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Where does the Melvin Ingram trade rank among the best in-season moves?
The new-look Chiefs' defense is a mauling, roaming, fearsome bunch.
Okay, so that headline is facetious. I have neither the time nor inclination to rank where Ingram’s trade ranks among the best in-season moves. But I know this: Ingram has had a transformational impact on the Chiefs’ defense, the kind that can only really be matched by a couple of other in-season switches.
It is hard to overstate Ingram’s impact. Not so much in his individual play (though that had been great!) but in the knock-on consequences of adding a springy edge-rusher – and the ways in which DC Steve Spagnuolo has paired that newfound threat with his coverages and pressure packages.
Since week seven, the Chiefs defense has ranked third in EPA per play. After starting the season as an honest-to-goodness apocalypse, posting historically poor defensive numbers, and struggling with the basic functions of competent team defense, the Chiefs’ defense has hit lift-off.
Look at that change! This isn’t a defense that has shifted from awful to okay. This is a defense that has gone from Worst In The League bad to Legitimately Good. The Chiefs couldn’t get off the field for seven weeks. Now, they’re matching marks set by the Legion of Boom era Seahawks: They are the first team since the 2014 Seahawks to hold a team to ten or fewer points four times in a five-game span.
Good defense isn’t always spectacular. It resides in the absence of spectacle. It’s the little things: leverage; hand placement; fitting your gap; hitting your landmark in coverage; and how each piece fits into the overall team construct. Yet nothing changes the life of a defense like adding some extra oomph up front. Add that, and all of those unspectacular component parts become much easier to execute.
You can get as creative and quirky with disguises or rotations as you like (and Spags does!) but that matters not if a quarterback has the time to sit, scan, and extend. If anything, a disguise/rotation-heavy group can get itself in trouble vs. the run. So much backward and sideways movement at the second and third levels can drag much-needed extra run-support away from the box, or at the very least have them moving backward before needing to re-direct against the run.
The point of running a disguise or bluffing defense is to try to generate turnovers. That’s long been the Chiefs model: To be explosive and efficient on offense, to get the opposition in a hole, and then unleash a batch of creative and funky looks in the passing game intended to force turnovers.
The group has had to course-correct this season. Their offense has been stuck in sludge for the bulk of the season, taking a step forward then back, often within the same game. The defense has had to play with more of an even game-state than playing pass-only groups. There are still a whole bunch of moving parts, but everything is a little more in-sync than early in the season when every down was perceived as a passing down.
Over the past month or so the typical turnover-heavy Spagnuolo group has returned. The Chiefs forced five (!) turnovers against the Raiders on Sunday. They’re now up to five consecutive weeks with multiple forced turnovers. And it’s not as if the Chiefs’ defense has been doing this against slouches. As Football Outsiders Aaron Schatz points out, the Chiefs’ defense has faced one of the most difficult schedules this season.
What those DVOA figures don’t take into account is the variety of systems the Chiefs have faced. They’re not lining up against similar looks every week. They’ve faced Lamar Jackson and the power-read, big-set-heavy Ravens. They faced the Eagles, before their spread-to-run revolution. They’ve faced the condense-to-expand delight that is the Chargers. They’ve faced teams that like to get big to mash people with the run and then hit play-action shots from the same personnel grouping; they’ve faced super spread teams; they’ve faced teams with quarterback options; they’ve faced RPO-dense sides. And they’ve faced the Cowboys… who run everything.
The antidote to everything? Pressure.
Sticking with that pre- and post-week seven splits, the Chiefs’ pressure figures are jarring. During the early portion of the season, KC averaged 11.2 pressures per game. If you remove the funky Eagles’ game (which is silly from a statistical standpoint but does illustrate the point) they averaged 8.6 pressures a game in the six other contests. That works out a painstaking 25.9 percent pressure percentage.
They pressured opposing quarterbacks on over 30 percent of their dropbacks just once.
No defense can live in that world consistently without All-Pros all over the defensive secondary, timely sacks, or through forcing turnovers. The Chiefs struck out in all three categories.
Since week eight, however, things have changed. KC is now pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 38.7 percent of their dropbacks! The defense has forced two times as many turnovers as in the first seven games. That 30 percent pressure mark? They’ve lived in that world, eclipsing FORTY percent twice. Four. Zero.
