As a Kansas City Chiefs fan, it was easy to feel invincible coming in the 2019 season. Reigning MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes played like a cheat code in 2018 — and the personnel surrounding him made the team seem legitimately unstoppable.
As the regular season started, there was no reason to slow down the hype train. The first three games of the year were comfortable wins — and went exactly how most thought they would: the offense put up incredible numbers with tons of big plays, while the defense gave unimpressive performances that did just enough to get the job done.
Things can change quickly in the NFL — and in the last two weeks, the Chiefs demonstrated it.
We saw the first signs of struggle in the Week 4 game at the Detroit Lions.
The offensive line failed to create clean pockets for Mahomes, the secondary constantly lost at the catch point, the defensive front was absolutely torched on the ground and the wide receivers were unable to consistently separate from the players covering them.
After the Chiefs were able to pull out the 34-30 victory, most chalked it up to the Lions being a better team than they were perceived to be; the Chiefs would move forward and bounce back at home the following week.
...or so we thought.
The 19-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football in Week 5 once again exposed these weaknesses. Patterns were beginning to form.
There have been a plethora of individual factors that have contributed to these uncharacteristic performances — but the failures come down to this:
The weakest parts of the Chiefs team are some of the most important positions in football.
To illustrate which positions are the most valuable, I gathered a list of the highest average salaries per position in the NFL.
- Quarterback: $6,185,643
- Offensive Tackle: $3,402,544
- Defensive End: $3,301,453
- Center: $3,172,948
- Cornerback: $2,819,864
- Wide Receiver: $2,749,039
Another way to look at how important particular positions are is to look at NFL Draft results. Here are the total number of players taken at each position within the top ten picks in the last ten NFL drafts.
- Quarterbacks: 20
- Edge pass rushers: 18
- Offensive tackles: 14
- Wide receivers: 11
- Cornerbacks: 9
Those positions account for 72% of the top-10 picks from those years.
In the modern NFL, it’s easy to understand why each is valuable. Throwing the ball is the name of the game. Each of these positions is directly related to helping a team’s passing game — or stopping an opponent’s passing game.
Obviously, the quarterback is the most impactful position on any football team — and the Chiefs don’t have a weak link there. Mahomes was magnificent in the Week 5 game before he re-aggravated the ankle injury he suffered in Week 1. He has been nowhere near the problem.
Instead, the Chiefs’ recent issues have been coming from the rest of these positions. There are various reasons why each group isn’t performing up to the standard. Let’s look at them.
Current left tackle Cameron Erving. After starting left tackle Eric Fisher was sidelined with an injury in Week 2, Erving stepped in — and at the beginning, he performed reasonably well. Since his preseason snaps at the spot had looked awful, this was a surprise.
Unfortunately, he has regressed since then. Against the Colts, he allowed two sacks and eight total pressures in 61 snaps; he had not given up a sack in the 207 snaps he played in the previous three games. His incompetent play in Week 5 also led to the re-aggravation of Mahomes’ ankle injury.
It’s simple. Eric Fisher needs to get healthy and get back in the starting lineup. Fisher has always been a polarizing player among fans — but his absence has brought a whole new meaning to the phrase, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” Once he can resume protecting Mahomes’ blind side, the pass protection as a whole should improve.
The lack of pass-rush production. While it is very true that defensive end Frank Clark has been the focal point in most opponents’ pass protection schemes, his lack of pressure is a concern. His big contract has made him a target for Chiefs fans — but starting defensive end Alex Okafor has also been disappointing.
How backwards has the #Chiefs pass rushing situation been?— Sam (@WichitaChiefSam) October 4, 2019
2019 PFF Pass Rushing Productivity
• Ogbah: T-7th of 63
• Okafor: T-53rd of 63
• Clark: T-58th of 63
2018 PFF PRP
• Clark: 4th of 58
• Okafor: T-44th of 58
• Ogbah: 58th of 58#ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/XzdHA0rwDQ
While Emmanuel Ogbah has been the most productive edge rusher on the team, he needed to start in Week 5 because Okafor was out with a hip injury — and for the first time this season, he did not record a single pressure. The duo of Clark and Okafor has combined for two sacks — a number that 86 individuals in the NFL have reached this season all by themselves. At this point last year, Chiefs pass rushers Justin Houston and Dee Ford had seven sacks between them.
Taking advantage of one-on-one opportunities. Clark has undoubtedly been worn down by the constant double teams and chip blocks he faces — but when the offense does leave him on an island with an offensive tackle, he has to execute. That will only get harder now that defensive tackle Chris Jones will miss time and give offenses even more excuses to focus their blocking on Clark. Okafor needs to get healthy as well.
The execution. There isn’t much to be said about the constant poor performance of the cornerbacks. They gave up a season-low 151 passing yards to the Colts in Week 5 — and still managed to display horrible inabilities. Bashaud Breeland had a handful of penalties — including a pass interference flag that moved the ball 53 yards down the field. He also had a crucial missed tackle towards the end of the first half. The sad part is that Breeland has been the best of the position group by far; cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Kendall Fuller have very seldom shown flashes this year.
A trade. The Chiefs have opened up a significant amount of cap room this season with various contract restructures. The Jacksonville Jaguars have apparently cooled down about trading their star cornerback Jalen Ramsey — but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. As the October 29 trade deadline approaches, keep your eyes on Ramsey — and other corners to the Chiefs could acquire.
Inability to beat man coverage. Yes... I understand the two best receivers on the team did not play in Week 5 — but why did the supposed fifth wide receiver Byron Pringle outperform Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman in man coverage?
Chiefs fans may want some good news this week, so let's talk Byron Pringle. Stepping into Watkins' role on short notice, he saw the 2nd most snaps at WR and looked the best— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 8, 2019
Wheel stop, runs CB off the #1's hip
Head down, shoulders square upfield
Push thru contact, snap hips off pic.twitter.com/QY88tBP9Dc
This issue, however, is not nearly as bad as the other positions. And there have been a few miscues that could have changed the complexion of these games: to name just two, Mahomes overthrowing Robinson on a potential long touchdown catch and an inaccurate screen pass to Hardman that could have been a big play. That said, Week 4 and Week 5 showed that without Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins on the field, Chiefs receivers can be slowed down with solid man coverage.
Health. That’s all it is. Once Hill and Watkins are ready to contribute at full speed, things will look a lot better. Hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later.
I hope that as you have read this, you have understood that these flaws can improve quickly. Health will be the main factor — but the team also needs better performances from the defensive ends and a big-time addition to the cornerback group.
Still... there is no reason to panic. The Chiefs are 4-1 and will soon be getting back some of their most important players at the most important positions.