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Week 9 defensive film review: Tough sledding against Carolina

Let’s see where the Chiefs defense found success (and failure) against the Panthers.

Carolina Panthers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs defense faced a stern test from the Carolina Panthers offense. As I pointed out in my game preview, the Panthers’ quick passing game — combined with a returning Christian McCaffrey — had the potential to give the Chiefs’ defense fits. That definitely turned out to be the case. The Chiefs gave up a lot of points, but held on for a 33-31 victory.

Let’s take a look at where the Chiefs defense showed well — and where it didn’t — and then we’ll find the good, the bad and something you may have missed during the Week 9 game against the Panthers.

The numbers

The defense has largely been good on third downs this season, posting a 58% defensive success rate. But Sunday was a different story for Steve Spagnuolo’s crew, as the Chiefs allowed the Panthers to convert over 50% of their third downs. More crucially, the Panthers were able to convert both of their fourth downs from scrimmage — one of which we’ll address in a minute.

Spagnuolo sent five or more rushers on 28% of the passing snaps, which was just short of his season average of 31%. But Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers offense carved up those blitzes; the Chiefs had an awful 28% defensive success rate in those situations. Frank Clark squeezed past Michael Danna and Chris Jones to lead the team in pressure rate.

Rashad Fenton had a terrific day in coverage, posting just 1.6 yards per target — and a 100% defensive success rate on those targets. In fact, Fenton’s defensive success rate when targeted stands at 65% this season, which inches out L’Jarius Sneed and Tyrann Mathieu to lead the Chiefs’ secondary.

The Chiefs run defense was largely poor on Sunday — but it was at its best when Tanoh Kpassagnon was in the game. When he and Clark were in together, the Chiefs had a 57% defensive success rate against the run. Through the season, the defense has posted its highest success rate against the run when Mike Pennel has been on the field.

The good

Coming out of halftime, the Chiefs were down four points after allowing 17 in four drives. Harrison Butker had missed a 48-yard field goal to end the Chiefs’ first drive, so the Panthers took over at their own 38. They advanced the ball quickly — like they had throughout in the game — and had a second-and-3 the Kansas City 33. The Chiefs defense desperately needed a stop.

The Chiefs stepped up, making their biggest back-to-back plays against the run to force a fourth down — and a missed field goal.

The Chiefs’ run defense is much-maligned — and for good reason. They’ve struggled to contain multiple rushing attacks, ranking among the league’s worst during both of Spagnuolo’s years in Kansas City. But this season, there have been more instances of plays like these than in 2019; there’s reason to believe players like Anthony Hitchens and Derrick Nnadi have recently been playing the best football of their careers.

On this drive. the Chiefs had their backs against the wall. They couldn’t afford to give up another touchdown, or the Panthers likely would have shifted to a run-heavy offense — exactly what the Chiefs did not want to see. They definitely stepped up to force the field goal, keeping the team’s hopes alive.

After those run stops, it only took the Chiefs’ offense five plays to score a touchdown, so the defense was protecting a lead for the first time. The pass rush had been struggling to affect Bridgewater — due in no small part to the Panthers’ quick, short passing game — and Kansas City needed someone to step up along the front.

Clark had a terrific sack-pressure-pressure combination on consecutive downs to force a punt, getting the ball back so the Chiefs offense could continue to build the lead. His sack, however, wasn’t just a great play for him; terrific coverage made it happen.

On this play, Clark is sitting in the flat as a spy; at the snap, he doesn’t rush the passer. Just before the snap, Mathieu drops to the deep half, leaving rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. to cover the Panthers’ slot receiver. Bridgewater knows he’s got a linebacker-on-receiver matchup, so initially, he looks there — only to find that Gay has covered the out route very well.

As Bridgewater looks back across the field, he begins to feel the pressure collapsing the pocket, so he attempts to escape to Clark’s side. The right tackle moves to kick Clark out for Bridgewater’s escape route, but Clark dips inside and underneath — showcasing terrific bend and ankle flexion — to come up with the sack.

The bad

This one is likely the defensive play that Chiefs fans will remember the most from this game.

It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Chiefs are leading by nine. So far, the defense has held the Panthers to 17 points — a defensive goal that Hitchens had discussed on Friday. After a negative first-down play and two incompletions, the Panthers are at midfield with a fourth-and-14. With a stop, the Chiefs can take control of the game.

But Bridgewater doesn’t just pick it up. He picks it up with his legs.

Quick pressure forces him out of the pocket. Multiple Chiefs players — all within three yards of the first-down marker — have their eyes in the backfield as he began to scramble. Only Fenton reaches Bridgewater, sending him airborne near Ben Niemann. But the linebacker is standing flat-footed and is unable finish the tackle.

All season, Spagnuolo, Mathieu, Clark and Hitchens have spoken about finishing. On this play — and this drive — the Chiefs defense was once again unable to finish the job. Had the Chiefs lost this game, there would have been plenty of blame to go around — but for most fans, this play would likely be the sticking point.

Finishing this one play would have changed the entire tenor of the game. With a stop, the rolling Chiefs offense could have put another touchdown on the board — and the six-minute Panthers touchdown drive that followed would have been significantly less of an issue.

This season, the Chiefs defense is much improved; I genuinely believe that the way this team is built, the defense perfectly compliments the offense. However, they have to finish the job — closing out drives when their opponent is flailing. This time, it almost cost them. Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen again.

Something you may have missed

Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady and his unit threw everything they had at the Chiefs. This play from the middle of the second quarter could have been huge — but the Chiefs were able to mitigate it.

With McCaffrey motioning to the field — and Curtis Samuel in the backfield — the Panthers run a pin-pull sweep to try to hit the Chiefs on the edge with some speed. As the right tackle pulls out in front, Damien Wilson sets a strong edge by getting behind the line of scrimmage and stacking him. Samuel wants to get to the boundary with the center out in front — but with Wilson there, he can’t. So he decides to cut back inside — but Kpassagnon sheds his blocker and closes the gap.

If Wilson had been unable to set a strong edge, Samuel would have been into the secondary with a lead blocker — and likely just Daniel Sorensen to beat. Instead, the play gained just four yards — and the Chiefs eventually forced their first punt of the day.

The bottom line

This was not a particularly good performance by the Kansas City defense. The Panthers rushing attack — and their short passing game — kept them ahead of the sticks, making life difficult for the Chiefs’ defense. Joe Brady called an amazing game, the Panthers’ receiving corps made some terrific catches, Bridgewater was decisive and accurate — and McCaffrey looked like the player he was before his ankle injury.

And yet... the defense had the opportunity to put this one away. That’s why the game has left a sour taste in our mouths.

The Chiefs are going to get every team’s best shot. They’re the defending champions — and this is the National Football League. But performances like one this raise questions about what could happen when the Chiefs’ defense faces more difficult opponents later in the season.

Over the last three weeks, Spagnuolo and company have definitely handled their business, finishing the job in every game. Against the Panthers, they were on the brink of doing it again — but a poor finish nearly lost the game. Now with a much-needed bye week — which might include the return of Sneed and Alex Okafor — there’s reason to believe that the best is still yet to come for the defense.

That is... if they can finish.

One would imagine that the next time the team takes the field — this time against the Las Vegas Raiders — they’ll be fired up to do just that.