The Kansas City Chiefs couldn’t have picked a worse time to contend for the AFC West lead against quarterback Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders.
Entering Week 14 as the NFL’s 27th-ranked passing defense, the Chiefs have given up a league-high 1,128 yards to slot receivers this season, and Kanas City safeties rank 31st in receiving yards allowed (880). Add to the fact that star cornerback Marcus Peters is suspended for Sunday’s tilt, and the silver lining for the Chiefs’ secondary fades entirely.
Kansas City’s glaring weaknesses at outside cornerback are further magnified by Peters’ absence, as No. 2 cornerback Terrance Mitchell (49.0 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus) and veteran Darrelle Revis (19 coverage snaps in 2017) have both done little to prove their worth along the boundary.
And, as previously mentioned, it doesn’t get any better when looking at the team’s play in the slot.
Fourth-year cornerback Phillip Gaines — the Chiefs’ go-to defensive back in the slot — has allowed a team-high 331 yards and two touchdowns on his 216 coverage snaps at nickel cornerback. Among the 32 defensive backs with 170-plus slot coverage snaps, Gaines ranks 30th in yards allowed per coverage snap (1.53) and 26th in passer rating allowed (111.3). He also owns the league’s worst overall and coverage grades among cornerbacks with at least at 34.0 and 34.4, respectively.
In an effort to move away from Gaines’ ineffectiveness in the slot, Kansas City has asked third-year cornerback Steven Nelson to sometimes test his talents at nickel cornerback. However, he too has done more harm for his team than good.
The former Oregon State product ranks tied for No. 48 among defensive backs with 87-plus slot coverage snaps in yards allowed per coverage snap (2.19), giving up 283 yards and two touchdowns on just 129 coverage snaps at the slot cornerback position.
Targeting slot receivers over the course of his last four games, Carr has completed 24-of-31 passes (77.42%) for 302 yards. He completed 64.03 percent of his attempts overall.
Though the Raiders’ Seth Roberts should take a majority of the slot reps this week (as he has all season), offensive coordinator Todd Downing would be smart to spread the slot wealth to some of the other dynamic players in his arsenal to create even better mismatches inside the hashes.
Roberts’ 41.4 overall grade ranks 114th among the 117 wide receivers with 200-plus offensive snaps this season, largely due to his inability to create separation on short and intermediate routes. He averages just 1.02 yards per route run, which ranks 40th among receivers with 100-plus slot snaps.
Fortunately for Downing, he doesn’t have to solely rely on Roberts for production at slot receiver.
Raiders wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree have combined for 332 yards and two touchdowns while running just 139 total slot routes (2.38 YPRR). However, if Cooper (ankle/concussion) is unable to suit up on Sunday and Crabtree is needed to run the show at outside receiver, Downing should turn to Cordarrelle Patterson and his tight ends to step up to the plate.
Patterson has averaged a team-high 4.26 YPRR in the team’s last four games, totaling 81 yards on just three receptions. Similarly, Raiders tight ends Jared Cook and Clive Walford have shown flashes of success when positioned in the slot — Walford, especially, played well against the New York Giants in Week 13.
With Cooper and Crabtree out against the Giants, Walford provided a much-needed spark for the Raiders’ offense at slot receiver, catching four passes for 57 yards on just 13 routes (4.38 YPRR). He’s due for a similar outing if pitted against any of the Chiefs’ slot cornerbacks, or safeties for that matter.
Chiefs safeties Ron Parker and Daniel Sorenson — the two most responsible for 880 yards allowed through the air — have notably struggled in coverage this season, Parker more so than Sorenson. The seven-year veteran ranks 71st among 85 safeties with 220-plus defensive snaps in coverage grade (48.1), yet he leads all safeties in snaps played at 855.
Whether it be attacking the slot or Kansas City’s safeties, Downing & Co. will have every opportunity to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses in Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.