They’re getting pressure through winning one-on-ones. They’re getting pressure through scheme design. Whichever way you draw it up – and they draw it up every way – free runners are getting home to the quarterback.
And that has been combined with stout run defense – Spagnuolo selling out, sending extra bodies (through personnel and run blitzes) in order to win the early downs and set up better situations for pressure downs.
Adding Ingram on the perimeter has freed up Chris Jones to move back inside, his natural and best position. He offered a spirited effort outside, but he was, for large stretches, much of a muchness. Inside, he’s special: combining length, hops, and brute strength to demolish the interior. Add to that: Frank Clark finally appears to have learned the season is underway.
Spagnuolo has taken to aligning Ingram and Jones on the same side of the formation, prioritizing explosiveness over sheer mass:
The ‘why’ is obvious: It’s tricky to double-team both, and having a pair of explosive, first-step leapers opens up the room for all sorts of fun two-man games — stunts, twists, and whatever else Spagnuolo can dream up.
Paired together, Jones and Ingram have been a force against the run, wrecking actions before the offense can even take a breath:
Spagnuolo will carve his front in half: the big bodies on one size, the undersized players on the other, with a blitzing safety or scraping linebacker flying in-behind to add some extra muscle to the wall. The first line shoots upfield, using that first-step speed to attack the backfield. The second level flows fast, too — and from depth. Only their job is to play mop-up duty rather than penetrating into the backfield. Jones and Ingram distort the offensive front; the linebackers and safeties sift through the rubble to corral the ball-carrier. It’s an attack defense:
(I don’t care what anyone says. Ingram, a pass-rusher, wearing #24 is bleeping cool.)
The Chiefs have invested a ton of resources in their front, and they’re finally playing up to their potential. If you can pair that with sound coverage play on the back-end, you’re on to something pretty good – and given the volume of second and third-level busts early in the season, that’s been no small feat.
Spagnuolo’s masterstroke has been in finding ways to string out the opposing offensive line. He is constantly using reduced fronts, sticking two defenders in both A-Gaps, whether it’s a pair of mugged linebackers, a pair of down linemen, a safety or a mix-and-match combination of the three. That forces the offensive line to pinch inside, planting a tackle (or tackles) on islands, out in space against Ingram. Even if it’s just Jones inside, Spagnuolo will use space to his advantage, voiding gaps and keeping Ingram as far from Jones as feasible:
Adding such width allows Ingram the room to knife inside (where he’s at his best) or affords him a better angle to run the loop. At that width, the first step rather than a player’s ability to dip and bend is all-important. Spagnuolo schemes up ways to turn Ingram vs. a tackle into a first-step contest. And under such rules, Ingram rarely loses.
But wait! Spags isn’t done there. He adds an extra piece to string the line out: A slot blitz. A Spagnuolo defense has always been a blitzing variety hour (or three). Anyone can come from anywhere: any position, any alignment, any depth. It doesn’t matter. If a player is on the field, he might blitz. That makes things tricky for the offensive line and quarterback. Throwing windows are different. Protection busts can be constant – See: The Packers’ issues in protection with Jordan Love at the helm.
A preferred tactic with Ingram on board: Reducing the front, aligning Ingram a little wider, and sending a slot pressure from Inrgam’s side.
Think about the geometry of the field. You now have two defenders tight inside, which means the interior of the offensive line must squeeze down. Then you have Ingram in a wider stance. The tackle must get out there. And then you have an extra defender – and a quick one – inserting on a blitz from some serious width. From the center to the slot, that’s a long way to protect, with wide splits between each individual piece.
What do the offensive line and quarterback do? The typical answer: Set the tackle to Ingram, and let the quarterback take care of the slot cornerback as a hot throw. The blitzer becomes the quarterback’s responsibility. But that means two things: The tackle has to win one-on-one against Ingram; the quarterback needs to find the open man – and not only find him but get the ball out with speed and accuracy.
That’s a brutal bust from the Broncos, a true protection breakdown. Bobby Massie, the tackle, leaps out to take the blitzer rather than Ingram, who’s screaming inside into Teddy Bridgewater’s face. The tight alignments inside forced the right guard to help on Chris Jones — Jones’ quicks off the ball forcing the guard to seal the inside before trying to look for Ingram. Hitting Ingram or Jones with a big-duel block (sticking one guy and then trying to find other), well, that’s a fool's errand. The Broncos wound up with a protection that left the Chiefs’ most explosive pass-rusher with a direct path into their quarterback’s chest.
