The Kansas City Chiefs finished 2015 regular season as arguably the hottest team in the NFL, and a big part of that was their front seven. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali both get a significant amount of credit for that success, but ILB Derrick Johnson didn't have a season to scoff at either. Johnson, 33, has been in the league since 2005, and has performed at a high level in every year (including 2015 and excepting 2014, where he spent the season sidelined with a torn Achilles).
Johnson brings the Saints something they haven't seen out of their linebackers in some time: Coverage ability. Stephone Anthony was horrible and Hau'oli Kikaha, despite a valiant effort, couldn't seem to make the transition in the latter half of the season when new DC Dennis Allen tried to use him in coverage more.
The Chiefs, on this play, run a coverage that may be unfamiliar to many Saints fans. It's called "man to man" coverage. Sarcasm aside, with the players the Saints currently have, this may be the direction that they want to head towards. Man to man coverage with a single safety high. Whether or not that's a good idea depends on if the Saints' coaching thinks that Byrd is capable of what he was capable of in his prime, but either way good safety play is an absolute necessity to thrive in the modern NFL. The Texans are running a 3 man route, with Alfred Blue coming out of the backfield from play action.
The Texans are running a levels clearout route. This calls for the slot receiver to break underneath, the topside receiver runs an out route, and the nearside receiver runs an in route upfield from the slot receiver. This play is designed to break down zone coverage, since the high safety often finds himself isolated between the slot and flanking receiver. Like any route, it can be undone by well executed man to man coverage. The Texans don't account for 3 receivers dealing with 4 DBs, and Brian Hoyer is immediately forced to go into his progressions. To make matters worse, the linebackers don't bite on the play action. If you'll recall, this is where James Laurainitis struggled in a previous write up. He bit down on the PA, and it opened things up in the middle of the field, especially out of the backfield. Neither of the Chiefs' ILBs (namely Johnson) do so, which limits Hoyer's options out of the gate.
The other thing that Johnson has, even at his age, is closing speed. From the Hoyer's release to Blue touching the ball, I clocked the pass as taking 0.61 seconds. At the time of Hoyer's release, Johnson was 7 yards away from Blue. People can talk about 40 yard dashes all they want, give me a linebacker with a good shuttle run any day of the week. Johnson drops out of his back-pedal and closes on Blue in less than a second, and the play results in an incompletion when Johnson strips the ball from Blue.
Texans: Singleback set, TE flanking away from slot. PA Levels route, RB Curl
Chiefs: Base 3-4 Under, Cover 1 Man to Man
Play Analysis: Hoyer turns and fakes to Blue, Blue runs a hesitation curl underneath. The nearside Texan receivers drag across the middle, the Chiefs' corners stay plastered to them. Hoyer is forced to go to the checkdown, Blue, who curls underneath. Johnson reads the PA and closes in on Blue, ultimately stripping the ball.
Further Analysis: Whether or not this play works in the NO defense is contingent upon various other factors. Hoyer was forced to throw underneath because his first, second and third options were taken away. If the Saints have uninjured Keenan Lewis and Delvin Breaux outside, plus either Damian Swann or Kenny Vaccaro rotated into the slot, then there's a possibility it gets to this point. Byrd would also need to return to form. However, it would be nice to see an RB not get 30 yards of YAC every time they catch a pass underneath against the Saints' defense.
This is nearly the exact same scheme from the Chiefs. Cover 1 man to man with an impromptu robber coming in the form of the Mike ILB. For those unfamiliar, Robber Cover 1 is a form of Cover 1 where a player, usually a linebacker but sometimes an SS, plays the intermediate middle. Since the Chiefs have 6 guys in coverage to the Raiders' 4 running routes, they're afforded the luxury of using the robber. Johnson is on Raiders' HB Latavius Murray out of the backfield.
Once again, we see a play designed to break zone coverage used against good man. The Raiders run vertical seams, in which the outside receivers draw their respective corners and the flanking help, and the slot receiver runs a skinny post (or an angle, in this case) upfield. The Raiders also choose to use checkdown players on this play, with Latavius Murray running a short curl and Roy Helu trickling out towards the strongside. Johnson is matched up on Murray and the Mike is responsible for Helu.
