The Kansas City Chiefs’ loss to Indianapolis was a “Medicine Game,” an opportunity for a Super Bowl contender to feel some discomfort, take its remedies for its three major illnesses and keep it moving.
Now, in the aftermath of a 31-24 loss to the Houston Texans in which two of their ailments were either cured (Tyreek Hill returned and balled out) or on the way there (the pass protection was much better, statistically), it’s officially time to have an outright intervention regarding the Chiefs’ horrendous run defense, which remains the primary obstacle that stands between Chiefs coach Andy Reid and the legacy-elevating Super Bowl title he desperately craves.
So, yeah, this is absolutely the biggest issue plaguing the 2019 Chiefs, which is saying a lot considering the injuries in K.C. are a big deal now. Multiple starters sat out Sunday’s loss to the Texans, including crucial pieces like receiver Sammy Watkins (hamstring), left tackle Eric Fisher (groin) and defensive lineman Chris Jones (groin). What’s more, an ankle injury essentially has the league’s best player, the reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, gamely hobbling around the field like Paul Sheldon in “Misery.”
With Kansas City sitting at 4-2 and entering a suddenly unsettling Thursday road test against the ground-oriented Denver Broncos, it’s time to sit down, have a heart-to-heart and air out all the ways the Chiefs’ atrocious run defense killed this team Sunday, and find potential ways to fix it.
You’ve got problems when Carlos Hyde can sideline Patrick Mahomes
Let’s take stock of Sunday’s ground-game bloodbath, starting with the fact the Texans rushed for 192 yards on 41 attempts, a stellar average of 4.7 yards per carry. That’s somehow a full yard less than what the Chiefs surrendered through the season’s first two games.
By rushing whenever they wanted, the Texans were able to control the clock and dominate time of possession by an embarrassing margin — 40 minutes to the Chiefs’ 20. This matters because the Chiefs’ offense, while still not at full strength, was at least closer to it with Hill’s return and looked like it, as Mahomes threw for 273 yards, three touchdowns and an interception that probably should have been overturned on a no-call (but whatever).
Regardless, keeping the football away from Mahomes, even when hobbled, is always a sound game plan, one the past three teams that have beaten the Chiefs — the Patriots, Colts and Texans — have executed to perfection.
The manner in which the latter team did it is the most troubling of all since the man who gashed the Chiefs on Sunday, Carlos Hyde, is the same one they dealt away for a backup offensive lineman right before the season due to the overall lack of dynamism he showed in the backfield throughout the preseason.
Chiefs challenging ’06 Colts for defensive futility
Seriously, Hyde looks so much leaner and quicker now than he did months ago. He definitely had that “spouse who loses a bunch of weight after the divorce” glow-up, as he rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
Alas, that’s what facing the Chiefs’ run defense can do for a player. When someone on the Chiefs’ defensive line doesn’t get reach-blocked, down-blocked or wiped out of the play entirely, the linebackers either lose contain on the edge or get manipulated by motion or pulling offensive linemen in the middle. And when they don’t get overpowered by those linemen and try to avoid them — Derrick Johnson-style — they often fail to make the tackle and lose their gap integrity in the process.
Throw in a healthy dash of bad tackling — they entered the game ranked 24th in broken tackle percentage, according to Football Outsiders — and its the pu pu platter deluxe of run defense, a weakness that approaches the level of the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, a team that finished dead-last in that statistic.
“The obvious is that there are too many holes, and we’ve got to make sure that we squeeze on those and fill,” Reid said Sunday. “It’s not one person — that’s not the problem.”
Of course, while the 2006 Colts gave up an astounding 173 yards per game in the regular season, which isn’t far off the mark the 2019 Chiefs are trending toward (161.8), they still won the Super Bowl, and a big reason was the return of star safety Bob Sanders in the playoffs. With Sanders back in the mix, the Colts sliced their rushing yards per game average by half in the playoffs, surrendering a mere 82.7 yards per contest in four playoff games.
All of which brings us back to potential solutions for the Chiefs.
Could Chiefs deal for star cornerback like Jalen Ramsey?
If Kansas City were to add a killer cornerback to their current group — say a Patrick Peterson or a Jalen Ramsey or a Xavien Howard — it would free up defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is six games into his tenure, time to devote more resources (secondary members) to stopping the run.
At the moment, none of those players seem to be on the move, as all three of their current teams (the Cardinals, Jaguars and Dolphins) have yet to decide they want to trade these guys. If something were to change, it would make sense for a team like the Chiefs, who need a Deion-to-the-49ers-like infusion of attitude and talent in the worst way, to make a reasonable move to give their flagging defense a boost before the offseason makeover that will almost surely come via the draft and free agency.
Part one of their overhaul began with the January firing of beleaguered defensive coordinator Bob Sutton; part two will continue this offseason, with the addition of more players who fit Spagnuolo’s scheme. The Chiefs, of course, can use help everywhere on defense.
Losing out on Minkah Fitzpatrick hurt
That’s what they did with Minkah Fitzpatrick, after all. The Chiefs put forth an aggressive offer, but were ultimately outbid for the versatile young safety by Pittsburgh, a source told Yahoo Sports. The Chiefs were also interested in Ramsey, at least until the Jaguars decided to try to salvage their relationship.
So from a practical standpoint, not much between now and a few weeks ago, when the Ramsey speculation was hot, has changed, except for two close losses and the fans’ anger about them.
Yet, their angst is understandable, considering the team’s run defense has been a problem for three years now and there’s two consecutive ground-oriented teams (Broncos, Packers) looming before the Oct. 29 trade deadline. Then comes consecutive games against two more ground-oriented teams (Vikings, Titans).
While defensive help may be on the way for the Chiefs — just like the ’06 Colts — the NFL does not wait, and it does not feel sorry for you. That means the players who are currently in the muck on defense would be best served to admit their deficiencies, come together and start playing better before their next four opponents exploit it to an even-more embarrassing degree.
“We’ve gotta start realizing that we need each other — up front, back end, in between,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “It’s a group effort, and until we buy into that, we’ll keep playing like that.”
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