It’s become obvious that in the modern NFL, offense is the most important phase of the game. In that way, the Kansas City Chiefs are the league’s model franchise — but they wouldn’t have won Super Bowl LIV without legitimate defensive performances down the stretch.
But as much as the defense clicked in 2019, how they rank through the first eight weeks of 2020 might be more impressive:
- Third in points allowed per game (19.0)
- 10th in total yards allowed per game (344)
- Third in passing yards allowed per game (201)
- Second-fewest passing touchdowns allowed (9)
- Fourth in percentage of defensive drives ending in a forced turnover (17%)
- Third in percentage of opponent dropbacks under pressure (27%)
No matter how you want to spin it, these rankings show the Chiefs defense is playing impressively. But while it’s useful information for fans and the media, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo couldn’t care less about putting a grade or rank on his unit.
“I don’t do the grade thing... I believe the only time you get into stats, standings, statistics, is at the end of the year when it’s all over,” he explained during his Friday press conference. “We don’t talk very much about it — to be honest with you — as a staff or as a unit about where we stand. ‘We’re good in this one, not so good in that one’... we just feel like we need to get better at everything all the time.”
The one area of the defense missing from these top league rankings is defending the run. But while the Chiefs have struggled statistically against the run, it doesn’t matter if opponents can’t convert that success into points. Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens understands this.
“We just have to keep improving,” said Hitchens began during his Friday press appearance. “I don’t think we’re where we want to be right now in the run game, but we have shown signs of being great. We’re not giving up that many points — and at the end of the day, that’s how you win games: not letting teams score on you and making them kick field goals instead of touchdowns. Sometimes, the score of the game might make the team run more or run less.”
Later, Hitchens reiterated the same point, emphasizing the scoring ceiling the defense wants to achieve.
“It’s about the points. Not giving up points, making them kick field goals in the end zone. Our thing is keeping them at 17 points or under — and keeping them out of the end zone as much as possible.”
In four of the last five games, the Chiefs defense has met that expectation. Not coincidentally, they’re also 4-1 in those games— the only loss being the 40-32 defeat at home against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Letting opposing teams rack up rushing yards between the 20-yard lines can be fine — as long as they don’t convert those opportunities into touchdowns.
“I think Spags has put a big emphasis on red zone,” said Hitchens. “Lately, we’ve been pretty good, but there were a couple weeks there where we were struggling. Red zone, third down and points are our main three things. If we win on third down, win in the red zone and keep them at 17 points or under, our chances go way up to winning the ball game.”
While it may seem like it’s been longer, this defensive unit has still only been together for a season and a half. Spagnuolo was asked about whether the implementation of his program in Kansas City in on pace.
“I hadn’t pondered ahead or behind — maybe right on schedule,” he replied. “I do feel very comfortable — and I think the whole staff does — in adding and expanding and putting things in and knowing that the players can handle it. We just have that confidence in guys like Hitch and Tyrann Mathieu and the guys up front. It’s just they roll with it pretty good. Some of the best work that our defensive unit does — and it’s between the coaches and the players — is the in-game things that they do. Brendan Daly, Matt House, Britt Reid, Dave Merritt and Sam Madison — the work they do on the sideline while the game’s going on is really terrific and it helps me out a lot.”
As little as a year and a half ago, it’s hard to imagine any of this could have happened. In 2018, the Chiefs defense had one of the league’s most embarrassing coverage units — and looked lost on multiple big plays during important games down the stretch. But since then, there’s been a lot of turnover among both players and coaches — and there’s every reason to believe those moves were the right ones.
Even in an era where passing and scoring reign supreme, the perfect complement to the best offense is one of the league’s best defenses.