Again, we see a complete lack of separation from the Oakland WRs, and Derek Carr is forced to checkdown. This is at the moment that Murray touches the ball. He is fronting Johnson, successfully, but is unable to hold onto the pass with Johnson's footsteps in his ear. This play is another win for the KC secondary.
Raiders: Shotgun 2 HB set, 3 vertical seam, 2 checkdowns
Chiefs: Base 3-4 Over, Cover 1 Robber (option) Man to Man
Play Analysis: The Raiders fail to read the coverage, electing to run a 3 receiver route in addition to utilizing 2 checkdowns, leaving only their offensive line to block the formidable KC pass rush. Due to sustained pressure and a lack of separation from his receivers, Raiders' QB Carr is forced to try to checkdown to RB Murray. Murray, due to a complete lack of separation and Johnson's presence, drops the pass, and the Raiders get nothing on the play.
Further Analysis: Once again, we see the benefits of good M2M. When you force a QB to go through his progressions in addition to reading the pocket, he will make mistakes. Even if Murray had caught that pass, he wouldn't have had time to turn upfield, let alone make a move on Johnson. Whether this play works for the Saints is, again, contingent on who's covering, but I suspect that we'd see Johnson dropping back into the middle of field, not Anthony.
At this point, we've seen two examples of good Derrick Johnson plays, but not particularly impressive ones. They're really more cases of everyone on a defense working cohesively. It would be wise, therefore, to question what Johnson would do in zone coverage, or on a play where he wasn't covering a checkdown receiver on a play where he's so clearly on the last option player. For what it's worth, on nearly every play where Johnson was covering the checkdown receiver, he either broke up the pass or stuck him.
The exact defense that the Chiefs were going for on this play is hard to pin down. It's either a Cover 2 man or a Quarters defense. I'm leaning towards the latter due to:
a.) How the linebackers react to the play and
b.) the personnel on the field.
The Chiefs are in a dime defense. They have their two dimebacks covering the flats, whereas Johnson is responsible for the intermediate middle third of the field. The corners run press bail coverage, and the two safeties stay high.
This play is either really poorly designed or really poorly executed by the Pittsburgh offense. Knowing the Todd Haley offense, it's hard to not err towards the latter. It looks like the two topside receiver are running a variation of a levels route, with the nearside receiver running an isolated streak. Johnson camps in the middle of the field, anticipating the break in. The two topside receivers both break in, but they do so far too closely together, which eliminates the spacing of an effective leveled play. Now, various Chiefs defenders are in position to make a play several Pittsburgh receivers.
This is one of the worst QB plays of the year, in my opinion. Landry Jones blatantly stares down Martavis Bryant coming out of his break, and is winding up to throw with Johnson right in his line of sight. The only way that this throw is even remotely acceptable if Jones is anticipating Johnson deciding that it's way to obvious that he's going for Bryant and abandoning his zone to go elsewhere.
This is one of the INTs that if you threw it in Madden, you'd start swearing at your TV saying there's no way that that linebacker was there before. Johnson just camped Jones's throw on this play, and with a little bunny hop he's able to get an interception for the KC defense.
Steelers: Singleback shotgun, Strongside Levels, Weakside ISO Fly
Chiefs: Dime Defense, Quarters D
Play Analysis: Derrick Johnson drops into intermediate middle third coverage. Landry Jones looks at Martavis Bryant. Slot receiver breaks inside, Jones keeps looking at Bryant. Shortly after, Bryant breaks inside. Jones thinks "perfect timing." Throws. Doesn't see Johnson standing right in front of Bryant. Johnson gets the INT. Not much further analysis necessary, the QB makes a bad play and the LB makes a good one.
I know that this image is crazy stupid and complicated, but bear with me here. Due to some highly unnatural behavior by the topside corner, I can't peg if this is true Cover 2 or just a Two Safety High situation. There are the options for what's going on with KC on this play.
a.) They're running a man to man defense and the topside corner missed the memo.
b.) They're trying to get it where Johnson has help covering Julian Edelman, one of the fastest/quickest wideouts in football.
c.) It's just straight up Cover 2 and everyone else is acting unnaturally.
