When Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes gingerly walked to the locker room in the second quarter of the Thursday Night football game against the Denver Broncos, there was a combination of fear and disappointment that spread among Chiefs fans — fear of the injury and its severity — but also a feeling of disappointment that stems from the deep roots of Chiefs fandom.
This was supposed to be the year. Fans have suffered long enough. They finally had the franchise quarterback to mask the deficiencies from the other areas of the team — but there was no hiding the weaknesses now. The most obvious flaw was the defense — and there was little optimism about that unit being able to step up based on their performance so far this season.
Then, on the second play of the ensuing defensive possession, a statement was made. Linebacker Reggie Ragland blitzed on a pass play and was met by the running back in pass protection. His teammate, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, was coming right behind him. Ragland’s initial blitz opened up a free path to the quarterback for Hitchens. A chop to the thrower’s arm sent the ball flying backward — and Ragland was all by himself to return it the remaining five yards for a touchdown and extended the second-quarter lead to 20-6.
Call it a coincidence, fate, or just great strategy, the defense scoring a touchdown five plays after Mahomes left the game was poetic. The defense rode their self-made momentum for the rest of the night by not allowing another point and a season-low 205 total yards. That mark was also the lowest of any Chiefs defense since 2015. The 30-6 victory was highlighted by nine sacks and three forced fumbles. It was the type of effort that was expected when defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired this offseason.
The new scheme had promised to be more aggressive. The former defensive regime overstayed their welcome by lacking creativity and adjustments — and Spags showed Thursday night how that aspect of the Chiefs defense has changed.
The blitzes were not only constant — but they came in various situations. The offense expects extra pressure in obvious passing downs — so Spagnuolo countered with early-down blitzes. He sent safety Tyrann Mathieu off the edge to chase down a backside run. Spags packaged four defensive ends on the field at the same time in multiple instances to manufacture pass rush. Delayed blitzes were used well. The defensive staff understood the lack of mobility from Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco and exploited it. He felt the effects.
“They came after us and we kind of let them come after us,” Flacco explained when speaking about their lack of success on third down, “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to them. They played physical. They came hard.”
Maybe the best part about the defensive success was the redeeming efforts of some of the players that contributed the most.
Ragland’s score was not the only big play he made. He also had the run stuff on the two-point conversion attempt after the opening drive touchdown. He also brought down the quarterback on a blitz later in the game. This performance was unexpected to most; it was only a month ago that Ragland was inactive and seemed to be a player without a role on the team.
“I have great teammates,” said Ragland when asked after the game about not playing much this season, “My mom and my family were praying for me, but I knew I couldn’t let that affect me. I knew eventually my time would come.”
Ragland’s opportunity came from the lack of performance by his teammate at linebacker, Darron Lee. Lee had been a big part of the game plan all year — but the poor run defense in recent weeks led to a change. With Ragland getting his first start of the season, the unit gave up a season-low 71 rushing yards. His impressive game should lead to more opportunities moving forward.
Defensive end Frank Clark also had a redeeming performance in some fans’ eyes. The highest-paid player on the team has been scrutinized for his lack of production this season. He has been stout against the run and has been the best pass rusher on the team outside of defensive tackle Chris Jones — but lofty expectations are set when a player’s contract can be compared to dominant game-wreckers like Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald.
Against Denver, Clark showed why the organization invested so heavily in him. He dominated left tackle Garett Bolles. He constantly beat him to get pressure on Flacco — and when he was not able to get there, the play was usually followed by a holding penalty he caused. He finished with two sacks and four quarterback hurries. He had the mindset of a veteran leader following his great game.
“Keep our head down,” Clark said about the stellar performance of the defense after Thursday’s win. “Can’t get too high, can’t get too low.”
His first elite performance of the year could be followed by more.
With the lack of defensive success this season, there has been conversation about Brett Veach’s ability to draft. He has been the general manager for two drafts — and both classes made Veach look good with players making an impact on the win over Denver.
2018 third-round draft pick defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi has been a starter among the interior defensive line all season. After some rough games, head coach Andy Reid made sure to give him praise for his good performance Thursday night.
#Chiefs coach Andy Reid mentioned that this might have been second-year DT Derrick Nnadi's best game thus far.— BJ Kissel (@ChiefsReporter) October 18, 2019
2019 third-round draft selection defensive lineman Khalen Saunders also played well in the trenches. He was thrown into the fire when Chris Jones went down with the injury in Week 5 — and he has responded with some solid play for a rookie that has only been active for the past three games.
2019 second-round pick safety Juan Thornhill has been one of the better players on the defense this season — but it was another rookie in the secondary that stood out against the Broncos.
Sixth-round cornerback Rashad Fenton made his first career start in place of the injured Kendall Fuller and played very well. Spagnuolo elected to use Mathieu in the slot cornerback position early to presumably take some pressure off Fenton — but Fenton came in and showed good coverage skills: he broke up a fourth-down pass late in the game and only allowed five yards after the catch total in the four receptions he allowed.
The success of young players is not only good for this season — but for the future of this era of Chiefs football.
Football is a game of strategy and intelligence — but effort and confidence may be even more crucial to the success of a team. While the Chiefs defense has not played up to the standard they hold themselves to, they knew that the other side of the ball would overcome some of the failures.
The roles have now reversed. Backup quarterback Matt Moore looks to be the starter for at least the new few games — all of them looking like staunch defensive opponents. It will now be up to the Chiefs defense to carry the team through this adversity. They passed the first test with flying colors — but the challenges will become harder in the upcoming schedule. Their effort will need to be at a maximum moving forward — and their confidence should be as high as it has been since the group was brought together this offseason.
If the Chiefs want to fulfill on their Super Bowl aspirations, the defense will need to keep them in good positioning in the division and the conference until Mahomes returns. It will be the toughest challenge of many players’ careers.
Hopefully, the excellent play against the Broncos is indicative of the unit’s readiness to accept that responsibility.