Arrowhead is going to be full of screaming Chiefs fans on Sunday afternoon, and the Chiefs defensive backs are going to have their hands full when Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons passing attack take the field. Ryan is more dangerous than ever under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who has a fascination with throwing the deep ball, while the Chiefs break in a new player and return a starter to create what promises to be a very interesting matchup in week 1.
The signs of a revamped Atlanta passing game were glaring prior to the preseason, and they were confirmed when the Falcons threw a plethora of deep balls in their four weeks of exhibition games. Most of them went to second year star wideout Julio Jones, who made acrobatic catches and punished defensive backs en route to the end zone, mostly off of play action or when he was the solo receiver on the backside of the formation.
That is expected from Koetter because he builds his offense off of the four-verticals pass concept, which features four receivers running down the field as they pin the secondary on its heels and stretch the defense thin. But Koetter’s scheme isn’t expected to be as easy this week as it was in the preseason because he’s going up against the Chiefs defensive backfield.
If there’s one thing that the Chiefs can do, it’s cover, and cover well. Kansas City boasts one of the league’s best and most underrated cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers, and they’re returning a very dynamic and rare talent at safety in Eric Berry. Berry was absent last season due to a significant knee injury, and that limited the Chiefs schematically because the other safeties on the roster simply don’t posses his range.
Last season, Kansas City wasn’t exposed to Atlanta. But while analyzing Atlanta’s preseason play, it was evident that they’ve similar to Pittsburgh in their offensive design, so I analyzed how Kansas City played against the Steelers to gauge their potential gameplan this weekend. Pittsburgh played with a lot of 11 personnel on the field, spreading out the defense with a 3×1 set, and the Chiefs countered with Cover 2 Man, manning up underneath and playing with two deep safeties.
This coverage is significant because it tells us that the Chiefs were wary of the deep ball threat because they often showed two deep safeties but didn’t always finish with them. Kansas City’s defensive backs move a significant amount before the snap, with the cornerbacks cushioning and then pressing up on the line of scrimmage while the safeties rotate and walk down in the box before dropping back.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel likes to show a lot of two deep safeties and confuse the quarterback’s pre-snap reads. As noted by Draftbreakdown.com’s Eric Stoner, Crennel’s defense is a hard to figure out because it looks like Cover 4 (Quarters) and Cover 2 Man before the snap, which makes it very difficult for the receiver and quarterback to determine where they are supposed to go. On this play, it was Cover 2 Man, but what’s it going to be on the next one?
Atlanta’s 11 personnel is similar to Pittsburgh’s with a few minor tweaks, such as the alignment of the tight end, but they both have the same goal: get vertical (if possible) and get in the end zone.
Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 of the preseason, the Falcons went vertical to Jones from their 11 personnel.
On this play, Jones, who was on the backside of the 3×1 formation, caught the ball down the right sideline in between the cornerback and safety on a ‘Go’ route.
Atlanta’s opponent countered this with an Odd coverage (Cover 1) and one deep safety, but it’s debatable if the Chiefs will do the same.
It’s more likely that they’ll play with two deep safeties to combat Atlanta’s vertical threats and still get upfield to slow down the running game. They could do this from Cover 2 Man or Cover 4 (Quarters), though more likely with the latter as the safeties are taught to defend the run first after reading their run-pass keys.
Two significant aspects of this matchup will be the play of new cornerback Stanford Routt — who has the athleticism and speed to run with receivers but has had issues in man coverage in the past — and the aforementioned Eric Berry.
Berry has the ability to take the defensive backfield to a whole new level because of his rare range and instincts. He covers a lot of ground very quickly and will be a big factor in how the Chiefs present their defense both pre-snap and post snap, which will be key in the effort to confuse Ryan.
Ryan and the offense will still look to go vertical if the right situation presents itself. This usually came on first down or second and short off of play action in the preseason, when they took their shots and still had manageable downs to work with if the attempt failed. Kansas City will be mindful of this and look to throw a wrench in Atlanta’s plans, which is why this matchup is going to be one of the most interesting during the first Sunday of the regular season.