Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the AFC’s Divisional Round games will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, as the Kansas City Chiefs will face the Cleveland Browns. Here’s what you should know:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS EXPLOSIVE
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken many forms over the years. While in Philadelphia the passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick became more vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith it was more conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center, it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy 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…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
The widespread 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. His weapons in the passing game play to those strengths as well. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins and burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone deep.
Tight end Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch formations – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers on many different routes, especially corner, stick and crossing routes, and Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020.
Back in April the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, significantly upgrading a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy. Williams’ opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 put the spotlight squarely on the young rookie, who got off to an encouraging start to his career but as time has gone on his impact on the field has been reduced.
To lighten the first-year back’s load, Kansas City signed former All-Pro Le’Veon Bell in October. Bell, like his younger counterpart, is a shifty and strong runner who also excels in running routes out of the backfield and while split out at wide receiver. Unlike Edwards-Helaire though, Bell is savvier and more patient at setting up his blockers to spring for big gains and is more experienced in pass protection.
The two operate behind an offensive line that is made up of Eric Fisher and Mike Remmers at left and right tackle (Remmers has filled in for Mitchell Schwartz since Schwartz injured his back against the Buffalo Bills in Week Six), Andre Wylie at one guard spot and Austin Reiter at center, and fullback Anthony Sherman is one of football’s better lead blockers. But the other starting guard position has been a revolving door this season, as the rising Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of 2020 because of the virus. His replacement, former Baltimore Raven Kelechi Osemele, tore tendons in both knees, and Nick Allegretti has settled in there.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE RED HOT LAST YEAR, BUT FINDING ITS WAY IN 2020
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City, the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit. However, from 2016-18 it took a nosedive, bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his former assistants in Philadelphia, Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man blitzes and coverages involving mainly quarters/Cover Four schemes with safeties rotating before the snap. It took about half of 2019 for the Chiefs’ defenders to get used to Spagnuolo’s playbook, but they played lights-out after Week 11 – allowing just 11.5 points-per-game, notching 10 interceptions and finishing the regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass. They also racked up 45 sacks which was 11th-best among all defenses.
This year has been a bit different. Like the rest of the league, Kansas City’s defensive play hasn’t been great – as evidenced by them finishing 21st against the run – but did end 2020 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions.
A big key to Kansas City’s turnaround was the importation of former Texans and Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his 1,080 snaps on the field last season – 483 at slot cornerback, 315 at box safety and nickel/dime linebacker, 173 at free safety, 82 near the defensive line and 27 at outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence are valuable to the Chiefs.
Opposite Mathieu is a combination of second-year man Juan Thornhill, who is also a versatile playmaker, and Daniel Sorenson, who contributes on special teams too. The Chiefs’ other starting defensive backs are veteran Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton, and they hold up well in man coverage – which is important given Spagnuolo’s penchant for calling man-blitzes.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive tackle in the league and is the linchpin to this defense thanks to his combination of burst and power off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness and Derrick Nnadi is an up-and-coming name to watch too. At linebacker Kansas City employs two former Dallas Cowboys in Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson.
BROWNS’ OFFENSE AN IMPROVED UNIT
The Cleveland Browns were surrounded by loads of hype heading into the 2019 season and rightfully so. The additions of many well-known players over the offseason, an improved record in 2018 and the development of quarterback Baker Mayfield had some feeling as if the Browns could challenge for the AFC North’s crown. It didn’t happen that year, but the eventual hiring of Kevin Stefanski from the Minnesota Vikings as head coach has helped Cleveland clear two major hurdles – reaching the postseason for the first time since 2002 and winning their first playoff game since 1994.
Stefanski has implemented an iteration of the West Coast offense learned from veteran coordinator Gary Kubiak last year – a ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, it features agile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. The system will also have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
Mayfield is a savvy, accurate signal-caller who does very well when put in play designs that allow him to capitalize on his strengths – namely mobility and bold decision-making, and Stefanski knows how to get the best out of him. In 2018 Mayfield had a record-setting rookie year, completing 64 percent of his passes for 27 touchdowns – breaking the league record for first-year players shared between Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson – and tossing 14 interceptions in 13 starts. After a sophomore slump last season Mayfield bounced back in 2020 with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26 to eight, and the amount of run-fakes in Cleveland’s offense creates defined reads and throws for him to exploit.
According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “(Mayfield) extends plays with his feet, but only when necessary, relying first on his outstanding timing and accuracy, especially on seam balls and underneath throws from spread formations. More impressive are the passes Mayfield does not make; he has a veteran’s sense for getting off of bad reads. And when he does get fooled into the occasional turnover, he continues to be aggressive.”
Cleveland’s rushing offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it and executing these blocks are guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, center JC Tretter and tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin.
The Browns’ offense makes liberal use of multi-tight end sets, and Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant have benefited from it. At wide receiver, Jarvis Landry is one of the NFL’s best from the slot and Rashard Higgins is adept on dig and corner routes. Donovan Peoples-Jones has filled in for one of football’s elite talents in Odell Beckham Jr., who is out with a torn ACL.
The duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at running back – an impressive combination of speed and power – is one of the NFL’s finest. They’re so good, in fact, that they helped Cleveland end 2020 as the third-best rushing team in the league. Blocking for them is fullback Andy Janovich.
CLEVELAND’S DEFENSE IS SO-SO
The Browns’ defense does have some pieces to work around but they didn’t get a lot of positive results against the pass in the regular season (Notably, Cleveland did intercept Ben Roethlisberger four times last week). They are, however, good against the run – ranking ninth in the league in that category.
Myles Garrett had a 12-sack season (his third straight double-digit sack campaign) but the big, quick defensive end from Texas A&M doesn’t have much help in getting after quarterbacks. Veteran bookend Olivier Vernon, the former Miami Dolphin and New York Giant, will miss Sunday’s game due to injury and will be replaced by Adrian Clayborn. They are joined on the defensive line by Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi.
The Browns’ pass defense is built around zone coverage and they have some chess pieces in their secondary to execute it. They employ one of pro football’s best cornerbacks in Denzel Ward – who specializes in matching up with smaller, quicker wideouts – and Andraez “Greedy” Williams, who typically gets assignments against bigger targets. Cleveland’s starting safeties are Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph – neither have much range on the back end – and at linebacker, the athletic B.J. Goodson is flanked by thumper Mack Wilson, former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips.