The final four of the 2023 NFL season is upon us, dozens of football games culminating into two matchups between galácticos-like squads. In this week’s The Overhang, I ask questions about some of the featured acts in this year’s conference championship Sunday, from how will this year’s likely MVP navigate an onslaught of pass rushers to (on-brand, for me) questions about the run game in both matchups. Let's start with how one particular star defensive tackle shows up for the first 45 minutes or so of his Sunday game.
Kansas City Chiefs
Can Chris Jones play quarters 1-3 like Chris Jones does in quarter 4?
Chris Jones has been known as a player who can crank it up in key moments, a "closer" who can slam the door shut on third downs and late in games, ending drives in a two-second burst of power and speed. Just like at the end of the Chiefs' divisional round tilt against the Buffalo Bills, where Jones pushed Pro Bowl offensive tackle Dion Dawkins back into quarterback Josh Allen to disrupt the throw (and help cause an obnoxious amount of discourse in football media):
That "closer" term has perhaps become too literal with Jones this season, as he has taken his time to get going in games during the 2023 season. Particularly when defending the run.
Jones, who was named to another first-team All-Pro selection this season, was involved in frustrating contract talks with Chiefs' brass this past offseason before settling on a one-year extension. After that stalemate and short-term resolution, Jones racked up 10.5 sacks, but there has been a noticeable dip in play and down-to-down effort when defending the run during the early portion of games. And taking a glance at the one-year contract that Jones is playing under this season, with incentives tied to sacks stats, including $1.25 million for 10 sacks, there was a monetary incentive for Jones to focus on one particular area of his game.
Jones finished with those double-digit sacks and hit that bonus, but his play against the run early in games has dragged down the consistency of the Chiefs' run defense. Jones often stands straight up when he identifies a run play, waiting to confirm if it's a run or pass, or if the direction of the run is coming his way, leaning on blockers and not pursuing from the backside or down the field in an attempt to get in on a tackle. Jones finished with 18 tackles against the run this season, with just nine coming in the first three quarters of games, numbers from TruMedia statistics that we will get more into in a second.
Jones’ pass-rushing efforts did not take a similar hit. His pressure rates went up in the fourth quarter this season, just like about every pass rusher, but nothing out of the norm when comparing him with other successful pass rushers. He is still among one of the league’s best in affecting the quarterback early in the game, too. His 15.7% pressure rate over the first three quarters is tied (with Myles Garrett) for 12th among 109 qualifying defenders, and his 18.5% fourth-quarter pressure rate is ranked … 12th.
Back to those tackle numbers against the run, with context of how Jones has performed in that area in his career compared to his peers. This is when it gets worse. Oh, so much worse.
There were 24 defenders who registered 10 or more sacks in the 2023 NFL regular season. Jones' 18 tackles against the run were tied for 20th and in the bottom five with the likes of smaller and bendier “rush the quarterback first, ask questions about the run later” defenders like Trey Hendrickson and Haason Reddick, while also stacking above only New York Jets pass rushing ace Bryce Huff’s 13 such tackles.
When comparing Jones in the first three quarters against the run to his 2023 All-Pro defensive tackle counterparts, Jones isn’t even in the same stratosphere. His nine tackles aren't close to the totals Dexter Lawrence (34), Justin Madubuike (33) and Aaron Donald (28) racked up in the first three quarters of games.
Ninety-one players have had 10 or more sacks in a season since the 2019 season. Only two had fewer run tackles over the first three quarters than Jones’ nine this season (Hendrickson in 2020 and 2021, and Josh Uche in 2022). That's two pass-rushing specialists known for their ability to win one-on-ones and get after the quarterback but also with questionable appetites for taking on run blockers, with Uche being the ultimate example of a pass-rushing specialist and a way different player than the mauling Jones, who is known for his ability to blow up the run and pass with aplomb from inside and out.
The average number of run tackles over that time among double-digit sack artists was 25. Jones barely even hit a third of that this season. When looking at Jones' numbers compared to his career rates, the numbers this season stick out like a sore thumb:
A silver lining is that in the fourth quarter Jones also finished with nine run tackles this season. Half of Jones' 18 tackles against the run have come in the fourth quarter, easily lapping the 23.3% average rate among the 24 defenders in the NFL this season with double-digit sacks (appropriately enough, Jones’ rate of tackles for loss and run stuffs also rose in the fourth quarter from 2.7% to 4.7%, while other defenders with double-digit sacks this season saw their rate drop from 5.7% in the first three quarters to 2.7% in the fourth. Jones waits to make the last 15 minutes his piggybank).
And the nine tackles in the fourth quarter has easily bested his previous career high of five fourth-quarter tackles against the run in 2019 and ranks 27th since 2019 and tied for eight-best this season among defensive linemen with at least 10 sacks in a season.
Jones is a devastating weapon to throw at offenses, especially on key downs and in key situations. Those in-between downs is also where Jones’ presence and ability to swing games loom large. In a huge game against a team that runs the ball as much (the Ravens rank seventh in early down designed rush rate) and as well (Ravens also rank in the top three in every rushing metric), Jones has to play like an ace pitcher who can no-hit an offense for nine innings, and not a flamethrower closer who does all of his work in a couple of pitches.
It is a huge factor for the Chiefs to stay aggressive and keep Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in obvious passing situations, allowing defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to keep firing away blitz looks (more on that later). I’m sure Jones will be more than happy to feast on those heavy pass situations, but he has to eat the early quarter vegetables to have his last quarter dessert.
Can Lamar Jackson keep finding answers against the blitz-happy Steve Spagnuolo?
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is going to bring blitzes early and often against Jackson and the Ravens because he is Steve Spagnuolo and he’s here to chew bubblegum and blitz the quarterback. And he’s all out of bubblegum.
The Chiefs' defense is one of the most devastating blitzing teams this season, ranking second fewest in yards per play allowed (4.2) and defensive EPA per play (.21) while blitzing at one of the highest rates in the league. Blitzes (and the associated simulated pressures) are something that Spagnuolo has and will always lean into, especially in the hyper-specific game plan world of the playoffs.
There will be plenty of moments of Jackson going one-on-one with a free running defender, creating a modernized option-like play with the quarterback facing a defender in space (but in this 2023 season version, the skill player is down the field, not a handful of yards behind the quarterback).
Last week against the Houston Texans, the Ravens leaned into plenty of quick-hitters across the field in the second half. They got the ball to their speedy skill players, tiring out the Texans' defenders who were running every which way on exotic pressure looks. Jackson will seek to push the ball and make Chiefs defenders pick their poison of flying back for depth or keeping eyes on him.
A unique characteristic of Spagnuolo’s blitzing tendencies might play to the Chiefs' benefit. Spagnuolo prefers to bring heat from two-high zone looks like quarters or Cover 6 (over 30% of the Chiefs' blitzes came from two-high coverage looks, highest in the league). This is an attempt to make aggressive and passive defensive calls look as similar as possible, lulling offenses to sleep before confusing quarterbacks and pass protectors and bolo punching them into another sack. Another added benefit of these looks is that it allows defenders to keep their eyes on the quarterback and not just at their man coverage assignment. It’s not a coincidence the Chiefs have allowed only one scramble this entire season despite blitzing 186 times, well below the league average of 5.5.
Jackson has had moments of volatility against the blitz in his career, namely a wonky Thursday night game in Week 10 of the 2021 season against Brian Flores and the Miami Dolphins where Flores blitzed Jackson over two dozen times and held the Ravens to a 2-for-14 night on third down. The Dolphins handed the Ravens a 22-10 loss and started to speed the exit of former offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Overall, Jackson is still an efficient operator (his dropback success rate and EPA per play against the blitz this season sit firmly above average and are essentially identical with Kirk Cousins) who has continuously given himself answers to problems that defenses have thrown at him. Especially this season with the best group of pass-catchers he’s had and a more up-to-date passing game under coordinator Todd Monken. He created consistency in an area where defenses want to create chaos while recording positive plays and avoiding negative ones.
Jackson has been doing this as a thrower, from within and outside the pocket. He had only seven scrambles this season against the blitz, a 4% scramble rate that is less than half of the 9.5% scramble rate he recorded against the blitz in his 2019 MVP winning season. Jackson can still use his legs, but they are now used more as a complementary piece to the damage he likes to deal with his arm between the tackles. Jackson consistently works from the pocket against the blitz (overall, Jackson’s pass attempts from outside the pocket have dropped from 21.7% in 2019 to 14.9% this season, going from ranked second behind only Russell Wilson in 2019 to tied for 15th with Dak Prescott and just above Gardner Minshew this season). He'll stand in the pocket and take a hit, change an arm angle or drift away from free rushers to create another completion and another first down or big play:
My favorite Lamar Jackson throw against the Texans may have been his first one.
