I’m not quite ready to say that the key to shutting down the Chiefs Offense is playing zone coverage. It isn’t quite that simple. Kansas City is still more than capable of generating big plays against zone. That being said, the Raiders were torched for 24 points in the first half (and it probably should have been 35) by leaving their coverage defenders in 1-on-1 situations too often. Sometimes this was due to playing man-to-man coverage. Sometimes it was a result of playing matchup-zone concepts behind blitzes. In the second half, however, Raiders Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther was able to make a few tweaks that limited his defense’s exposure and disrupted the Chiefs Offense.
The below 3rd-down was my favorite play of the day. Here, it looked like the Raiders were playing 2-man (man-to-man coverage underneath with two deep safeties).
Focus on the Nevin Lawson-Mecole Hardman matchup. Lawson would not actually be playing true man coverage here. Instead, after trailing Hardman for a few steps as if he was plying man, he passed him off to deep safety Erik Harris (#25) and hung in the underneath middle zone as the hole defender. The other deep safety ran to the middle of the field.
The coverage ended up being Cover-1 (man free), with a deep middle safety and an underneath hole defender. Lawson became that hole defender, which enabled him to provide help on Travis Kelce’s in-breaking route near the first down marker.
This disguise was so effective because it made Mahomes and Kelce see the field differently. Mahomes saw 2-man coverage from his pre-snap read and even a couple of moments into the play. You often beat this coverage with horizontal routes, and Mahomes expected Kelce would keep running across the field. Kelce, on the other hand, saw the hole defender late in the down. Instead of running across the field, he settled in the middle.
That’s a man-coverage disguise executed perfectly by the Raiders Defense.
On Kansas City’s next drive, they faced a 3rd-and-9. This time, Paul Guenther went with a zone concept. The Raiders played Cover-4 “Lock.” That’s quarters coverage to the front side with the backside cornerback, Nevin Lawson in this case, playing-man-to-man against tight end Travis Kelce.
Here, the Raiders would only rush 3 and use a spy on Mahomes. The idea was to use more men in coverage and prevent their defenders from being left in bad 1-on-1 situations (They took their chances with a cornerback locked onto Travis Kelce). The quarters coverage to the 3-receiver side would give the Raiders a better chance against the Chiefs’ speed downfield.
The other core element of this play was the disruption of Kansas City’s routes. Focus on linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and wide receiver Byron Pringle.
Kwiatkoski re-routed Pringle as he appeared to be trying to run a deep-over route. This disrupted the timing of the play and made it easier for the Raiders to account for Kansas City’s deep routes.
The disruption here made the play as no deep defenders were put into conflict.
Playing zone coverage can help limit an offense’s ability to attack downfield. However, it’s irrelevant if you get fast wide receivers attacking less athletic safeties downfield. Disruption at the line is critical for allowing safeties to stay with faster receivers within those few seconds post-snap before the quarterback’s internal clock goes off. The Raiders continued to use this tactic later in the 4th quarter to all but seal the win.
The below play was 3rd-and-7. Focus on how Kwiatkoski and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner were able to impact the routes of Kansas City’s #2 and #3 inside receivers (one without even touching him). This allowed the Quarters safety on that side to not fear the deep ball and more easily pounce on the dig route in front of him.
The Chiefs turned the ball over on the very next play (4th-and-7).
The Raiders did end up playing more zone in the second half, but that wasn’t necessarily the key to their success. Again, it’s not as simple as just playing zone against the Chiefs. They found multiple ways to disrupt the Chiefs’ passing game and limit some of the things that make them special. They also got help from their offense, which scored 40 points and held the ball for over 20 minutes in the second half.
There is no blueprint for stopping Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs Offense. It takes a combination of good scheme and execution. That might be boring, but it’s the truth. And that’s what we saw from the Raiders in Week 5.
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