Over the course of the last several years, the Chiefs have generally fielded an impressive defense, largely on the back of a frightening pass rush anchored by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali and aided by generally solid secondary play.
Game by game, you could count on the Chiefs defense to generally do a good job and prevent other teams’ offenses from inflicting their will on the Chiefs.
However, despite being a good overall unit, the defense seemed to struggle against “franchise” quarterbacks. What is a franchise quarterback? I don’t know, ask someone else with more time and patience for such subjective definitions. All I know is that more than a few people have made claim that the Chiefs defense makes its reputation against bad and average quarterbacks and falters when facing superior competition.
Whether or not that’s been the case in the past I couldn’t tell you. However, when I look at what the Chiefs have been through over the last three weeks , it’s tough to not say that they’ve started to figure out how to keep good quarterbacks (and good offenses) from scoring at will.
In the last three weeks, the Chiefs have played three top 10 offenses in a row, each of which sports a “franchise quarterback” of varying capabilities in Drew Brees (the best of the three), Andrew Luck and Derek Carr. All three offenses have scored points in droves this season, and all three boast passing attacks that genuinely frightened the Chiefs fanbase prior the opening whistle of each game.
However, when you look at the end results of each game (points put on the board), the results are ... fascinating. Check out the comparison of the points given up against three top 10 offenses vs. the number of points they normally score.
Raiders: 10 points against the Chiefs, 29.3 PPG against everyone else
Saints: 21 points against the Chiefs, 30.0 PPG against everyone else
COlts: 14 points against the Chiefs, 27.7 PPG against everyone else
Against, that’s downright interesting. Now remember, all these numbers have to be taken in the context of “remember the time Big Ben and the Steelers put up 79 points in a half?” So it’s not like the Chiefs defense has destroyed all challengers this year.
However, the Steelers game, the further in the season we move along, is starting to look more and more like an aberration. Tamba Hali is looking stronger every week and was clearly still far from himself that early in the season. Phillip Gaines, whose coverage skills haven’t been questioned by anyone paying attention in quite some time, was missing. D.J. White, for the second time in his career, had a “it’s my first start” game where he did almost everything wrong a corner can do (same thing happened the first game he started in the preseason, if you’ll recall) and has looked significantly better since. Chris Jones wasn’t starting and terrorizing people (ask Andrew Luck if that matters).
(Late note: Its also worth thinking about that the defense was put in horrifically bad field position on multiple drives in the 1st half and was then suddenly facing 22-0 and an offense that was providing zero support. I just can’t believe all those same events transpire, particularly the field position issue, if the teams were to play again)
I don’t know what would happen if the Chiefs played the Steelers again tomorrow. What I DO know is that, since playing the Steelers, the Chiefs have faced multiple top offenses (and quarterbacks, if you believe the narrative that Derek Carr is a top quarterback) and sent them unceremoniously packing.
The Chiefs have achieved this kind of defensive performance, impressively enough, without a top-notch pass rush like the kind they’ve boasted in previous years. While they’ve been getting SOME pressure on quarterbacks (starting with the Raiders game this started to look improved, and took another step forward against Luck and the Colts), they definitely aren’t a terror in that department.
Instead, the Chiefs have a balanced defense that doesn’t offer significant weak spots for offenses to consistently pick on. The pass rush isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. The secondary is filled with solid players who hit hard and generally cover very well in man as well as zone. Derrick Johnson makes life difficult on running backs and anyone coming near the middle of the field.
And perhaps most importantly, it’s a VERY opportunistic defense that takes advantage of any mistakes opposing offenses make. Forcing turnovers has becomes something the Chiefs do very well, led by ballhawk extraordinaire Marcus Peters. It seems every week some important turnover is forced by the defense that helps either turn the tide of a game or put the opponent away for good.
I think it’s the combination of solid-across-the-board talent and ability to feast on mistakes that makes the Chiefs defense difficult to face. Offenses have to execute extremely well multiple plays in a row to sustain drives, and if they make a single mistake the defense is as likely as not to make them pay for it by taking the ball away. That’s a tough combination to face, as even NFL offenses are rarely performing at maximum efficiency for the entirety of a single drive and eventually miss somewhere.
You know what the genuinely frightening thing is? This defense could (COULD. This is not a prediction, this is a statement of possibility) be miles away from hitting its ceiling. Chris Jones still doesn’t know anything if you believe his quotes to announcers and is only going to get better. The secondary, despite playing well, hasn’t been healthy all year and will be very, very deep and talented if/when D.J White returns from injury. Tamba, as stated earlier, looks a little better every week and looked like a plus player again against the Colts. Dee Ford is, all doubters (myself included) to the contrary, looking like a guy with something to add to a pass rush.
And, of course, hovering over it all is the return of Justin Houston. He’s been cleared for football activities but we have no idea where he’s really at. Imagine if he’s able to play in the next couple of weeks. That will give him plenty of time to round into shape for the final 6-7 games of the season and the playoffs. And in case you’ve forgotten, Houston is one of the best 4-5 defensive players alive, a monster against the run and the pass who is without peer in his versatility and all-around game.
So far the Chiefs have fielded a defense that’s played VERY well against multiple franchise quarterbacks, something that’s eluded them in the past. And they’ve done it with spotty health and their best defensive player missing.
We’ll see where it goes from here, but I think there’s a decent chance this year’s defense ends up being the best one we’ve seen yet. Now someone please send a shaman to Houston’s house (and have him stop by Jamaal’s place while you’re at it). Either way, the whole “the Chiefs defense only plays well against mediocre quarterbacks” narrative has been bludgeoned to death in the last three weeks. I can’t wait to see if that next step gets taken.