KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kendrick Lewis sees the pattern. He is the Chiefs’ starting free safety and surveys the field 15 yards in front of the line of scrimmage. How could he not see the way teams are attacking the Chiefs’ man-heavy defense these days?
“It’s obvious, man,” Lewis said after the Chiefs’ 41-38 loss to San Diego on Sunday. “You’re a man-to-man team, you (beat that with) crossing routes, out routes, pick routes. (San Diego) took whatever they could take from the Denver game and they executed against us.”
In a way much like Denver quarterback Peyton Manning did the week before, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers carved up the Chiefs’ defense for 392 yards and three touchdowns, with a heaping helping of quick-hitting short and intermediate passes.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said the crossing patterns and “pick” or “rub” plays the Chargers’ and Broncos’ receivers used to create separation against the Chiefs press-man coverage is part of a league-wide trend.
“Everyone’s playing it and matching up and that’s when these crossing routes come in,” Reid said. “(You have) big bodies and they’re rolling around, so you’re going to get these natural picks that take place. That’s a bad word in the NFL, but they just take place.”
Technically, you can argue these picks ― which the Chiefs also call “rubs” ― should be penalties. NFL rules define both offensive and defensive pass interference as “any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage” that “significantly hinders the progress of an eligible receiver’s opportunity to catch the ball.”
But in today’s pass-happy version of the NFL, teams can pretty much use rub plays freely, provided they are run within one yard of the line of scrimmage and the receivers don’t overtly do things to make the pick obvious.
“That’s what you do when you play against man coverage,” Lewis said. “You might not get the call (as a defender).”
The fact that Manning leads the NFL in passing yards (3,722) despite needing only an NFL-best average of 2.35 seconds to deliver each throw (according to Pro Football Focus) is no coincidence; neither is the fact the Broncos lead the league in yards after the catch with 1,866.
“That’s not anything we haven’t seen or practiced a lot,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of the Broncos’ rub plays. “But it’s challenging.”
Lewis identified zone coverage as an effective method against crossing routes, though offenses can still gain a numbers advantage when using bunch formations that feature three or more receivers on one side of the field.
But when playing the press man coverage the Chiefs’ prefer, it takes physicality to throw off the timing of crossing and rub routes, as cornerback Marcus Cooper ― who allowed six receptions on eight targets for 146 yards (including 102 after the catch) against the Chargers on Sunday ― can attest.
“You need to get up in their face after that, play physical,” Cooper said. “That definitely helps stop the rub from happening.”
But Sutton says it makes it easier for receivers to set the “pick” when teams stack defenders at the line of scrimmage. That’s why you’ll see defensive backs lined up across from receivers at different depths ― you might see one corner on the line of scrimmage and another next to him, a few yards off.
From there, Sutton said, it’s up to the defensive backs to communicate how they want to defend the rub.
“It’s like a basketball pick,” Sutton said. “You’ve got to decide, ‘Am I going over the top of the pick’ or ‘Am I coming behind the pick?’
“Sometimes you can tell (it’s coming) by a formation or a split, other times, you don’t have that knowledge available to you. You just have to adjust on the run to what’s happening out there.”
Depending on the quarterback, obviously, the degree of difficulty varies for a defense. Quarterbacks such as Rivers and Manning are decisive and accurate; if you make a mistake in coverage, the ball is out and the receiver has it with room to run. The Chiefs allowed a season-high 228 yards after the catch against the Chargers. That topped the Chiefs’ previous season-high of 187, which they allowed the week before against the Broncos.
“I heard (Bears coach) Marc Trestman earlier in the season … he said the National Football League is about contested throws, people who can make ’em, and people who can stop ’em,” Sutton said. “And if you don’t contest these throws … just pull up some film and see (what) Manning (does) when they aren’t contested. It’s like standing out here in seven-on-seven, because he’s not gonna miss on his own.”
Though the Chiefs have been hurt on rub routes in recent weeks, there have been some positives to take. For instance, Denver has made several big plays on screens out of bunch formations this season, but the Chiefs largely snuffed those out, a sign that they perhaps possess the physicality it takes to limit the damage an offense can cause out of these formations.
Still, in today’s NFL, perhaps the best way to contend with the league’s hottest trend is to do what Reid’s done, and simply give teams a taste of their own medicine. Against San Diego, Chiefs receiver A.J. Jenkins caught a short pass over the middle that went for 22 yards, largely because he was wide open after he was sprung from a bunch formation.
“You hope you end up with more than they end up with (that go for) positive plays,” Reid said. “That’s what you hope.”