Drifts away from the blitzing free runner and lets the double-move win while in five-man protection. pic.twitter.com/iRNUVLgNIy
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 24, 2024
The Ravens' run game will be a key component in this matchup, but the pass game will be a matchup of Jackson with his eyes downfield, attacking voids from inside the pocket or daring to run past the line of scrimmage, against the eyes of the Chiefs' back seven defenders and aggressiveness of Spagnuolo.
Who blinks first?
(One additional note: look for how the Ravens' defense plans for the Chiefs' tight end-heavy looks. They will mix up their defensive back looks, sometimes using only four and sometimes using three-safety varieties. That will give an indicator of what they feel is the biggest threat.)
Detroit Lions-San Francisco 49ers
What kind of run game does the Lions' greatest hits offense feature?
Even with Jared Goff throwing javelins over the middle of the field to Amon-Ra St. Brown, and rookies Sam LaPorta and Jahmyr Gibbs scorching defenses during their inaugural NFL campaigns, the main course of the Lions' offense is their offensive line and run game.
The Lions are the only team to rank in the top 10 of the five major food groups of run concepts: zone (10th), gap (fourth), pin-pull (ninth), duo (fifth) and trap (fifth). It's an omnivorous diet (I’m starving right now while writing this, lay off me for the food puns) that highlights their talented group that’s one of the league’s best (when healthy).
The Lions will be (likely) without the talented Jonah Jackson at left guard, but will have their star right tackle Penei Sewell, their hobbled second-team All-Pro center Frank Ragnow, as well as their typical starting right guard Graham Glasgow and stalwart left tackle Taylor Decker. Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley has not been scared to keep the run game varied, even without his typical starters in the lineup. Detroit will stick with game plans to attack scouted weaknesses and not shy away from having lesser talent on the field.
The Packers' offensive showing in the divisional round against the 49ers should give Fraley and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson plenty to work from. The Packers got heavily into two tight end personnel groupings and ran the ball on the 49ers, using pullers and strong blocks from their wide receivers against the aggressive 49ers defensive ends:
Packers hitting three Pin-Pull runs for big gains against the 49ers.
Same personnel, formation and motion on each play. Make sure to peek the WRs Dontayvion Wicks (#13) and Christian Watson (#9) blocking Chase Young and Nick Bosa to help get these plays going. pic.twitter.com/W0Qdg0z5gx
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 22, 2024
The 49ers' defense features a strong pass rush and coverage on the backend, plus one of the NFL's best linebacker duos in Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw manning the middle of the field. But the Niners can be inconsistent when defending the run. Their aggressive defensive linemen, who rank second in sacks (22) and pressures (107) since acquiring Chase Young and rushing only four, love to shoot up the field but can get caught out of position. Warner and Greenlaw can be a step too quick when reacting to the run game, getting hung up anticipating a fastball as an offense throws something off-speed.
The Packers' use of two tight ends is notable because of how the 49ers matched their personnel. When the 49ers are in their three-linebacker groupings with Oren Burks on the field and Deommodore Lenoir on the outside and not in the slot (Lenoir had an All-Pro-caliber run once moved back into the slot full-time in sub packages after the 49ers' Week 9 bye), they are especially vulnerable to a consistent run game. They ranked last in defensive rushing success rate and 20th in defensive rushing EPA per play on early downs out of base (four defensive backs) personnel.
So, what, exactly do the Lions look to use to take advantage of this weakness? Tight end Brock Wright is likely out, taking away the Lions' best blocker at the position. Anthony Firkser is fine in the role, but LaPorta is a net-negative as a blocker. Do we see even more Dan Skipper as the sixth eligible offensive lineman, (the Lions have used jumbo personnel at the sixth-highest rate this season)? Detroit's goal might be to get bigger bodies on the field and threaten to control the game against the 49ers' weaker personnel grouping.
Does this mean more of St. Brown getting featured as a blocker (he is fantastic at it), much like the Packers used their wide receivers to throw a curveball at the 49ers and attack from open-side looks? The Lions love using an inverted two-man game with St. Brown in the slot, aligned close to the formation like a tight end, and LaPorta aligned outside like a typical wide receiver.
