It has become increasingly challenging to have faith or confidence in the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense this season. After a very impressive preseason showing, the unit looked entirely different through five regular-season games.
Like... historically bad-different.
How bad is the Chiefs defense?— Paul Hembekides (@PaulHembo) October 11, 2021
On a per-play basis, the most prolific offense in NFL history is the 2000 Rams. They averaged 7.0.
The 2021 Chiefs are allowing 7.1 yards per play.
It doesn’t do any good to complain, however, and so we turn to the film from Sunday night against Buffalo to uncover what transpired — starting with some of the negative results:
Early on in this matchup, it appeared that Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had a solid feel for how he could attack the Chiefs’ defense schematically. Linebackers, in particular, have struggled with their zone awareness and foot speed, and it creates a target on their backs in the passing game.
BUF schemed KC's defense up early. Personnel grouping keeps KC in base, 41's motion helps confirm coverage for the offense. WR at top of screen runs Fenton upfield, the RB swing holds Sorensen's attention, and then the LBs are picked on in coverage trying to drop to depth w/ Knox pic.twitter.com/AWGAEwlQ1O— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 14, 2021
Beyond schematic components, there are still simply cases in which the Chiefs’ are physically losing the battle. Whether it be due to talent, effort or other factors, players (such as new defensive tackle Jarran Reed) have not lived up their billing through the first month of the season.
#Chiefs locked in man coverage which explains 49 & 53 flowing right. Bills go with QB counter (which KC had its struggles with against Baltimore). Reed (90) unfortunately hasn't looked the part so far. Doesn't have to make the tackle here, but can't lose like that vs. the double. pic.twitter.com/sbFwXhWqs8— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 14, 2021
One of the things that can make football such a fascinating sport is that even when many players on a unit do their jobs well, if just one or two players fail to execute assignments, it can lead to disastrous results.
You’ll have to take my word for it here, but KC actually does a decent job passing things off in coverage this snap. 54 learns from play earlier, gets under the TE. Hitch gets lost trying to find route behind him that's not there, RB is left with all the room in the world. pic.twitter.com/1MEsXDCipF— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 14, 2021
I don’t want to turn this article into a complete Dan Sorensen roast — but obviously, the Chiefs’ safety struggled mightily Sunday night. Worse than them being due to physical limitations, Sorensen’s mistakes were made purely with bad mental processing and decisions. Add that in with his physical limitations, and it led to huge plays given up by the defense.
KC rolls to a common 2-hi zone w/ Mathieu robbing in the middle. Not to pile on - I'm just not sure what 49 is thinking here. He's responsible for the deep upper half of the field. Even if he thinks Diggs is running to the sideline/corner, the angle is poor. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/iqZzK8TreH— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 15, 2021
In the clips below, we see what can happen when defensive backs play with poor eye discipline. It is one of the ultimate sins of defensive coverage play. One would think after seeing Patrick Mahomes in practice each week, Chiefs’ defenders would know better than anyone how important it is to cover until the whistle blows.
It’s no different with Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who can get the ball to any spot on the field at any time.
First w/ Sorensen (clip), then Sneed (clip 2) - we see bad eye discipline. With the lack of pressure on Allen who has a hose of an arm, it becomes even more crucial for coverage players to keep their eyes on their man. Two controllable mistakes turn into two TDs for BUF quickly. pic.twitter.com/T1EFCB8bHI— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 15, 2021
Lastly, the Chiefs’ pass rush continues to be a major disappointment. With or without Chris Jones, as they were against Buffalo — the performance wasn’t acceptable. Plays such as the one below show why it isn’t enough to just have a good pass rush or only good coverage — a defensive unit needs some combination of the two to be highly successful.
Yet again here, KC has solid positioning on really all of these receivers as they work thru the zones. But Allen isn't moved off his spot at all by the front four, and he and Knox end up making the play. Plays like this are why we later saw so many 5 and 6-man blitzes. pic.twitter.com/9tnY17SHfN— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 15, 2021
In the game Instabreakdown from Sunday night, I chose cornerback Rashad Fenton as the Chiefs’ defensive player of the game. No, perhaps it isn’t considered a huge honor based on the unit’s overall performance.
However, Fenton earned that nod with rather solid play. The third-year defensive back from the University of South Carolina has always played with a confidence in his demeanor that I really respect.
