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How Bruce Irvin and Raiders defense kept Chiefs Travis Kelce (mostly) under wraps

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Tight Ends in the NFL are a growing match-up nightmare for defenders. So big, strong, fast, and agile that it’s often impossible to cover them. Linebackers cannot keep up and safeties struggle with the size and there’s an increasing influx of these players.

From Shannon Sharpe to Tony Gonzalez to Antonio Gates, the Raiders have had to deal with such difficult match-ups seemingly forever.

Travis Kelce is the latest in the line and is currently one of the top tight ends in the NFL. He can absolutely wreak havoc on a defense and make life miserable for opponents.

If he is able to get a free release and run his pattern at full speed from the start, he will definitely get open. That 5-yard ‘bump zone’ though is where he can be disrupted. If the defense can make Kelce work through those first few yards, it will change the timing of the plays and can also put him off his route. Alex Smith is at his best with timing routes and altering that can only be beneficial.

So, what Ken Norton Jr and the Raiders defense did was set Bruce Irvin the task of bumping, hitting, grabbing, and slamming Kelce as he comes off the line. Every half-second that Bruce bumps him is a half-second that the coverage benefits from. Every moment where Kelce’s balance is broken is an additional moment that he has to spend to recover.

This helped limit Travis Kelce to a 4-catch, 33-yard evening. However, on one particular occasion in the first quarter, Irvin was not able to bump Kelce at the line and it resulted in this :

On the play, Irvin has man coverage of the RB out of the backfield. If Bruce had (over)commited to bumping Kelce, it would have left the RB wide open in the flat, likely leading to another slew of ‘Why can’t the Raiders cover the RB?’ questions.

In fact, you need only look back one game to see a similar situation:

On this play, Khalil Mack bumps and rides the TE down into the middle of the field, which leaves the flat wide open for Melvin Gordon to run into.

And remember the Week 3 Washington game? Ok, I try not to either, but there are lessons there. Chris Thompson gets into the flat and nearly breaks it because of TJ Carrie giving just the littlest bump to the WR.

What we’re seeing is not just a good game plan and preparation; it’s the evolution of the execution on the field. It’s nice to see is that from game to game, these little things are being cleaned up and the performance is showing.

It’s not perfect, but it’s on an upswing.