Regardless of what KC is doing, it's not hard to figure out what the Patriots are doing. They're getting Edelman isolated on an LB. This is a clearout route. The outside slot runs a wheel, the topside flank runs a fly, and Edelman runs a zag. This means that he breaks inside before curling out.
Here's the aforementioned strange behavior. Every Chief here has a matchup. The slot guy stays with the slot, and Johnson is beelining towards Edelman. However, the topside corner forgoes his man to spy on Brady. Meanwhile, the free safety is heading towards the sideline to pick up the now abandoned receiver.
Thought: This is either a phenomenally designed play by Bob Sutton to help Johnson with the elusive Edelman and take away what would be a lot of open field towards the sideline, or an even better play by the topside CB and, by extension, the FS to do so on the fly. If Edelman had broken further outside, he would have outpaced Johnson, but Brady is forced to settle for the throw underneath.
Once Johnson has you wrapped up, you aren't breaking away. Edelman turns upfield, but his momentum takes him down to the ground and Johnson does the rest. The Patriots pick up 9, but the Chiefs are able to mitigate the damage.
The Patriots exploited the Chiefs' biggest weakness: They don't like being spread out. There were dozens of these 3-4 WR sets (and with Gronkowski on the field it's effectively 4-5 WRs), and in using them the Patriots were able to create plays in space. The Chiefs thrived this year on man to man coverage, and when that was taken away from them it was far more difficult to eliminate chunk plays like this because Johnson, good as he is, has no chance on Edelman.
Patriots: Shotgun Trips Weak, Clearout Slot Zag
Chiefs: Base 3-4 Over, Hybrid man/Cover Under (?)
Play Analysis: The outside slot receiver runs a wheel route, supplanting the flanking receiver's fly. Edelman, isolated on Johnson, runs a zag route underneath. The Patriots don't anticipate the help on the underneath outside third of the field for Johnson, and so the play becomes a quick hitter. Edelman, attempting to turn upfield, is brought down by Johnson
Further Analysis: This play illustrates something else the Saints desperately need: open field tackling. Johnson goes mano y mano with one of the quickest receivers in the league, and he accounts for him brilliantly. I know it feels like I got off to a big tangent talking about how the Chiefs were spread out, but that ties back into the Saints. They struggled spread out because they didn't have the talent in any level of their defense to fight it. They couldn't get pressure with a 4 man rush, nor could they cover long enough to force an incompletion, nor could they engage the receivers at any point during the play. This complete ineptitude led to the performance that they got last year. If Johnson can come in and not only make plays like this, but also teach guys like Anthony and Kikaha to makes plays like this, the LB corps will be leaps & bounds ahead of where it was last year. They can still be molded. Anthony can make tackles, he needs to cover. Kikaha needs to be more patient. Johnson has the ability to instill these traits while still mattering on the actual field, something that is often overlooked in these mentor roles.
Johnson would be a miles better fit than Laurainitis. He's going to command more, his going rate is speculated to be about $6 million per year. However, the Saints need a linebacker that will make a difference. Johnson is experienced in the 3-4, he's played with a phenomenal front seven and he now has the opportunity to mold another one. Jordan is strong, Kikaha and Anthony are teachable, and if the Saints can bring in a difference maker at NT next year then maybe, just maybe, their front seven can be a force to be reckoned with.
I focused on coverage in this piece because that's what the Saints so sorely lack from their LBs. Anthony was a huge liability last year, and Hawthorne was for several years before he was cut. Johnson is patient, and intelligent. The Saints may need to reshape their defense next year, not in terms of pieces, but in terms of how those pieces are utilized. If Keenan Lewis (and, indeed, Damian Swann) come(s) back healthy, and Delvin Breaux continues to play at the high level that he played last year, then the Saints may be able to achieve the middle of the road defense that they've always dreamed of. Derrick Johnson gives them a player that can hold down the checkdown, which they've struggled with for so long, and he also gives them a veteran presence that can teach others to do the same.