At some point for the Kansas City Chiefs, the balancing was inevitable. Head coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach were devoting too much time, too much effort and too many assets to fail. And on Sunday, they saw a flag-planting moment, witnessed on an international stage, that showed everyone else what they’ve known for awhile.
The Chiefs' defense has caught up to its offensive counterpart. And when the generational quarterback needs to be carried for a few Sundays — or maybe even through February — Kansas City has finally put together the unit to make it happen.
That much was on full display in Sunday’s 21-14 win over the Miami Dolphins in Frankfurt, Germany, when the audience was gifted one of the most exciting defensive plays of the season — with three Chiefs defenders combining on a 59-yard fumble return for a touchdown that was 18 months in the making.
We’ll get to that, but first it’s worth absorbing what Patrick Mahomes told the television audience after the win: that this is the best defensive unit that he’s played with … and maybe more.
“I think they’ve got a chance to be the best defense in the NFL,” Mahomes said.
The group is certainly on the doorstep considering the Chiefs have held seven of nine opponents to 20 points or less this season and were fifth in the league in defensive DVOA as of Sunday. Without looking at any other stats, most staffs will tell you that combination is a Super Bowl-level defense, and offers the recipe for a lot of wins (so long as the offense isn’t putrid). And Kansas City fits that mold, even if Mahomes and Reid are overseeing an offensive unit that is still not hitting on all cylinders this season.
In that framing, Sunday’s game against Miami was a perfect example of how this current iteration of the Chiefs is built to win. Facing a Dolphins scheme geared toward walling off Mahomes from tight end Travis Kelce, Kansas City was confronted with solving a playoff-level defense and a championship-level offense — in an overseas game that has a travel burden and distraction level unrivaled outside of a Super Bowl trip. And how they responded says a lot about where Kansas City’s defensive build is going.
In a few words? It’s ascending. Quickly.
Chiefs fans saw it encapsulated in that 59-yard fumble return for a touchdown, which saw young cornerback Trent McDuffie lay a hit on Dolphins wideout Tyreek Hill, while simultaneously punching out the football. Safety Mike Edwards then scooped up the fumble and advanced it, before spinning around and lateraling the ball to fellow safety Bryan Cook, who stepped toward the sideline and proceeded to take everyone around him to a track meet.
“Cook was rollin’, man,” Mahomes said afterward. “I said it looked like he was the anchor leg of a [4 x 100] in track. He got the knees up and was rollin’ down the field. Huge play that obviously mattered a ton at the end of the game.”
“The fact that [the defense is] so good at all three levels, that they’re deep — guys rotate in and they can play,” Mahomes continued. “… I knew they were going to be good, because you look at the end of last year, they played great football and no one really noticed. I knew they were going to be good [because] we brought back so many people, so many young guys, and they were going to develop. The fact that they’re all developing this fast, I don’t know if anyone could have guessed it.”
Sunday’s snapshot was bigger than just one week. Every top-end defense needs a flag-planting moment that showcases where it’s going — both inside the team structure and to the rest of the NFL. For the Chiefs, that fumble return was one of them, pulled together by two starters selected in the 2022 NFL Draft (McDuffie and Cook), and a free agent plucked last offseason to provide some veteran depth in the secondary (Edwards).
It had to be a particularly sweet moment for Reid and Veach, who have watched Hill play at a near-MVP level since being dealt to Miami prior to the 2022 season. The same Hill who boasted in the run-up that Kansas City was “going to get this work” and that he hoped to score a touchdown and deliver a message directly to Reid that the team never should have traded him. Hill never got that opportunity, getting held to 62 yards receiving while largely being covered by veteran cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. His costly fumble ended up being the difference in the game, putting the Chiefs up 21-0 before halftime.
But it was the Kansas City contributors to the play who should have Veach and Reid beaming. Both in their second years in the league, McDuffie is a budding star and Cook is developing into a solid starter, once again highlighting a defensive-heavy 2022 draft class that is becoming a foundational part of the balance in the franchise. That class also included rising defensive end George Karlaftis and linebacker Leo Chenal, who is helping to hold the fort while star Nick Bolton recovers from wrist surgery.
This kind of day was what Veach had in mind when he perched in front of a Zoom camera following the 2022 draft and explained to a curious media throng and fan base why he’d used seven of his 10 picks on defensive players. As Veach put it in that media session: “Obviously we have to have balance on both sides of the football and we wanted to upgrade the youth, the talent and the depth on the defensive side.”
This is what that looks like. Legitimate defensive balance that can hold arguably the NFL’s No. 1 offense to 292 total yards, a paltry 3-for-12 in third-down efficiency and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to his lowest passing output this season. All while simultaneously floating Mahomes, whose 185 passing yards represented his lowest total since Dec. 5 … of 2021. And this in a game without Bolton, who will surely provide a late-season lift, and with star defensive tackle Chris Jones consistently double-teamed — to the point of providing only one quarterback pressure.
If this is what Kansas City’s defense looks like against an elite offense while operating without two stars performing at a peak level, who knows how well this unit could be humming in late December, when it’s time to hit a postseason groove.
Mahomes sees a trend toward the top of the league. Reid and Veach hoped and planned for it to come together that way.
If it’s even as close as those expectations and Sunday’s representation, it’s a newfound balance that should have the rest of the league worried.