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The Kansas City Chiefs have reached back-to-back Super Bowls and began the season as the odds-on favorite to make it three in a row.
However, most observers didn’t expect to see the Chiefs’ steep regression on the defensive side of the ball this season.
The Chiefs defense has allowed at least 29 points in all five games. They have one of the worst run defenses in the league, allowing an average of 141 yards per game — which ranks 29th. When it comes to defensive pressure, the Chiefs have the fewest sacks in the NFL with seven, and they’re ranked last in the league in pass rush by Pro Football Focus.
The Chiefs simply aren’t tackling well, and safety Daniel Sorensen leads the league in missed tackles with eight. Kansas City is allowing averages of 7.1 yards per play and 3.3 points per drive. They’re allowing the opposition to score a touchdown on 41.7% of drives.
The rushing defense in particular has struggled, which has led to linebackers overplaying the run in play-action. Along with a non-existent pass rush, that creates a lot of problems.
Let’s examine each of these aspects.
In the run game, the Chiefs allowed eight touchdowns between the tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions, and only the Seahawks and Eagles allowed more rushing yards between the tackles through Week 4. The move of defensive tackle Chris Jones to the outside may account for part of this problem as teams are targeting the A gap more.
Last Sunday night against the Buffalo Bills, on a second-down play, the Chiefs brought pressure to what they thought was a passing play. But the call was a draw run. Instead of penetrating the gap and getting a tackle for loss, Sorensen was caught flat-footed and didn’t wrap up.
Since the Chiefs’ defense was honoring the run so much, the zone-read allowed Bills quarterback Josh Allen to rush for 60 total yards just by reading the linebackers.
With the number of athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, the Chiefs can’t afford to keep overcommitting to the run. Otherwise, these issues will continue to happen week after week.
Play-action is the next area in which the Chiefs defense is getting beaten. Once defenders realize the running back isn’t getting the handoff, Kansas City’s defense overcompensates and drops back too far into coverage — leaving the middle of the field wide open.
When it comes to bringing pressure, the Chiefs just aren’t getting the job done. Against the Bills, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo finally brought more pressure in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too late.
The absence of pass rush wasn’t the only issue, though. A lack of innovation seems to be a problem as well, as the Chiefs weren’t even using stunts. In the clip below, they just run straight at the quarterback.
Allen had all day to throw. But what is especially concerning is that in the broadcast angle of the clip, the pass-rushers actually pull up and stop rushing completely, allowing Allen to find Stefon Diggs wide open downfield. All throughout the game, the Chiefs gave Allen a clean pocket.
Early in the game, the Chiefs needed a stop on third down (below). The defense called no stunts and failed to bring pressure, leaving the defense in man coverage to follow receivers around downfield.
Defenses rely on cohesiveness and the ability to bring pressure up front in order to help the secondary. Stunts from the defensive line and blitzes from the linebackers aren’t the only places where pressure can come from. In Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed got a sack from a blitz. The question is: Why don’t they use it more?
The Chiefs lost two defensive starters from last season’s team in free agency, linebacker Damien Wilson and defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, and then the injuries to Jones and Charvarious Ward also are having an impact.
When watching this team the past two weeks, there were more than a few snaps where defenders were communicating responsibilities as the quarterback snapped the ball. That being said, it’s difficult to run deceptions when players aren’t even sure of their assignments at the snap.
Tyrann Mathieu, the rare Chiefs defender playing at an above-average level right now, has expressed his frustration in some fairly epic on-field ways — specially when it came to Sorensen and some serious coverage busts.
I went back and found all the plays where Tyrann Mathieu was visibly pissed off at Daniel Sorensen pic.twitter.com/LLBDkuhLgw
— alex (@highlghtheaven) October 11, 2021
Not what you want to see, and Mathieu doesn’t need to go quite that live in-game, but he was more eloquent about the defense’s issues after the Bills did what they did.
“You try your best to set a good example,” Mathieu said. “I feel like I can make more plays. Teams aren’t going to let me make certain plays but you have to take the bull by the horns sometimes. For me it is all about continuing to lead these guys the right way. I think my emotion, my spirit, it can go left or right. For me it is important for me to push these guys in a positive direction. I know we still have a good football team. We are struggling right now but, like I mentioned earlier, it’s a long season and I think we will be able to get it right.”
It’s still relatively early in the season. But as of right now, it seems unlikely that the Chiefs will find any impactful free agents off the street to help with depth. It doesn’t seem like the Chiefs are interested, anyway, as they brought in wide receiver Josh Gordon to help on offense instead of a cornerback or defensive tackle.
Still, the Chiefs can boost their chances on defense by bringing more pressure up front and finishing their tackles. But they have a long road ahead if they expect to get back to the Super Bowl.