Kansas City Chiefs' safety Tyrann Mathieu will never be mistaken for a player that lacks passion. It's how he has become both a great player and an effective leader over his NFL career. He has proven that emotional moments have the purpose of motivating, not demeaning or blaming.
During a first-half struggle in what ended up being a 31-13 victory over the Washington Football Team in Week 6, Mathieu's passion got to a boiling point — a third-and-16 was converted on a short screen pass that gained just enough.
The Chiefs' inability to stop the play short of the sticks drove Mathieu to get animated on the sideline while addressing the unit. Flat out, Mathieu just believes that the conversion was inexcusable.
"Anytime you come on the road in the NFL, it's important for the defense to step up and make plays; I thought we did that for the most part," Mathieu began in his post-game press conference with reporters. "On that last possession of the second quarter, we can't have those kind of plays on third-and-long."
Two plays later, Washington took the lead with a pass to a wide-open target that scored from 39 yards out. Washington took the 13-10 advantage into halftime.
The inability to get that stop was a microcosm of the Chiefs' struggles on defense this season — and that was part of why it all came to a head for Mathieu. As a group that's played together and succeeded at the biggest stage together, there aren't any valid excuses for their poor play.
"It's higher expectations, I feel like," Mathieu alluded to. "Obviously, we can be a championship defense; we've been to the championship the last two years. After a while, you have to play a certain field. Any time you're in third-and-long, you have to get off the football field."
It's tough to entirely blame one of two sides that make up the defensive unit: the players and the coaches. There's blame to share between the two groups, but Mathieu wanted to clarify that the lapses we see — especially that third-down screen — are on the players.
"It's third-and-long, it doesn't matter what play the coach calls; as players, we have to execute," Mathieu emphasized. "Obviously, you have to have formation recognition, you have have a sense of urgency — and I feel like that was a play the whole defense took off. Coaches going to call the game, and us players have to make it right."
He expanded on the idea that the players aren't holding up their end of the bargain on a play-by-play basis.
"Most of it is execution, that really falls on the players," Mathieu admitted. "We're pretty much running the same things we've ran the past couple years. Defensively, you have to stay hungry. You can't expect anyone to give you anything or put you in a great position. I think we took the field today with that attitude, not worried about what the offense was doing or what the media says."
The end of the first half was ugly — but it was also the last points the Chiefs allowed on Sunday. In the second half, their defense allowed only four first-down conversions and held Washington to 3.8 yards per play; that rate is a vast improvement over their season mark of 7.1 yards per play.
The point: The defense had a lot more issues before Mathieu's passionate outburst than after it. Mathieu likely doesn't deserve all the credit for the unit's turnaround in the second half — but he can recognize that it has a positive impact on the group.
"They love it when I go crazy; I don't know why, but they love it," Mathieu chuckled. "My coaches like it... I thought we put in a lot of good work this week, and the goal was to hold them to 10 points or under. Anytime you don't reach your goals, it pissed me off a little bit."
In all honesty, the Chiefs could use more ticked-off players on their defense; it's a phase of the game that can improve solely on a higher level of toughness and effort.
Head coach Andy Reid agreed after the game, confirming that Mathieu was upset and backing up the actions of his defensive leader.
"The guys get tired of it, and those leaders get tired of it," Reid explained to reporters. "It has to change. You need a little bit of that, a little bit of that fire — and everyone needs to feel it."
The flames of that fire strengthened in the second half for the second straight week. Even with the first-half mishaps, the defense made a statement by holding Washington to its lowest point total of the season and earning two takeaways for the first time this year.
Whether or not it was the sole reason the defense stepped up, Mathieu's actions prove that he's a leader that holds his team accountable — and truly cares about whether or not they play to their ceiling as a group. It's the type of attitude that boost's a unit's chances to improve throughout the season.