All eyes will be on Jordan Love this Sunday, but if the Green Bay Packers want to have any shot at setting their backup quarterback up for success, then the defense will need to find ways to contain Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
The Kansas City Chiefs are having a disappointing 2021 season. Not only are they 4-4 and fighting at the bottom of the AFC West, but their 19 giveaways are far and away the most in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes has been trying to force the issue in order to make up for his team’s defensive struggles. The Chiefs have the 31st-ranked defense in terms of DVOA, struggling to stop the run or the pass as teams average 391.5 yards and 27.5 points per game against them.
That has led to a brutal start for Mahomes, who has a career-high 3.1 percent interception rate and a career-low 6.50 adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A) as a full-time starter. After being the face of the future of the NFL for the past few seasons, Mahomes is suddenly looking mortal.
Why is that? Teams are starting to figure out how to play Kansas City’s offense. A heavy dose of “Cover 2 shell”, or pre-snap looks with two-high safeties. In fact, Kansas City is currently facing the highest rate of two-high safety looks in the NFL.
Patrick Mahomes is facing two-high safety coverages at the highest rate in the NFL this season. Opposing defenses are clearly attempting to prevent the Chiefs explosive pass, and it’s working thus far. pic.twitter.com/myoeFOxV2u— Joey (@joeyanalytics) October 28, 2021
The theory behind the defense is simple. Opponents want to prevent explosive plays deep downfield, while allocating defenders to covering two of the most dynamic playmakers in the league in Hill and Kelce.
Losing Sammy Watkins this offseason appears to have had a big impact on Kansas City’s offense, as there has yet to be a reliable third option for Mahomes to throw to. Mecole Hardman hasn’t done much more than establish himself as a return man and gadget player, while Demarcus Robinson has had more than one reception in only three games this year. For the Packers and defensive coordinator Joe Barry, that will mean preparing a game plan that focuses on two-high safety looks that have given the Chiefs trouble, while primarily focusing on finding ways to shut down Kelce and Hill.
Kelce presents a unique problem for NFL defenses based off his skill-set as a tight end. At 6’5” and 256 pounds, Kelce is arguably the most talented pass-catching tight end in the league, and it presents serious mismatches for defenses trying to cover him as a traditional TE.
However, NFL defenses have finally started to adapt and defense Kelce less traditionally. Teams are beginning to use cornerbacks to cover him, and will even roll out with traditional nickel personnel when the Chiefs run two-tight end sets, treating Kelce as a receiver instead.
The Giants deployed a similar strategy this past week, using cornerback James Bradberry to jam Kelce at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of his route.
Get physical with Travis Kelce— Anthony Cover 1 (@Pro__Ant) November 2, 2021
Barry and Green Bay’s defense will have an interesting decision to make as far as how they want to attack Kelce. While teams have begun deploying corners on Kelce, the Packers have one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL right now in De’Vondre Campbell.
Campbell was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October, in large part thanks to his coverage and tackling skills. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Campbell is allowing a passer rating of just 71.6 when targeted, giving up just 6.2 yards per catch with two interceptions on the year.
If the Packers wanted to put a cornerback on Kelce, Rasul Douglas would be the likely candidate. He’s a big-bodied cornerback at 6’2” and 209 pounds, and the tape shows that Douglas is an aggressive and physical cornerback capable of taking on the responsibility.
While Kelce can keep Kansas City’s offense moving, Hill is a threat to break the top off of a defense at any moment, even if that hasn’t been the case this year. His 64 receptions lead the NFL, but his 11.5 yards per catch are the lowest mark of his career since his rookie season in 2016.
Even if he’s producing as many explosive plays this year, preventing Hill from blowing the lid off the defense is a top priority for the Packers. Defensively, there isn’t a more logical choice to cover Hill than rookie Eric Stokes.
Stokes has been thrown into the fire as a rookie, but has done an impressive job of weathering the storm. The first-round cornerback has the most-targeted player on Green Bay’s defense, with opposing quarterbacks throwing his way 48 times this year. On those targets, Stokes has allowed a completion rate of just 56.3 percent and a modest passer rating of 84.5.
What makes Stokes a natural pick to cover Hill is his top-tier speed at the position. Stokes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds during the pre-draft process, placing him in the 97th percentile of cornerbacks coming out of college. Going against potentially the fastest receiver in football, Stokes will need to use his wheels and showcase the kind of recovery speed he showed in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions.
Stokes did get beat deep on the last defensive play, but I'm still impressed and his ability to stop, turn and make another play on the ball. pic.twitter.com/Ofpe6RZg1U— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Jordan Love is going to need to keep the offense moving, but the only way that the Packers have a chance at winning on Sunday is if the defense is able to prevent explosive plays and contain Kansas City’s top weapons. If they can do that, then Mahomes could have another tough day at the office trying to force the issue, potentially resulting in some huge turnovers to help Love and the Packers offense with field position.
Its still an uphill battle without Aaron Rodgers, but it’s another opportunity for Green Bay’s defense to show that it’s as legitimate as some of the numbers this season suggest.