Chiefs present matchup nightmare for Colts’ zone defense

NFL Playoffs

The Kansas City Chiefs are taking on the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional round. In this intriguing matchup, styles will certainly dictate the fight.

Indianapolis is on fire. The Chiefs might be the extinguisher.

Coming into their Divisional round tilt, the Colts have won 10 of 11 games including a 21-7 knockout of the Houston Texans last weekend. Kansas City, although finishing two games better than Indianapolis at 12-4, finished the year with two losses in its final three contests.

Still, the playoffs are more about matchups than trends. In that space, the Chiefs have the decided advantage.

No team has played more zone coverage than the Colts this year, employing it largely because the defense is without top-end talent. Save for Darius Leonard, Indianapolis relies more on effort, tackling and speed than individual achievement.

Speaking to a pair of NFL coaches this week, the belief is that the Colts will find trouble against the Chiefs.

One of the men expressed how Indianapolis’ Cover 2 zone scheme would result in a big day for Travis Kelce.

“The Cover 2 will help on (Tyreek) Hill, he’s the fastest guy in the NFL,” said the coordinator. “You always have to have a safety on his side, but the underneath zone and space, with Kelce running around in zone is a problem. … Kelce may be the best tight end in the game as Gronk slows down. That’s also where Sammy Watkins really becomes a problem because he’s not chop liver.”

All of this creates problems for the Cover 2-heavy Colts, who are dead last against tight ends in yardage against, touchdowns allowed and receptions permitted. With Hill and Watkins occupying each safety, Kelce will often find himself singled up against a middle linebacker.

Throughout our conversation, though, Watkins remained a focus. The thought is that a third elite weapon mixed in creates a tipping point for Kansas City. With him on the field, it’s hard to roll coverage and form double-teams, leaving Patrick Mahomes with a host of 1-on-1 opportunities.

Watkins hasn’t played since seeing five snaps against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11 due to a foot injury. Without him, the Chiefs are averaging 32.3 points per game, down 4.4 points from when Watkins has been active.

Finally back at full health, Kansas City presents myriad issues.

“The best defense is a good offense,” said the coach. “The Cover 2 scheme works great when Andrew Luck puts (a lot of) points on the board. It’s what you want to be in if you are in the lead. Now they are playing a team in Kansas City that can match them score for score.”

Another NFL coach spoke to Kansas City’s ability to move the ball in large chunks down the middle of the field. He believes the Chiefs will target seam routes against Indianapolis’ scheme, similar to what they did Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In that 42-37 win, Mahomes threw for 326 yards and six touchdowns.

The fascinating question is whether Indianapolis tries to change tendencies in this game. The Colts are going to run their zones, but will there be an emphasis on blitzing? Eberflus and his charges have the lowest blitz percentage in the league, but he was willing to come after Deshaun Watson in the Wild Card win. Of course, Houston doesn’t have the same firepower of Kansas City, and so a blitz that doesn’t impact Mahomes could have disastrous consequences.

None of this is to suggest the Chiefs are home free. Indianapolis is going to score its points against Kansas City, arguably the worst defense in football this season. If the Chiefs’ pass-rushing trio of Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston can’t pressure Luck, their piecemeal secondary will be roasted on national television … again.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Kansas City is a 5.5-point favorite. Despite the Chiefs’ rancid playoff history, the line accurately reflects the contest. Andy Reid’s team has the better roster and is coming off a bye. Indianapolis is hot, but its also playing against the conference’s top seed in its third consecutive road game.

With two weeks to prepare and a favorable schematic matchup, Kansas City has all the advantages it could ask for.

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