Importance of sub-package defensive backs only increases with Peyton Manning’s arrival in Denver

Posted Mar 24, 2012

Nearly 50% of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps featured at least five defensive backs last season

Technically, the Chiefs run a 3-4 base defense.

In reality, Kansas City is a game plan team.

Nearly half of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps last season came out of sub-package sets featuring five, sometimes six, defensive backs. Had it not been for squaring off against Tim Tebow and Denver’s option-based offense twice last season, the Chiefs might have finished with a 50/50 split in base and sub-package snaps.

With Peyton Manning landing to Denver, it’s arguable that Kansas City’s true base defense could come out of the nickel next season.

The Chiefs played two variations of the nickel against Manning in 2010 when the Colts grabbed a 19-9 victory over the Chiefs in Romeo Crennel’s first season as defensive coordinator. In that game, Crennel dialed up a unique game plan that called for his base defense to operate out of a 2-4-5 alignment.

Nickel cornerback Javier Arenas tallied more than 50 defensive snaps in that game while third safety Jon McGraw played every defensive snap alongside starters Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis.

In obvious passing situations, Crennel switched to a 2-3-6 alignment.

McGraw was the flex player, playing both safety and linebacker during the game. The Chiefs double-teamed TE Dallas Clark and played a lot of man-to-man on WR Reggie Wayne with cover two over the top.

The game plan, in many ways, set the stage for Kansas City’s meeting with Green Bay last season.

Against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, the Chiefs ran out five or six defensive backs in more than 80% of their defensive snaps.

“With teams spreading the field more and using multiple wide receivers more, it means that we have to play more sub-defense,” Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel said. “What you need to have is that third corner that can go in and matchup on that third wide receiver or that really fast running back that teams will put out there and make a wide receiver.”

It’s no surprise the Chiefs brought in veteran CB Chris Carr on a free agent visit this week.

Stockpiling talent at cornerback isn’t just about building depth anymore. The AFC West schedule now features Manning, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer as opposing quarterbacks.

Carr, who was dumped by the Ravens in a salary-cap move earlier this month, reportedly has several teams after his services. He often filled the nickel role in Baltimore.

“Everybody spreads out so much now,” Crennel re-iterated at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine. “Everybody uses multiple wide receivers to spread the field, so it forces defenses to go and play more sub-personnel.”

Arenas served as the Chiefs’ primary nickel back last season, and played a key role in shutting down WR Wes Welker at New England, but is also one of the team’s best blitzers. He saw action in 373 defensive plays over 15 games and drew one starting assignment in 2011.

McGraw and CB Travis Daniels saw a decent amount of sub-package work last season as well. Both players are currently unrestricted free agents.

Fielding five or six reliable defensive backs has become a necessity for playing successful defense in today’s NFL. Especially when squaring off against elite quarterbacks like Manning and Rogers.

The Chiefs have drafted a cornerback each year under GM Scott Pioli and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that trend continue in April.

“Maybe you have to play more sub-package on other downs than third down, but that doesn’t change the type of players we’re looking for and that we need in order to give us the best chance to win,” Crennel said.

The Chiefs snagged CB Stanford Routt before Brandon Carr hit unrestricted free agency. Brandon Flowers, Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis are all set to return as well.

That’s a solid front line, but it takes more than a starting line of defensive backs to get the job done in today’s NFL.

Competition for nickel and dime roles need to be some of this off-season’s most intense on the defensive side of the football.

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