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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — During Andy Reid’s entire seven-year tenure in Kansas City, I’ve been privy to some of the Chiefs’ most mind-bending losses. On a cold Sunday evening in Kansas City, there was another archetype in the Chiefs’ 19-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, one we hadn’t seen before: The Medicine Game.
About eight years ago, I heard a comic describe his approach to his craft that struck me deeply, and still rings true to this day: “The truth is the truth — you can’t f- - - with the truth,” he said.
Meaning: the comic felt empowered to say whatever he wanted, not just in his profession but in life because the truth is so powerful that, at some point, as long as what you’re saying is true, it will overcome whatever initial reaction you get. In other words, the truth was like medicine — it may be bitter going down but you’ll be better in the long run for taking it.
My realization over how this applied to the Chiefs bubbled up to the surface over the course of Sunday’s loss, as we watched the Chiefs get felled against the gameplan that has bit them so many times before, a strategy Colts coach Frank Reich seemed to realize he should have used against Kansas City in their divisional-round playoff loss in January. In that game, for whatever reason, the Colts failed to run the ball early against one of the worst run defenses in football, and promptly found themselves trailing by too much to change their fate.
Keep Patrick Mahomes off the field
Reich is a really good coach and is one of the best offensive minds in football, so it should come as no surprise that on Sunday night, Reich set about to right that wrong. Armed with a sensational young running back in Marlon Mack (who I warned Chiefs fans about) and the best young offensive line in football, led by the best young guard in football, the Colts stuffed the ball down the Chiefs’ throats to an embarrassing degree. They bludgeoned a defense that was surrendering a ridiculous 5.9 yards per carry entering the contest for 180 rushing yards on 45 carries.
And really, it was more of what we’ve seen from the league’s (now) 30th-ranked run defense through five games (and several seasons now), despite a 4-1 record in 2019. Down linemen and linebackers getting wiped out of their gaps. Edge rushers failing to keep containment. Missed tackles. You name it, it needs to get better.
The worst part about it is it looked a lot like what the Detroit Lions did to the Chiefs a week ago — 186 rushing yards on 35 carries — and drew shades of what the New England Patriots did to Kansas City during the AFC championship game on the same field nine months ago.
For sure, the book is out by now. The best way to keep reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense from scoring is to keep them off the field, and running the ball effectively on first- and second-down is a key part of that.
If the Chiefs don’t improve this area — regardless of the Sunday injuries to three starters (linebacker Anthony Hitchens and defensive linemen Xavier Williams and Chris Jones) it will absolutely be a problem in January, when the weather gets colder, the game gets more physical and football seems to revert back to 2012 or so. Mark my words.
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Offense lacks fear factor with Tyreek Hill sidelined
So, Chiefs, take a big, bitter spoonful of medicine. That’s one of three served up after Sunday night.
The second came via the way the Colts defended the Chiefs, which shows the importance of having star receiver Tyreek Hill on the field. A week ago, the Lions used lots of man coverage — especially single-high — to snuff out underneath routes, since they did not fear the deep ball without Hill. It was a smart decision, as Mahomes and his secondary receivers (namely promising speedster Mecole Hardman) are still a work in progress on deep balls.
So this week, the Colts, predominantly a zone team, also played an abundance of man coverage. And if the Chiefs had something even close to their full complement of players offensively, they likely would have carved this up.
Missing on Sunday were Hill, No. 2 receiver Sammy Watkins and left tackle Eric Fisher. None of this would have mattered if Mahomes wasn’t playing on a gimpy ankle that got aggravated, but he was and had to make many throws on one leg (he still looked better than most of the league while doing so).
The greater point remains that Hill’s ability to stretch the defense vertically is a deterrent to the disrespectful man coverage the Chiefs have seen in recent weeks, and will continue to see after he returns. This does not mean the Chiefs should rush Hill back; on the contrary, it offers proof that to win in the playoffs, they need Hill healthy and ready to go. In the meantime, Mahomes and Hardman must continue forging their deep-ball chemistry. Those two developing a connection is key to getting the offense back to its swashbuckling ways.
Teams can beat up Mahomes
The third and final spoonful of medicine came via the beating Mahomes took Sunday. The Colts got sacks and hit him eight times total, a grisly sight considering Mahomes’ gimpy ankle.
Under normal circumstances, the Chiefs should keep airing it out since their franchise quarterback and offensive guru of a head coach offer one of the biggest advantages in football. But if Mahomes’ ankle continues to limit his mobility, they have to consider running the ball more as a means of protecting their franchise quarterback behind a beat-up line (which lost starting left guard Andrew Wylie to an ankle injury Sunday). Running the ball a paltry 14 times for 36 yards like they did against Indianapolis won’t get the job done if injuries continue to mount.
The good news is that the Chiefs are still 4-1, and it’s not like they lost to a patsy Sunday. The Colts are one of the NFL’s best-run franchises. There’s no shame in losing to Indianapolis during a 16-week season; teams don’t go undefeated, and losses like this can help ward off complacency and give the staff and players areas of improvement. When the goal is the Super Bowl, that’s a good thing.
What can’t happen is ignoring these issues, especially with a brutal matchup against the explosive Texans looming followed by four straight showdowns against teams (Broncos, Packers, Vikings, Titans) who would like nothing more than running the ball down the Chiefs’ throats.
So yes, the quicker the Chiefs’ coaches and players heed the warning of Sunday’s medicine game and embrace the truth about where they need to get better, the quicker they’ll be able to start working toward correcting their flaws. And the time for that, given the path that looms ahead and the repetitiveness of their issues on run defense, is now.
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