Friday, September 27, 2019

Chiefs film review: Ben Niemann’s coverage impact

By Seth Keysor Sep 25, 2019

Football is the most beautiful sport there is, in part because of how complex it is. Every play contains dozens of small stories, and it’s impossible to follow them all during a broadcast viewing. So every week at The Athletic, I’ll break down the big finds I see on film from each game and some tidbits that might have been missed. And, of course, Patrick Mahomes.
Ben Niemann didn’t seem like part of the plan.
The second-year linebacker out of Iowa managed to make the roster last year after signing as an undrafted free agent. He saw limited action due to injuries to the linebacker group, but quickly faded into the background and special teams once the unit returned to health. With the Chiefs bringing in Darron Lee and Damien Wilson this offseason, there didn’t appear to be a significant role on the defense for Niemann in 2019.
That has changed over the last several weeks, as Niemann has started to see snaps on obvious passing downs as both games wore on. It happened first against Oakland in Week 2, and the trend continued against the Ravens. Niemann didn’t see the field until midway through the second quarter but was able to immediately make a subtle impact.

Note the role Niemann plays here, threatening blitz at the line of scrimmage then quickly dropping into coverage once the ball is snapped. The Chiefs used him repeatedly in this fashion, and it’s workable because he has excellent lateral mobility and can drop quickly into a zone. He’s able to take away the seam initially, then sees the ball go underneath and helps Tyrann Mathieu converge on the receiver and stop him well short of the first down marker.
Niemann was used almost exclusively as a pass defender on Sunday, often in this role. The Chiefs don’t appear satisfied with what they’ve seen from their other linebackers on obvious passing downs, and Niemann looks to be a great fit to fill the role. He’s got excellent athleticism and appears very instinctive in coverage.

On this play, Niemann is asked to carry the slot receiver up the field for a short time in order to prevent a quick throw. He once again is very comfortable backpedaling and gets good depth quickly, making a throw there almost impossible. As the play drags out, he keeps his eyes on the quarterback to stay aware of where the ball might go or the risk of a scramble.
Something that separates Niemann in coverage is that he seems to stay aware of receivers’ locations even as he watches the quarterback. Here, he moves inside briefly to take away a throw up the seam, then moves back toward the sideline. When he sees the quarterback looking back to his side of the field, he gets even more depth to account for where his receiver has gone. By doing so, he brackets the receiver very effectively, and when the throw comes, he does a nice job playing on where the ball would be if it weren’t placed too high.
The job of any coverage defender is to force a great throw/catch for a completion to take place, and Niemann does that. He consistently carried routes up the field perfectly and protected the intermediate middle zone very well. He also stayed aware of the shallow portion of the field and swarmed quickly to the ball when a throw was made, including on an important stop on 3rd-and-13 that led to a Baltimore punt.
Niemann was only on the field for a few run plays, but he didn’t appear comfortable when asked to take on blockers or track where a runner was heading. As such, he’s unlikely to take significant snaps away from the Chiefs’ primary linebackers. However, his range and instincts in zone coverage are a marked improvement over what the Chiefs have had in the middle of the field the past few seasons, and his ability has been a big part of the pass defense looking better over the last two games. Keep an eye on his role moving forward.

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