Chiefs vs. Cowboys Game Preview: Scheme Spotlight, Mahomes' Notes, Matchups to Watch, and More
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The Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) and Dallas Cowboys (7-2) meet Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.
Here’s what else you should know:
The Chiefs are coming off a monstrous offensive performance against the Las Vegas Raiders and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Chiefs matchup this week with one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, the Dallas Cowboys. They’ll need to continue to put points on the board with regularity if they want to win this game. So how do they do that?
A lot has been made about if the Chiefs performance against the Raiders actually means anything in terms of “fixing the offense”. The reality is, the Raiders didn’t play the same style of defense that has been slowing the Chiefs down this season so it’s really hard to tell, however the short-sighted silver lining is that the Dallas Cowboys play defense very similarly to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Beating Middle of the Field Closed Coverage on Early Downs
The Cowboys’ defensive coordinator is Dan Quinn who comes from the same coaching tree as the Raiders’ Gus Bradley and has a long history of playing a heavy Cover-3 and Cover-1 scheme. This means they like to play with a single deep safety in the middle of the field rather than - the common defense vs the Chiefs this season - Middle of the Field Open coverage which has a deep safety on both halves of the field. Now Dan Quinn, unlike Bradley, has shown a willingness to mix things up on the back-end and bring some more pressure but there is one area where the Cowboys defense still comes out and plays quite stagnant.
On early downs the Cowboys still come out “in what they know” and play these single high looks almost exclusively. It’s these reps in which a defense is defending the run and the pass a little more equally and in a lot of defensive coordinators minds, that’s best accomplished with this style of defense.
The issue being, offenses can easily manipulate this trend and work in shot plays or different formations understanding exactly what a defense is about to run. Both the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots had success throwing the football on first down and it almost came against these single high looks. The Cowboys’ secondary is physical and aggressive so they are more than up to the perceived challenge of these one on one matchups across the board.
The only issue is, the only team that has tried to play these types of coverage - without disguising it - against the Chiefs had an easy 41 points put up on them.
The Raiders were really the first team over the last two months of football to play this style of defense vs the Chiefs and it simply didn’t go well. For all of the issues the Chiefs offense has faced one thing is for certain, they still know how to whoop up on these single high defenses.
Even with some of the deep shots not connecting, there was a clear comfort in attacking all areas of the field vs the Raiders. Travis Kelce had his biggest game in a while, the running backs were heavily involved and had space to work after the catch, and the timing of the offense looked near perfect.
The Cowboys likely won’t play near as much Middle of the Field Closed coverages as the Raiders did but there will be opportunities. It’s going to be up to the Chiefs to force the Cowboys hands - bigger personnel, mixing in the run, etc - on these early downs so they can get into a rhythm again and find those big plays.
Is This The Week for Josh Gordon?
It’s been 45 days since Josh Gordon was added to the Chiefs’ 53 man roster. In the six games that have come during that time span, he has one catch for 11 yards — in his first game, on the very first target he saw against the Buffalo Bills.
Gordon has yet to see more than one target in a game this year — and hasn’t been able to bring anything down within the structure of a play since he joined the Chiefs.
It feels like the Chiefs haven’t been able to get Gordon integrated into the offense yet, and there are plenty of reasons to consider why we may not have seen him produce. He’s coming off an extended absence from football activity due to suspension and that’s notable. Also, chemistry is not something that comes easy, and that could be the case between quarterback and receiver.
Could it simply be ability? Maybe, but nothing I’ve seen to this point tells me he isn’t an upgrade over the likes of Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, and Mecole Hardman. The snap count seems to be starting to reflect his ascent. Gordon saw more snaps than Robinson and Hardman in the Chiefs’ win over the Raiders.
He earned his highest percentage of snaps on the season with 43%. He’s played 38% of the snaps the last three weeks, after playing no more than 13% in a game the three weeks prior. The trend is overwhelming in his action on the field, but the production hasn’t come yet.
Snap count tells the story of what a team thinks of a player — and he’s earned opportunity to be on the field the last three weeks in a significant volume. He fits a role this team desperately needed more of when he got here: a big, physical X receiver that can win in contested areas of the field on the backside of a formation.
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Nothing about that reality has changed — he fits the bill and has still looked capable athletically. Can he earn some targets soon? It remains to be seen, but the usage is there and the opportunity is as well.
If he makes some plays this week, that could be huge for this team coming out of the bye week. The Chiefs will have some time to figure out how to get him further involved, the chemistry will be better established been he and Mahomes, and the confidence will start to swell.
Hopefully this week is the Josh Gordon Breakout Game — or at least some more production.
Tyreek Hill vs. Trevon Diggs
As Matt Lane pointed out above, the Cowboys like to utilize single-high safety looks, and they also like to utilize their fair share of man coverage. While they’ll certainly show some split-safety looks this week against the Chiefs, they won’t fully abandon their bread-and-butter coverages. The result of that could see Tyreek Hill against Trevon Diggs on the boundary without much safety help.
Diggs has been a revelation for the Cowboys defense in year two. He leads the league in interceptions — including six straight games with at least one pick to start the year — and is second in the NFL in pass break-ups with 13. He is aggressive, physical, and will contend at the catch point with bigger receivers while still possessing the vertical speed to run with some of the NFL’s fastest players. Patrick Mahomes even mentioned that the Chiefs offense will “definitely have to have an eye on him at all times”, singling out one of the NFL’s most impactful defensive backs.
Unfortunately, Diggs has a bit of a boom-or-bust streak to him — facilitated by the aforementioned single-high safety coverages. He’s been targeted 58 times this season for an average of 8.4 yards per target. For reference, no Chiefs cornerback has been targeted as much nor given up as many yards per target as Diggs, yet the group combined has less pass break-ups and interceptions than he does on the season. If Diggs does not get his hands on the ball — which again, he’s very good at doing — the opposition has gone 31-for-37 (83.7% completion) for 488 yards, good for 13.2 yards per attempt.
Diggs’ aggressive nature is both a blessing and a curse for this defense at times, and it will be tested by Tyreek Hill on the outside. Hill has gotten volume targets in the Chiefs offense this season, but he’s done a lot more work underneath as the offense has adjusted to the two-high shells they’ve seen so far this season. If the Cowboys give some space underneath and ask their cornerbacks to trigger hard from a cover three shell, I would expect that to continue. However, if the Cowboys play their preferred Cover 1 defense with Diggs near the line of scrimmage, the matchup may tilt in the Chiefs’ favor.
Hill has continually added to his route tree since entering the NFL and has become one of the league’s best at adjusting his cadence while moving on a vertical plane, making the cornerback believe he’s throttling down to break on his route. This could play to Diggs’ aggression when in man coverage, as the cornerback may bite on the fake and try to undercut a route that’s not there. With Hill’s speed, he may be forced to grab and hold or risk an explosive play.
The way this matchup goes could dictate the game script on Sunday afternoon. If the Cowboys can leave Diggs on a relative island and get good results in their single-high looks, it could be a long day for the Chiefs offense. However, if this is a repeat of the last Cover 1-heavy matchup Tyreek Hill received — against Tampa Bay in the 2020 regular season — there could be some massive fireworks between Mahomes and his star receiver.