When Spagnuolo includes an extra read-blitz in the middle of the field (if the back stays in, blitz; if he releases, match in man-to-man coverage) from a linebacker or safety, it makes things extra difficult on the offense. They want to keep numbers in to be able to pick up the slot blitz and then all of a sudden here comes a linebacker running freely at the quarterback.
Above, the Cowboys think they have it blocked up. They have the numbers. They recognize the slot blitz. Here’s that thing they run all the time! Ezekiel Elliot is responsible for the most dangerous. Meaning: He’s on the blitzing corner but if there’s a more dangerous player, like, you know, a linebacker flying through the middle of the line, he shifts his responsibility.
As Elliott moves to take the ‘backer, here comes the slot corner flying into Dak Prescott’s face. Dallas probably thought they had it sniffed out pre-snap with a chance at a chunk play… because they did! But by inserting the extra man the Chiefs were able to manufacture a free, quick rusher on the quarterback. Look at Prescott’s sightline as he looks to find a receiver downfield:
The coverage behind was perfect, and the Chiefs were able to get off the field — they should have had a turnover.
Having great players is one thing. Having a funky scheme is another. But knowing how to use one to accentuate the other is the mark of a great coach. Spagnuolo leverages the threat of his best players to make life easier for everyone else; he uses savvy designs to give his best players the chance to be at their best. One amplifies the other. The Chiefs have had a nice balance of man and zone coverages, too, mixing and matching between zone-pressures and all-out, man-blitzes — Spags has also done a tidy job of switching between zone-match and spot-dropping zone styles when rushing with just four. The secondary is still growing and developing; the safety room remains a core part of Spagnuolo’s most creative arrangements.
Having Ingram and Jones playing at this level offers all kinds of formational flexibility in obvious pass-rushing spots. They can reduce the front, making it tricky to double team Ingram. They can split the front, sticking two-three techniques on the field and making it difficult to double-team Jones inside:
They can load the front, sticking Ingram, Jones, and an extra rusher tight to one-side of the formation while loosening the other side – again, making it tough to double team the pair of them at one time. If an offense commits to double both they’re removing an extra piece from the pass progression, making life easier for the linebackers and secondary in coverage.
As two-man tandem’s go, Ingram and Jones have been as disruptive and destructive as any in the league for two months.
The Chiefs’ defense was a mess at the start of the season. They were consistently misaligned. They missed tackles. They didn’t generate pressure. Worst of all: they were consistently crushed in the run game, draining the front of any energy and putting the whole team in rough down and distance spots.
Now, they’re good. Not just good enough. Not passable. But good – as efficient and effective as any of the league’s upper tier defenses, non-Healthy Dallas division. To call that kind of midseason leap unusual would be like calling a bilingual Staffy unusual. That does not happen; it probably should not happen.
KC has figured out who they are on defenses and ramped up all of the goodness while mitigating some of the badness – another mark of smart coaching. At the mid-point of the season, the best they could hope for was a defense that was Good Enough once the offense found its footing and some of the team’s turnover misfortune swung back in their favor.
But while the offense continues to run hot and cold (hot vs. the Raiders, iffy vs. anyone else), the defense has proven to be the real deal. This isn’t a short hot streak. It’s been two months of steadily improving play against some tasty offensive groups. The structures are sound; the players playing at their expected levels.
As we head towards the playoffs, the group is no longer a liability. That’s not solely Brett Veach’s move to land Melvin Ingram — a sixth-round pick, are you kiddin’ me? But it’s been about what Ingram unlocks for everyone: The surrounding cast, the coaching staff.
You’re going to hear a whole bunch of ‘no one wants to play the Chiefs’ talk in the coming month, which is more than a little no-duh. Who would want to play the two-time AFC Champions? But while that statement usually references the team’s offense – still a fearsome prospect with its improvisational style and talent – it more than ever references the defenses. I’m not sure there’s a staff out there in the AFC that would want their (probably young) quarterback going up against Spagnuolo’s moving, roaming, mauling group.