How the Chiefs can counter Dak Prescott’s excellence against the blitz

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Coming into Week 11, only five teams have sent five or more pass-rushers against opposing quarterbacks than the Chiefs and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Per Sports Info Solutions, Kansas City’s defense has blitzed on 100 opponent attempts, and quarterbacks have completed 57 passes against those blitzed for 615 yards, 10 touchdowns, and one interception. Not ideal. Kansas City’s coverage issues take away from the efficiency and effectiveness of their blitzes, and that’s continued to be the case even as the overall defense has seen a slight uptick in the last few weeks.

As the Chiefs face the Cowboys today, Spagnuolo way want to go away from the blitz and focus on giving his linebackers and defensive backs the zone looks and base pressures they need to succeed against a passing game that can beat your offense in all kinds of ways. And against the blitz this season, there’s no better quarterback than Dak Prescott — and it isn’t remotely close. Against five or more pass-rushers this season, Prescott has completed 56 of 90 passes for 709 yards, 439 air yards, 16 touchdowns, and three interceptions.

How far ahead of the pack is Dak when it comes to touchdown passes against the blitz? Consider that five quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow, Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Ryan, and Tom Brady) rank second this season with seven touchdown passes against the blitz. And in the entire 2020 season including the playoffs, Josh Allen led the league with 21 touchdown passes against the blitz.

Why is Dak and this offense so great against the blitz? Start with this touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb against the Falcons last Sunday, where Atlanta brought a six-man pressure, but Dak still had time to make the throw. Give Ezekiel Elliott a major assist here. Zeke is the NFL’s best pass-blocking running back, and on this play, he just blew linebacker Deion Jones up off the edge. It’s a lot easier to make that cross-body fade throw with touch and timing when you have a clean pocket against the blitz.

Prescott also has a preternatural calm in the pocket against the blitz, and this has a lot to do with his ability to read the field quickly, isolate the exploitable defender, and make the winning throw in decisive fashion. Facing a double twist blitz against the Panthers’ outstanding defense in Week 4, Prescott knew he would have receiver Cedrick Wilson open up the numbers when the Panthers doubled the flat route, and it was an easy six from there.

You can’t make coverage mistakes against Dak Prescott under the best circumstances, and that’s even more true when you’re removing cover defenders because of the blitz.

Spagnuolo is eminently aware of the problem.

“It begins inside with that offensive line,” he said of the Cowboys’ offense this week. “That’s a solid offensive line and that’s been a focus down there for a long time. Then it’s the quarterback and all the skill on the outside, and then you go back to the runner. They’ve got a complete repertoire of weapons. I know they’ve got a couple of guys back that were injured, but when you can roll two running backs [Elliott and Tony Pollard] through like that, and I wouldn’t say they always commit to the run, but that run threat is always there, and if you don’t stop that run, they’ll easily just mow you over.

“Then the quarterback comes in — it’s not just a good quarterback, it’s an athletic quarterback. I think he’s a smart quarterback, I’ve gone against him a lot of times. He can make you look bad because he can do all the things that you need to do as a quarterback. I’m trying to find a weakness, to be quite honest with you. I think that more than anything makes him really good.”

So, Spagnuolo can do one of two things as a primary strategy — he can avoid the blitz and try to wait Prescott out with coverage, or he can go Cover-0 blitz, and just send the house. The strategy of sending blitzes without a deep safety against this offense seems counter-intuitive, but not only have the Chiefs run more Cover-0 blitz than any other team this season, they’re somewhat decent when they do, allowing eight completions in 12 attempts on 18 dropbacks for 75 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. Hardly ’85 Bears numbers, but at least with Cover-0, the Chiefs aren’t getting pantsed as they are when employing other coverages against the blitz.

How has Prescott fared against zero blitzes this season? He hasn’t seen it often, but he’s completed just five of 12 passes against it for 78 yards, 59 air yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.

Perhaps the ideal strategy to contain Prescott, as opposed to stopping him, is to employ blitzes in a HIGHLY selective fashion, mix the coverages, and plaster Dallas’ receivers along the formation. The Broncos employed the “plaster” strategy against the Cowboys in Week 9 even though they were losing defensive backs left and right due to injury, and that strategy forced Prescott to be more deliberate with his reads and throws than he would have preferred. The result was a 30-16 Broncos win in which Prescott had his only bad game of the season — he completed 19 of 39 passes for 232 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a lot of missed opportunities. Denver blitzed Prescott on just seven of his dropbacks, and allowed one of his two touchdowns when he did. Instead, they backed off with the house, and made the backyard the problem.

To say that a full-on man/match coverage plan amounts to a “blueprint” against Prescott is a but silly for a couple reasons: First, the “blueprint” meme is generally overcooked; and second, if you fall short when using this strategy, you are in for a world of hurt. But if the Chiefs are to get past this offense and continue their in-season turnaround, Spagnuolo will have to empty his playbook, and be as creative as he’s ever been.