Sorry for poor quality (thanks NFL game pass). I chose Fenton as the defense’s player of the game Sunday for good reason. Great patience, positioning on these key snaps against Diggs (bottom of screen clip 1, top of screen clip 2). He’s earned more game reps. pic.twitter.com/dZC2Ry0jtU— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 14, 2021
Speaking of other exciting young Kansas City defenders, it was also linebacker Willie Gay Jr.’s first regular-season game action of the 2021 season. In limited snaps, Gay did not disappoint. His impact will be felt so long as he remains in the lineup.
Willie Gay's acceleration is just a difference maker at the 2nd level for this #Chiefs defense. I really hope he can stay on the field for not just the team’s sake, but also his own. pic.twitter.com/j0cS42blt5— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 14, 2021
In many key down situations — especially in the second half when defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sent more blitzes — the secondary elected to get up in the faces of Buffalo’s receivers before the snap. The Chiefs’ defenders looked very comfortable with this — and against Allen, it really seems beneficial to try and force him to make tight-window throws consistently (which man coverage can create).
A lot of the best work for the #Chiefs secondary came in press coverage. There’s a comfort level with it for a lot of these guys - Sneed especially (bottom of screen). Curious to see if Mathieu winds up playing more in the slot like this moving forward. pic.twitter.com/iMyXNbiKYc— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 15, 2021
Spagnuolo is already having to bring more five and six-man blitzes than he would probably like to thanks to the struggles this defense has had to get pressure with just four players. This is a theme we saw present itself back in 2019 especially, as well as 2020.
The good news is, at times, these pressures can really help the Chiefs’ run defense. When the front players read the blocking schemes correctly, it clogs up gaps much more effectively than what we have typically seen from their more traditional read-and-react defensive calls. With all that being said, they will become more vulnerable against the play-action passing game this way — but that is something they haven’t defended well without blitzing either.
Speaking of Mathieu being down closer to the box - Spags went to more of the run game pressures later in the game, which we've also seen in prior years. Damien Wilson did a lot of what Gay does on this play in '19-'20. Expect to see it more often with results like this. pic.twitter.com/fUDO3mACyj— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 15, 2021
I don’t know if it is as simple as this, but Sunday’s matchup was the second time I have reviewed the defense this season in which it appeared the unit simply upped their physical effort as the game wore on. It lends some credence to the thought that perhaps some players have become too comfortable leaning on Kansas City’s elite offense.
On the one hand, it would mean some of their issues are more fixable than we may have thought. On the other, it is very disappointing if players are indeed taking certain plays off.
Late in the game, gotta have it moment. Lots of communication going on pre-snap. But it's plays like this where damn, it looks like just an increase in all-around pursuit effort as much as anything. And that's somewhat frustrating if so. pic.twitter.com/328e0ayBBz— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 15, 2021
One of the most significant issues this defensive coaching staff and player personnel department must address is the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It will likely require more time and evaluation to find what exactly the best answers available are, but this staff must do their absolute best coaching and find ways to scheme up pressure however possible.
More defensive line “games” such as what we see in the clip below will be necessary (see Alex Okafor loop inside). This can’t be done if they do not get into predictable passing situations more frequently, but if they do, we are sure to see the trends continue upward.
Infamous roughing call - #Chiefs get more creative w/ their approach, mixing in a twist for their 4-man pass rush and it worked. Allen gets moved, heaves it to Fenton who makes a great play at the catch point. Penalty aside, KC needs more of this creativity with their rush. pic.twitter.com/VoKiVWLERe— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 15, 2021
At a minimum, we will assuredly see the Chiefs continue to bring extra defenders often, as they did in the second half Sunday. Whatever it takes to get quarterbacks more uncomfortable against this defense must be done.
The bottom line
In the vast majority of cases of football, things are never quite as good or bad as they may seem on the surface. I don’t think things are any different in the case of this Chiefs’ defense.
While the game results were not what fans wanted, the truth is they did play much better defensively in the second half. Initially, I would have estimated there was no way the Chiefs could fix their defense enough this season to reach another Super Bowl. However, I felt and said those same things two years ago as they sat at a 4-2 and 6-4 record during different parts of the 2019 season — when they eventually went on to win a championship.
In retrospect, it’s hard to say what this unit will look like by the season’s end — or if it will be good enough to make another deep playoff run. They did take a solid step in the right direction during Sunday night’s second half, though, and that is reason enough to continue hoping they can get this thing right. Sunday’s matchup in Washington will be a potentially important confidence booster.