC one seed early. If you remember, that’s the game we were blessed to see Khalen Saunders play linebacker out of necessity.
It’s been since week 2 of last season that we got to see the first edition of a matchup we should see for several years. You might forget that the Chiefs needed overtime to beat the Chargers to remain undefeated. They mustered only 20 points offensively — albeit against a very good Los Angeles defense who has had success slowing them down. 6 of those points came on an exceptional play by Mahomes and Tyreek Hill.
It may be a different coaching staff, but defensive head coach Brandon Staley still has the same talent at his disposal — plus the return of safety Derwin James. The Chiefs will have to work hard to create explosive plays against a defense emphasizing keeping a lid on the fastest offense in football. Mahomes has gotten increasingly better at taking what the defense gives him — and efficiently moving the ball down the field with exceptional ball placement in the short passing game.
The Chiefs could challenge Herbert to try and go drive-for-drive with the Chiefs — defensive coordinator has not been shy in pressuring quarterbacks to make plays down the field. He’ll probably have some shots to make plays down the field — and he’ll have to make them if he wants to keep pace with Mahomes this week.
This pair has the makings of a great rivalry for the foreseeable future. Enjoy two of the AFC’s best going toe-to-toe in Arrowhead on Sunday — for only the second time.
Matchup to watch: Red zone Man-beaters vs Chiefs CB’s
The Chiefs defense has struggled in the red zone this season, allowing 100% of the opponent’s trips to be converted to touchdowns. While their matchup this week has not been particularly efficient in the red zone — 30% TD rate, good for 31st in the league — the concepts Joe Lombardi has implemented are still dangerous.
He’s been especially effective with his man beaters in the red zone, implementing stacks, bunches, pick routes, and follow routes to try to exploit man and match coverage weaknesses. Steve Spagnuolo relies on a lot of these coverages in the red zone — leaning on Cover 0 and Cover 7 concepts. The way that Lombardi is able to get free releases and throw traffic in front of defenders is terrific, giving his quarterback open windows and easy reads to hit his receivers.
This is exacerbated when a terrific route runner like Keenan Allen is the primary target, as shown in the above play. Allen is tough enough to stay in phase with as a defender on a straight release from the line of scrimmage, but placing him in the backfield on a follow route takes away some of the ways a defense can bracket him and eliminate him from the passing game.
Several of these concepts come from Sean Payton’s playbook, as Lombardi had two stints in New Orleans as the Saints’ quarterbacks coach. Payton — and Drew Brees — were able to maximize their opportunities in the red zone due to these concepts for years, and I expect that we’ll see the best of a division rival this week in these situations.
Spagnuolo’s defense has struggled in the red zone in 2021, largely due to the run defense. With the Chargers more likely to pass, this might fall into Spagnuolo’s strengths a bit more than in the first two weeks. However, some of the communication issues we’ve seen in the secondary will need to be cleaned up to ride through these man-beaters if they’re to change their red zone fortunes on Sunday.
The Chiefs need a turnaround on defense in the red zone, and a light personnel/aerial attack-focused Chargers offense might be just the thing to help rectify that. If they can flip the narrative against a creative red zone offense in the Chargers, that could prove to be a building block moving forward for the defense — and one they desperately need to help out Mahomes and the offense.