Welcome to Divisional Weekend of the 2018 NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The first divisional round game of the 2018 NFL playoffs will take place in Kansas City as the Chiefs will face the Indianapolis Colts. Here’s what to watch for:
INDY REBUILDING ON DEFENSE
Colts head coach Frank Reich – the former backup to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly – spent the early part of his coaching career working for Indy as Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach. During that time period, his boss was another Hall of Famer in Tony Dungy, who believed in a straightforward Cover Two defensive scheme that allowed his guys to play fast and rely on execution rather than outsmarting the opposition.
Reich has returned the Colts to that mindset, bringing in staff members who have ties to the Dungy coaching tree in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, defensive backs coach Alan Williams and defensive line coach Mike Phair. The problem is they have very little depth on that side of the ball, which limits their creativity.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard is one of the best run-defending linemen in the league, but creating pressure in the pocket isn’t his strong suit. Conversely his counterpart Margus Hunt, a former project in Cincinnati, got off to a good start with four sacks in his first five games but has taken down an opposing quarterback just once since Week Seven.
Beyond those two, the only other defenders of note are second-year safety Malik Hooker and rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. Hooker, who was compared by some to Ed Reed when coming out from Ohio State, has had injury troubles in the pros, but when healthy, he has played well. Leonard is a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Colts have blitzed more than usual lately in order to compensate for their lack of a consistent pass rush. Watch for them to attack the Chiefs with overload blitz concepts, especially with slot cornerbacks coming off the edge.
Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri surpassed Hall of Famer Morten Anderson as the NFL’S all-time leading scorer earlier this season.
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO – FOR THE MOST PART – LUCK
Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirriani – a Jamestown native and graduate of Southwestern High School – had a tough task on their hands coming into this season. Coming off of shoulder surgery that kept him out of all of last season – and not having one of the NFL’s better offensive lines over his career to boot – quarterback Andrew Luck needed to change something in his game in order to stay healthy.
Rather than attempt most of his passes out of plays where he took seven-step drops and create on the run, it was believed that Reich and Sirriani would attempt to get him to take more three and five-step drops and get the ball out of his hands quickly and accurately. The problem with that approach is, it would take away from one of Luck’s greatest strengths.
According to Andy Benoit of the MMQB, “Luck is at his best when he extends plays. Most quarterbacks go sandlot when they prolong the action, but Luck understands which routes beat which coverages late, and he consistently spots receivers coming open by keeping his eyes downfield and moving within the pocket. His accuracy on tough throws is exceptional. You take those virtues away when you ask him to get rid of the ball sooner.”
So far, Reich and Sirriani have asked Luck to throw the ball a ton due to a lack of a consistent running game from second year back Marlon Mack and company. Which is a precarious position to put him in, given his health issues.
Luck’s best target is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who may or may not play due to injury. Hilton is reminiscent of former Bills wideout Lee Evans in that he is a one-trick pony, but he is one of the NFL’s best at that one trick – getting open on deep routes. The problem for Hilton is that he struggles against press coverage due to his smallish frame. If he plays, watch for the Colts to send him in motion to create more space between him and defenders.
The Colts’ offensive line is mostly young, save for veteran left tackle Anthony Costanzo. Center Ryan Kelly is only in his third year, and guard Quinton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith are rookies. They have played well despite their youth, however, as evidenced by their leading the NFL in fewest sacks allowed.
Tight end Eric Ebron, formerly of the Detroit Lions, is a good route-runner and is explosive wherever he lines up – on the line, out wide or in the slot. But he’s such a bad blocker that when he comes into the game, defenses know it will likely be a pass.
Indianapolis has been very successful using vertical plays on first down – especially with play-action built into it – in order to add an explosive element to their offense. Look for that to continue against Kansas City.
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS EXPLOSIVE
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken many forms over the years. Under quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, the passing game became more vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, while with Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith it was more conservative.
Now, with Patrick Mahomes under center, it has returned to its downfield version. It has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped.”
The comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. Running backs Spencer Ware and Damien Williams are good receivers out of the backfield, and the offensive line is led by Pro Bowler Eric Fisher and the solid Mitchell Schwartz.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the slot and in the backfield. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins to give the Chiefs a lethal combination who can beat anyone deep.
Tight end Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is also able to align in different ways in the formation. Athletic and a strong route runner, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE ON THE DECLINE
Over the last several years, the Chiefs’ defense has been conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. Sutton’s system is similar to Rex Ryan’s in that it operates out of a base 3-4 and predominantly features man coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where.
During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City, the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit. However, since 2016 it has taken a nose dive. This year, it has bottomed out, finishing the regular season second-last in the league in total and passing yards allowed, 24th in points allowed and 27th against the run. But their saving grace is that they tied for first with the Pittsburgh Steelers in sacks.
The Chiefs aren’t without playmakers though. Defensive end Chris Jones has an excellent combination of quickness and strength, and is extremely underrated. Justin Houston and Dee Ford make up one of the NFL’s best pass rush tandems, and when safety Eric Berry is healthy – which he hasn’t been for most of this season – he is an elite player. Cornerback Kendall Fuller is on the rise, and linebacker Reggie Ragland is a thumper against the run.
THIS AND THAT
- Colts general manager Chris Ballard spent four years with the Chiefs as director of player personnel and director of football operations. He also spent 12 years as a scout and as director of pro scouting with the Chicago Bears, with his time there intersecting with Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub.
- Chiefs president Mark Donovan worked for eight years with Reid in Philadelphia as Vice President of Business Operations.
- Rick Burkholder, the Chiefs’ Vice President of Sports Medicine and Performance, held the same position with Reid in Philly from 1999-2012.
- Brett Veach, Kansas City’s general manager, was a longtime colleague of Reid’s with the Eagles going back to 2004.
- Toub’s time as the Chicago Bears’ special teams coach from 2004-12 not only overlapped with Ballard, but also with Colts Director of Sports Performance Rusty Jones from ’05-13 and Phair from 2011-13.
- Toub, Chiefs secondary coach Al Harris, wide receivers coach Greg Lewis, quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy have all either played for or coached along with Reid in Philadelphia.
- Phair was on Tampa Bay’s staff as an assistant defensive line coach when Kafka was on the Bucs’ roster.
- Colts assistant defensive line coach Robert Mathis was on Indianapolis’ roster when Williams and Reich coached there originally (2002-11 and 2006-11).
- Dave DeGuglielmo, the Colts’ offensive line coach, served in the same capacity with the New York Jets in 2012 while current Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was their linebackers coach. DeGuglielmo also worked with Sirianni with the Chargers in 2016 and coached the Miami Dolphins’ offensive line in 2010 while Harris was still a player.
- Reich and Sirianni were colleagues with the Chargers from 2013-15.
- Sirianni was on the Chiefs’ staff from 2009-12, overlapping with Kansas City’s defensive backs coach, Emmitt Thomas, for three years.
- Reich was Doug Pederson’s offensive coordinator in Philadelphia from 2016-17. Pederson worked for and played for Reid for many years.