Nnadi, Saunders, and Pennel played a pivotal role in turning the Chiefs biggest weakness into one of their biggest strengths
At the 6:06 mark in the 4th Quarter of the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs took the field down 20-17. It was 1st and 10 from the San Francisco 20 yard line and the Chiefs needed a stop. In the box score on this play, you see a five-yard rush for Niners RB Raheem Mostert and tackle by Derrick Nnadi. What you do not see is the tackle Derrick Nnadi forced from his knees on a play that would have likely ended in a San Francisco touchdown. Two plays later, the 49ers punted to Patrick Mahomes and he led the Chiefs to a lead changing touchdown.
During the first 10 weeks of the season, the Chiefs defense gave up 148.1 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. A major area of concern were runs that went up the middle, and the Chiefs were giving up a hefty 5.6 yards per carry on those particular runs. The worst came in Week 10 when Derrick Henry gouged the Chiefs defense for 188 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. After this devastating loss, the Chiefs were 6-4 and it looked like the same storyline was going to carry on this season: The Kansas City Chiefs dynamic offense led by an MVP QB is let down once again by an awful defense.
However, following this loss the Chiefs never lost a game again. The defense improved. The Chiefs biggest weakness, their run defense, became one of their biggest strengths. In the last six games of the regular season, the Chiefs defense only allowed 95 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. In fact, the interior run defense which was such a problem early went from allowing a ridiculous 5.6 yards per carry to a respectable 3.9.
How did this happen? Many point to Mike Pennel, the DT added prior to the Week 8 game against the Packers. While Pennel did have a major impact, there was more to the solution than just him. Systematically nothing changed, Spagnuolo continued to run his various forms of the 4-3 front. The Chiefs ran a lot of the 4-3 Over front which is used to help stop zone running schemes but is very dependent on players doing their job.
It is imperative that the 1-technique does their job every play in a 4-3 front, especially the 4-3 Over front that the Chiefs favored. For the Chiefs, three players filled that role: Derrick Nnadi, Khalen Saunders, and Mike Pennel. Nnadi took the majority of the snaps in the 1-tech as the starter. After the loss to the Titans Week 10, Nnadi became the savior to the run defense frequently covering up to three gaps in a play. Nnadi was forced to do this because in the 4-3 Over front the 1-technique lines up on the weak side of the formation and is responsible for both A gaps and the weak side B gap. The same responsibilities fall under the 4-3 Under front the Chiefs would mix in as well. As our very own Caleb James broke down below you can see Nnadi’s lateral agility is game-changing and allowed him to play this position at a high level.
Due to the excellent play out of Nnadi, Saunders, and Pennel in the 1-technique the Chiefs were able to hide average LB play and one good edge rusher. Once Steve Spagnuolo identified his guys (Nnadi, Saunders, Pennel) the defense improved immensely. This was obvious in the AFC Championship game where the defense had the opportunity for redemption. After allowing 188 rushing yards to Derrick Henry in Week 10, they only gave up 69 yards on the ground to the NFL’s rushing champion the second time around. In the end, Kansas City came out on top winning a Super Bowl that included several key stops by the defense late in the 4th quarter. Specifically, one made by Derrick Nnadi from his knees on 1st and 10 with 6:06 left in the game.