Because the Lions are so varied with their run game, looking at what defenses' standard looks are and what they are worst at give hints at what Detroit's plan of attack might be. Do the Lions use one of their favorite passing looks to get to a pin-pull run concept, much like the Packers did? The 49ers can be hit on those, but are effective down-to-down. One particular zone concept the Lions like to use, the split zone variety where an offensive skill player slices across the formation to kick out a defensive player on the other side, is also one of their best run concepts:
love how David Montgomery keeps his pads towards the line of scrimmage.
allows him to stay balanced and attack the hole on this Split Zone run right as it opens. pic.twitter.com/8HSYSfp3Ap
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) October 11, 2023
This run can help control aggressive linebackers because of the action of the offensive player; in the example above it's LaPorta (No. 87). The movement captures defenders' eyes, getting them to hesitate ever so slightly while also keeping LaPorta from having to block at the point of attack and on the backside of the play.
It is also a run concept that has been effective against the 49ers this season, which makes sense given the “wad it up” nature of the zone aspect of this run that can help shore up against the aggressive 49ers defensive line. The moving offensive player can also keep Warner and Greenlaw from crashing down on the play. The Lions rank sixth in success rate (46.7%) on split zone runs, with the third best EPA per attempt. The 49ers, on the other hand, have allowed the fourth-highest success rate when defending split zone runs.
There are hundreds of variables that go into a given game plan, but in an effort to combat this tenacious 49ers front, one that bases their personality on being disruptive but perhaps has more holes than first meets the eye (somewhat fitting and reflective of the Silicon Valley location of the 49ers current stadium location), this is one variable that will be interesting to see if the Lions pick at.
Deebo Samuel might not play, but who covers Brandon Aiyuk? And George Kittle? And Christian McCaffrey? Wait, they have to stop the run, too?
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has to be given credit for at least trying to mix things up, despite working through injuries and young (complimentary) and green (derogatory) talent.
The Lions have turned into one of the blitz-happiest defenses in the NFL following their bye week, with their third- and fourth-down blitz rate going from about league-average to fourth. That stacks up with known trigger-happy coordinators like Brian Flores, Wink Martindale and Steve Spagnuolo in the second half of the season.
The problem that Glenn needs to solve is how to slow down this 49ers offense on early downs. Despite using just about every coverage scheme possible in an attempt to claw out of the bottom tier of defenses in the NFL, the Lions can still be gashed through the air. Detroit ranks 28th in defensive dropback success rate, allowing the sixth-highest rate of explosive passes since their Week 9 bye. (The Lions have, however, been one of the league’s better run defenses over that same time, ranking fourth in defensive rushing success rate as their front seven, including their young linebackers, settled into their roles and players like Alim McNeill returned from injury).
The Lions are not impervious against the run. Constantly moving pieces around and blitzing can leave defensive gaps unaccounted for, but it gives them at least something to anchor their defensive game plan to in defending an offense that stacked up as not only one of this season's best, but one of the better ones we’ve seen in recent memory. That group is led by the Niners' run-first attack with Christian McCaffrey bounding left and right.
The 49ers are a primary user of 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers). The benefit of basing out of this, well, base personnel, is that it often gets defenses to declare what they intend to stop on a given play. Either heavier bodies and heavier boxes to slow down the run and hold on against the pass or lighter bodies and more speed to keep up with the 49ers' explosive skill players through the air.
The Lions under Glenn will almost always match two wide receiver looks like 21 personnel with their own base defense with four defensive backs and three off-ball linebackers. It's a personnel grouping matchup that has stonewalled offenses into a sub-30% rushing success rate on early downs. On the other hand, the Lions have surrendered the fourth-most amount of passing EPA in those exact situations and personnel matchups.
The passing game is filled with more examples of the 49ers' strength against the Lions' weakness. No defense since Week 9 has allowed more explosive passes when defending play-action than the Lions. The offense to average the most yards per play-action pass this season? You guessed it, the 49ers at 9.3 yards per play (with a crisp 25.4% explosive pass rate, third-best in the league).
You can see where I’m going with this. I think the Lions' defense can have at least some success against the run (the Lions held the Rams' tough run game to 70 yards on 16 carries on running back carries), which can create longer passing-down situations and more opportunities to create chaos with blitzes and heavy-pressure looks. And the mixing of coverages and willingness to blitz can give a possibility of throwing a monkey wrench into a Kyle Shanahan game plan, and maybe force an erratic Brock Purdy decision, much like the Packers did last week in the divisional round. But, the Lions' linebackers have been a weakness for their defense this season, and there are matchups across the board that Shanahan can key on, particularly Aiyuk on Cameron Sutton, or Kittle or McCaffrey working over the middle on a linebacker. It's a nice classic potential fireworks show for all the reasons you could want.
(One last side note: look for how Glenn uses safety Ifeatu Melifonwu, who has broken out over the past couple of months and has potential as an answer for a tough tight end matchup).