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Houston, everyone else has a problem

Sacks are most certainly not everything. Everyone who has ever dabbled in the unfounded and undetailed process of box score analysis will have based on argument regarding a team or player’s pass rush on the number of sacks that they have. That does not mean that they are not an indicator of such abilities. To some extent, at least, they are. But the whole picture is not provided. You need to dig a little deeper.

The Kansas City Chiefs’ recorded two sacks against the Los Angeles Chargers last Saturday night. One came from Chris Jones, his second in successive games; the other came from Eric Murray on a nicely designed safety blitz, enjoying a free run at Philip Rivers, delivering a thumping, emphatic, joyous hit. That is an average pass-rushing day, if the sacks were all that matters. In fact, against the Chargers, a team who had allowed the least number of sacks in the NFL entering Saturday’s game, something that was in some part due to the improvements made along the offensive, the experienced pre-snap reads of Philip Rivers, the quarterback’s pocket presence, and his quick release, it is indicative of a successful outing for the Chiefs’ pass rush. But this was much more than just a successful outing; this was the Chiefs’ pass rush, ostensibly, back to its best.

First, let’s look at the sacks. The first came on a third down thanks to an Eric Murray blitz from safety. It’s a lovely design by Sutton.

Justin Houston drops into coverage – as a slight aside, this is something that most of the time is incredibly frustrating to see. Why would you not allow your best pass rusher to rush, especially on third down or in the red zone? Well, this is why: it creates a protection mismatch. That leaves the RT with no one to block. On the other side, Sutton blitzes both Derrick Johnson and Murray from the linebacker and safety positions, rotating Sorensen, who was initially stationed as the dime linebacker that he so often plays. Because of the coverage rotation, the pressure must be swift. Rivers has a quick release and is good from pre-snap reads. He can often evade a blitzing safety as a result. But because of the overload that Sutton’s design creates, Murray is given a free run at Rivers. With nowhere to go, the sack is inevitable.

The second sack of the day, which also came in the first half, was a far simpler affair.

Essentially, Chris Jones is just better than the offensive guard. It’s that simple. The guard was left one-on-one with Jones, and Jones basically just overpowers him. Jones gets his hand placement spot on: Right under the shoulder-pads of the guard, with a strong base and in full control. At this point, Jones is in command. Then his strength comes into play, sweeping the guard to his right with a strong swipe of his left hand and pull of his right hand (this is why the bench press is so important for linemen). He wins almost instantly, and Rivers has nowhere to go.

These are the type of plays that Jones has not making consistently throughout the season. Against double-teams, he will always struggle a little. His overly high pad-level contributes massively to this. But when one-on-one, his greater size-speed advantage should lead to more dominant pass-rushing snaps. Having said that, against the Raiders and the Chargers, he is beginning to showcase the impact that was expected of him entering the season. If the Chiefs are to have any semblance of a pass rush, it will be because of two people in particular: Justin Houston, who I will get on to and Chris Jones. It is these type of plays that Jones made frequently against the Chargers. He must replicate that down the stretch and in the playoffs.

But, as I mentioned previously, sacks aren’t everything. What the Chiefs did well is consistently put pressure on Rivers. I went back and charted every pass rushing snap – there were 38 passes attempted by Rivers. I watched 39 as one was called back for holding which is not included in the stat line. Of those 39 snaps, the Chiefs rushed three players only eight times. And of those eight times, one was in a third and very long situation in which Rivers passed short to Melvin Gordon and the tackle was made well short of the first down yard-line, and two were at

the end of the first-half when the Chargers had seven second to drive approximately 60 yards. These were sensible snaps for a three-man rush. The Chiefs’ rushed four players 23 times, including on the snap where there was a holding penalty, brought a five-man rush three times (I have not called this is blitz. This is where the Chiefs are in their base 3-4 alignment and both the outside linebackers rush the passer), and blitzed five times, twice from a safety, once from a linebacker and another from a cornerback.

Of the 39 snaps, the Chiefs created pressure on 14, which includes pressure on the holding snap. Three of those pressures came on three safety blitzes, one came on the linebacker blitz, one came on a five-man rush, and nine came on a four-man rush. I also charted the number of bad rushes as well. This is not necessarily when Rivers was not under pressure. Sometimes he got the ball out so quick that it would be unfair to call it a bad rush. This was where Rivers had time to progress through his reads without ever being put under pressure. I saw seven of these bad-rushing snaps. However, two of those came on the aforementioned three-man rushes when the Chiefs were either defending a very long third down or had entered prevent mode to stop the long completion. Of the other six bad snaps, the Chiefs’ rushed three men twice, one of which nearly resulted in a Kevin Pierre-Lewis interception, rushed four-men twice, and rushed five-men once.

What was so pleasing about the Chiefs’ pass rush against the Chargers was the consistency of it. Other than when Rivers was able to release the ball quickly, they were frequently collapsing the pocket, driving him off his spot and forcing errant throws. Speaking of errant throws, it’s time to talk about Justin Houston and those interceptions.

Here’s the first one from Marcus Peters. Look at Justin Houston.

Now, it wasn’t instant pressure from Houston, granted. And it looks as though Rivers was ready to unleash the ball with or without his rush. But his presence restricts Rivers’ ability to step into the throw and put enough purchase into it. That is what allows Marcus Peters, who is an outstanding tracker of the ball, especially when it’s a deep ball, to make the interception. This is not a play that will pop up on the stats sheet; this was not a sack. But it was extremely impactful on the game.

And now, to further enforce the point, here’s Rivers’ second interception:

This was a much more blatant and instant win from Houston. What was most important, though, was his recognition. This is a fourth-down play. Rivers was attempting to catch the Chiefs off-guard by going no-huddle and snapping the ball quickly. Houston, though, was alert. He was ready for the snap. In fact, he was more prepared than the right tackle, who whiffs on the block. The pass balloons up into the air after Houston’s contact with Rivers’ arm, and Ron Parker comes down with an easy interception. Again, this is another play that will not show in the box score. But it was one of the most important plays of the whole game.

Not only did Houston make two huge plays that forced interceptions, though, he was also a consistent menace throughout. When he rushed the passer, he was the most consistent of all the Chiefs’ rushers, with Sutton even unleashing him on the guard a couple of times with his short-area quickness causing problems for the stronger but less agile interior offensive lineman. Per PFF (https://www.profootballfocus.com/news/pro-nfl-2017-week-15-team-of-the-week), he had 25 pass rush snaps. He had five pressures. That is remarkable. PFF also graded him out as their best edge defender of the Week 15 slate of games. Their grading system is not always the most accurate, but it does provide a good snapshot of a player’s general level of performance. And Houston is top of the class.

The Chiefs’ pass rush was excellent against the Chargers, a team that has excelled in pass protection up until this point. That is perhaps the promising aspect: The Chiefs performed well against one of the NFL’s best units. If they can replicate the same consistency in their pass rushing moving forward, then perhaps this defence can keep teams to a reasonable level. When facing the likes of Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs,

Lord knows they are going to need it. The Chiefs have shown they have the ability. The question now is one of replication. Only time will tell.

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