Matt Forte is used to the extra attention he receives from defenses. As one of the league’s premier running backs, he knows the stacked boxes he regularly faces are part of the deal.
But every once in a while, he’ll see a defense trot out its nickel personnel against the Chicago Bears’ three-wide sets. And when he knows he’s about to get the ball, he smiles.
“It’s a look that you look for — I don’t really get it that often,” Forte said. “I definitely like to see that when you get in there, because sometimes the nickel defenders, they fit it differently than a base defensive guy would, so you can do some things different in that aspect of the run game. A lot of times you try to get that extra guy out of the box.”
The Chiefs defense knows this all too well. In their last two games, both losses to Green Bay and Cincinnati, their opponents have run the ball quite well against their nickel subpackages, and it’s a trend the Chiefs are hoping to snuff out Sunday against Forte and the Bears.
“It’s about us being able to stop the run in nickel defenses,” Chiefs defensive end Mike DeVito said. “When you can do that well, the whole playbook opens up. So it’s all about, when we’re out there with those (light) boxes, still being able to stuff the run. And we have been focusing on that and it’s something we take pride in.”
In the last two games, the Packers and Bengals have combined to rush 29 times for 152 yards and three touchdowns against the Chiefs’ nickel and dime subpackages. That’s an average of 5.2 yards per carry, much higher than the 3.4-yard average they’ve yielded in 17 carries (with one touchdown) in their base 3-4 defense.
“Oh man, it’s a whole different ballgame, not having an extra big guy out there,” nose tackle Jaye Howard said. “It does make a difference. When all three of us are out there together, especially me, (Allen) Bailey and (Dontari) Poe, we all play off each other, and it’s hard to run on us. I don’t think too many teams can get their yards on us.
“They try to put us out of that situation by being in the nickel. And with (three-wide) personnel, we have to put two D-linemen out there.”
The fix is simple, though it’s easier said than done.
“Everybody’s got to be gap sound,” nose tackle Poe said. “And then we’ve got to take the same mentality we do in a three-man front to the nickel package.”
When asked if the nickel run defense issues were related to missed tackles or gap integrity, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said it was a combination of both. But the good news is, he knows they can get it fixed.
After all, the Chiefs’ run defense, he noted, was sound in the first two games of the season against Houston and Denver, when it yielded only 3.7 yards per carry against two teams that also used personnel groupings that forced the Chiefs into their nickel and dime subpackages.
“You take the last two games, our run defense hasn’t been as good as we’d like it to be in anything,” Sutton said. “But the first two, we played a lot of (three-wide personnel) in those games … you’ve got to look at it for what it really is … and get back to what we were doing in those first two games.”
To stop the run in the NFL, defenses ask linemen and linebackers to be responsible for each gap up front, using various combinations of assignments. But while concepts can be explained on the chalkboard and in the film room, in the rough and tumble world of the NFL, often times the best way to get a feel for how to hit, be physical and assignment-sound against the run is to practice hitting and being physical.
So Sutton and the Chiefs put an emphasis on getting back to basics this week, which is why players say they had a full-contact practice on Wednesday.
“This was a good week of practice,” DeVito said. “Guys went out there and got after it. You start to get frustrated losing these games. We know we have a great team in this locker room so we went out there and put our work in.”
Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said stopping the run, in any front, is all about mentality. It’s also a critical piece of the Chiefs’ plan to reverse a 1-3 start.
“We’ve got hit up a couple of times in the run game in the nickel part of it,” Johnson said. “But it’s one of those things where we believe in what we’ve got going on, we just need to tighten up a few things here and there … so we can peak at the right time.”
And while the Chiefs’ defense may be down now — they rank 28th in total defense, which means their passing defense has been lit up recently, too — Forte said a unit that still features five former Pro Bowlers in Johnson, Poe, safety Eric Berry and outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston shouldn’t be taken lightly, recent run struggles be darned.
“This defense is a legit, good defense, so we definitely have to, up front, handle them in the run game as well as in the passing game …. and not (allow) a lot of penetration in the run game,” Forte said.