Typically, the Chiefs’ linebackers review every game together. Thanks to the short week caused by Thursday night’s showdown against Oakland, they were not afforded the opportunity to dissect their 19-13 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday … not that they needed a reminder.
“We know what our problems are,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Trust me, we know.”
The problem? Gap discipline.
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell basically drilled the need for it into their heads Sunday, bludgeoning the Chiefs for 179 yards in 32 carries in the loss.
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“We didn’t watch it, but I already know we just weren’t gap sound, and you can’t do that against him,” outside linebacker Dee Ford said.
Far too often during the game, Bell would receive the handoff, chop his feet behind the line of scrimmage, and wait for his big linemen to create movement in Pittsburgh’s power-run scheme, which is predicated on double-teaming down linemen at the point of attack and working to the second level.
Bell’s patience forced the Chiefs’ defenders to attack a shoulder and commit upfield. He’d wait for them to do that, then slice to the spot the defenders just vacated.
“Nothing that was earth shattering,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “When we look at it as coaches we’re going to say, ‘hey, you needed better footwork, you needed better hand placement, you needed to get off a block better and then when you get a chance, you need to tackle better.’ To me they were more fundamental things than anything.”
Nevertheless, it was a maddening experience for the league’s 27th-ranked run defense.
“We weren’t, like, physically getting handled –– we were just out of place,” Ford said. “You saw the holes. That makes you sick.”
One of the ways the Chiefs could have compensated for their overall lack of gap discipline was by adding an additional defender to the box.
The Chiefs did this, at times, but generally prefered to rely on an “even count” box –– placing the same number of defenders vs. blockers in the area around the line of scrimmage –– because it helps defend against the pass in an increasingly pass-happy league.
The Chiefs’ defenders have embraced the challenge of stopping the run with the philosophy, given the team’s overall success the last two years, going 17-5 since 2016.
“It’s hard, but our motto is, everybody has a blocker on them, somebody has to win,” Johnson said. “Now, coverage-wise, we’re better because of that. But we can do better (against the run).”
Particularly in their nickel and dime subpackages. That’s when teams have often decided to run the ball against the Chiefs, using three- and four-wide sets to add more defensive backs to the field and pound away.
According to ESPN, the Chiefs are 20th in the league vs. the run in nickel defenses (5.3 yards per carry) and 25th in dime (8 yards per carry).
“That’s when people typically run on us,” Johnson said. “It’s a little light in (the box).”
Still, Johnson and the rest of the inside linebackers are putting it on themselves to fix the problem. Even though the linebackers didn’t watch tape of the Steelers game as a team, a handful of them –– including starters Johnson and Reggie Ragland –– got together on Monday to review it on their own.
One takeway, Johnson said, is they could stand to be more vocal. See a defensive tackle getting knocked out of his gap? Say something.
And of course, take better angles and finish more tackles.
“We’ve got to put more responsibility on us,” Johnson said.
The good news for the Chiefs is that there’s only one Le’Veon Bell. On Thursday, they face Marshawn Lynch, who runs hard and is a load to tackle but is a much more aggressive runner and doesn’t run with Bell’s patience.
What’s more, while Oakland ran a lot of gap plays a year ago, the Raiders have called more stretch/zone runs to accommodate Lynch’s one-cut style.
Regardless, the Chiefs know not to take anything for granted.
“We come into this game understanding we’ve got to win the line of scrimmage,” Ford said. “Win the line of scrimmage, stay in your gaps and let’s play ball.”