Film Session: How the Kansas City Defense Got the Best of Aaron Rodgers
This post is a test run. I’m hoping for this to be a weekly feature in the future.
Kansas City was the first and only loss the Green Bay Packers suffered in the regular season. Rodgers’ numbers in that game: 17-35 (48.6%) for 235 yards (6.7 YPA), 1 TD and 0 INTs. He was also sacked 4 times and fumbled once. For comparison’s sake, Rodgers’ previous season lows in completion percentage and YPA were 56.9% (his only other game below 60%) and 7.8(!!!!), respectively.
Note: The Packers were also plagued by drops in this game. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s Re-Focused Game Breakdown: “if you factor in the five drops, two throw aways and a spike, he was accurate on 68.8% of his passes.”
In order to slow down a passing game like Green Bay’s, you have to do a few things. The first is to acknowledge going into the week that, as a defense, you will not be able to take everything away. The Chiefs’ strategy was quite simple: they kept two safeties back the majority of the time, and unless the Packers came out with 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) or their Diamond Formation/3 RB set, the Chiefs primarily played in their sub package: 2 down lineman aligned in a “1” and “3” shade, 2 stand up edge-rushers, and two interior linebackers aligned over the guards.
(KC has a six-man front and 7 gaps to defend – they’re all but ceding the run. Better to die a slow death than a quick one? Green Bay had 18 carries for 102 yards at 5.7 YPC)
Green Bay opened their first drive of the day from their own 26. They relied almost exclusively on their ground game to get them past midfield. On 1st and 10 at the Chiefs’ 38 yard line, Rodgers and the Packers finally looked to take a shot. They lined up in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs), with the runningback aligned to the trips side of the formation. Here is the formation, along with the route concept:
(The Packers are able to release four to the strong side. Meanwhile, Jermichael Finley is isolated to the backside of the formation to take advantage of defenses that overplay the Trips side.)
First, the concept itself. It appears to me that it’s a Packaged Concept – a three step drop option to the single receiver side and a five step drop concept to the trips side (Smash/Divide). The quarterback opens up reading to the “quick” side, hitting it in rhythm on the third step of his drop if the route comes open. If the quick concept isn’t open, the quarterback quickly regains depth and works back to the five step concept side.
Now for the defense. Note the alignment of the Kansas City corners – they’re head up over the outside receivers. The corner aligned over Finley, in particular, is trying to take away an inside release off the snap off the ball. Everything about this defensive alignment screams “Cover 2 Man.”
(Safeties are splitting the field in half, the corners are locked up in man. Two ‘backers blitzing, with the other two responsible for the tight end and runningback. Easy enough, right?)
In actuality, though, the Chiefs are disguising their coverage intent. While it looks like Cover 2 Man pre-snap, they’re actually running Quarters – a four deep, three-under coverage. It looks like a Hail Mary defense on paper, but the beauty of Quarters is that it has very complex pattern reading principles built in to help the defense from getting out-numbered or out-leveraged by formations and pass concepts. In very simple terms, imagine Cover 0 crossed with Cover 2, in a basketball-type matchup zone.
And here are what the offense and defense’s plays look like mapped out against each other:
(Purple lines are the offense’s routes. Blue lines/circles are the deep Quarter zones, with the thin, red lines showing the outside corner and safety reads. Yellow circles are the underneath defenders’ zones. The thin Green lines denotate pass rushers.)
Now remember, the Chiefs are showing Cover 2 man pre-snap. After the snap, Rodgers looks to hit the quick slant to Finley:
(Rodgers looks to the “quick” side – the corner is right on Finley’s hip however, and there’s a lurking linebacker. With the safety sitting over the top, the Chiefs essentially have a 3-on-1 to the single receiver side.)
(The endzone shot. That inside LB is just reading Rodgers eyes. Also note that while the pocket is clean at the moment, there are two very bad dudes coming off the edge. Time is of the essence.)
So the quick concept isn’t there. Now what? Time to work to the five step side – and this is where Rodgers gets himself in trouble. I’m assuming (I can’t stress that word enough. I’m not in Rodgers’ head, I don’t know what he was thinking) that the zone dropping inside linebacker, the two deep safeties, and the press corners force Rodgers to think Kansas City is in Cover Two (as opposed to the Cover 2 Man). And that’s perfect, because Smash is specifically designed to attack Cover Two – the corner should break too wide for the safety to get over (and the Divide route should hold the safety towards the middle of the field).
(Smash/Divide vs Cover 2. Photo Courtesy of SmartFootball.com)
Now remember, Rodgers has to make a decision on who to throw to in a split second, as those two edge rushers are closing in. I’m not sure what dictates Rodgers’ progression on the Smash/Divide side. Remember, these are decisions that are happening in milliseconds – he got a very defined man coverage look pre-snap and got a zone look post snap. I’m assuming that upon working back to Smash/Divide, he looks to the Corner/In combo first.
(The routes and coverage developing. If the corner plays the flats – taking the in or the back flaring out, the corner route should come wide open. Unfortunately, though, Kansas City is in Quarters, and the right cornerback sinks underneath Nelson running the corner route.)
(The corner is sinking upfield, getting underneath Jordy Nelson. The nickel corner and linebacker are picking up the two flat threats. The TE has come open down the seam, but he’s not in the immediate In/Corner read that Rodgers looks to first. The backside safety is already driving to close in on him. Not to mention, Green Bay only has five men protecting. Tick tock, tick tock.)
Flustered with both the Smash being taken away, Rodgers pulls the ball and looks to improvise. His internal clock is ticking. While his instincts serve him right, it’s too late. The pocket collapses and the Chiefs record a sack and strip-fumble of Rodgers.
(Both edge rushers get to their target at nearly the exact same time. If you notice, the tight end running up the seam came wide open for a second. Rodgers looked to the In/Corner combo first, however, and it’s too late at this point. The rush has gotten there and the weakside safety is closing in on the seam.)
And there you have it. The Chiefs did nothing magical or overly-complicated. Strategically, they ceded the run and, with Greg Jennings out for this matchup, trusted their defensive backs to cover the Packer receivers (while the example I used here was Quarters, the Chiefs played man-to-man coverage out of the same look often in this game). They have a fantastic defense that completely out-executed the Packers on offense. Any Given Sunday, as they say.