Can the Cowboys defense handle Alex Smith, Kareem Hunt, and the Chiefs?
The Cowboys will have to contain the speed of Chiefs
It's difficult to pinpoint what the single most unexpected development of the 2017 NFL season is, but the Kansas City Chiefs emerging as arguably the most efficient AND explosive offense in the league is certainly up there.
Long a dink-and-dunk outfit that rarely broke big plays and almost never challenged defenses down the field, the Chiefs have been NFL in yards and points per game, first in yards per play and second in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance to account for down, distance, and opponent). The Chiefs are also fourth in 20-yard gains and third in big-play rate -- only the Patriots and Rams have created 20-yard plays more often as a percentage of their total plays run.all season. Eight weeks in, Kansas City ranks third in the
Kareem Hunt hasn't scored in a few weeks, but he already has 11 big plays this season and he's got at least one in six of the Chiefs' eight games. His eight 20-yard runs are three more than the next-closest player. Tyreek Hill has a 20-yard catch in five different games and Travis Kelce has at least one in six games.
Much has been made of Alex Smith's deep passing this season, and while he is indeed throwing downfield more often (12 percent of his throws have been intended for receivers at least 20 yards downfield, compared to 9.4 percent last year), the bigger change has been in his effectiveness on those throws. Per Pro Football Focus, he completed 15 of 46 deep passes last season for 526 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He's already exceeded that completion total by connecting on 18 of 31 deep passes this season, and he's smashed his yardage and touchdown totals, throwing for 726 yards and seven scores on those plays. He is easily the NFL leader in passer rating on 20-plus yard throws, with a 142.1 rating that far exceeds that of second-place Josh McCown.
Andy Reid is scheming anybody and everybody into open space, and defenses are just straight up lost against his offense. The Chiefs have scored at least 24 points in seven of eight games, and they're one of three teams that have topped 40 twice.
This weekend, the Chiefs will run up against a Dallas defense that has also been wildly inconsistent. The Cowboys have played seven games this season; they've allowed 19 or fewer points in four of them (all wins) and 35 or more in three (all losses). Given Kansas City's prodigious offensive output this season, it's reasonable to expect the Chiefs to hang a big, crooked number on the AT&T Stadium scoreboard come Sunday. Is there anything in the profile of these two teams that should make us think differently?
Dallas has some defensive linemen playing out of their minds this season. DeMarcus Lawrence ( ) leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks, and has also recorded 13 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He's giving right tackles nightmares and living in the backfield; at a certain point, he should probably list his permanent address on his tax return as "in the quarterback's pocket." Lawrence was going solo as a premier pass-rusher early in the season, but David Irving has been an absolute monster since returning from his four-game suspension. Irving has a career-high five sacks in just three games, and also has 5.5 tackles for loss and three batted passes. He's moving all over the formation and making plays every time he's on the field. Tyrone Crawford has come on over the last few weeks as well, with his strongest stretch of play coinciding with Irving's return to the lineup.
The Chiefs had some injury issues along the offensive line earlier this season, and so Smith is being pressured at an above-average rate and Hunt has actually had subpar blocking from his line overall. This line is healthy now, though, and the matchup between that group and the Cowboys' front will be an interesting one. Smith, like every other passer in the NFL, drops off when he's under pressure compared to when he's working from a clean pocket, but the drop-off has been less dramatic for him than almost anyone else this season. Smith is one of the least interception-prone quarterbacks in the history of football, but he hasn't been picked a single time so far this season.
Working in the Chiefs' favor are three things: First, Smith is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at escaping from pressure and taking off downfield. Second, the Chiefs love to use misdirection to catch aggressive defensive fronts off-guard, and the Cowboys under Rod Marinelli are a team that pursues as aggressively as any in the NFL. (If there is a team that would be more vulnerable to Reid's option-style offense, I'm not sure who it is) And third, the Cowboys can be run on. That last one, especially, plays right into the Chiefs' hands.
Dallas is yielding 4.63 yards per carry on runs right up the gut, per Football Outsiders, 5.09 per carry on runs between the left guard and tackle and 5.98 on runs between the right guard and tackle. They've done well containing runs to the perimeter, but anything up the middle has been an issue. That sets up perfectly for the Chiefs to pound the ball with Hunt between the tackles, keeping the pass rush off balance and opening things up for Kelce to beat the Dallas linebackers (who have been vulnerable in coverage) over the middle of the field. If the Chiefs can establish that they can get what they want on the ground early in the game, they may be able to neutralize Lawrence, Irving, and Crawford.
The Chiefs like to move their receivers around to keep teams off-balance and figure out creative ways to get Hill in open space, so there won't necessarily be any shadow matchups with the Dallas corners, who have been varyingly effective throughout the season. Hill is clearly the only premier threat among Kansas City's perimeter pass-catching group, and he'll see a mix of Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick depending on where he lines up. Brown has been the most vulnerable of the three to getting beat deep, so if Smith takes a shot, it may well be when Hill has Brown lined up one-on-one without help over the top.
If the Cowboys can keep the Chiefs from turning the game into a track meet full of big plays, that will work to their advantage. Their offense got a big boost on Friday morning when running back Ezekiel Elliott . The Cowboys are probably never going to be a team that beats good opponents by holding them down with a stingy defense. What they need to do is contain the Chiefs, and force them to play the kind of incremental football that was their staple prior to this season.
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