It has been frustrating to watch the inabilities of the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense so far this season — but imagine the irritation of the players on the field.
Most of the starters and key contributors have been together prior, playing much better than they are currently. One of the starters that has been here the longest is linebacker Anthony Hitchens. He has captained terrible defenses before, but also a championship-winning unit.
If any player would know how to right the ship during the season, it’s Hitchens — and he explained the process of getting to where they want to be on Friday.
“If you’re playing bad as a defense or individually, you just have to keep showing up for work,” Hitchens told reporters during a Zoom press conference. “It doesn’t show up every week, it might not show up for us for a couple weeks, it’s pretty black and white. There’s no way around it, we just have to keep working. We got the right guys, the right talent to be a top-10 defense, we just have to continue building, getting everyone healthy, and locking in.”
Hitchens believes the unit has made strides, but they’ve come inconsistently — and have been overshadowed by failures to win.
“We improved in the run game against the Chargers, but we lost the game — so it kind of got overlooked,” Hitchens pointed out. “Our tackling was like 90% until last week, which was one of the highest rates in the NFL at one point. Then last week, we missed 5 or 6 tackles. We’re improving in some areas, then taking a step back in other areas. We’re just trying to put a complete football game together... we can’t wait for this all to click.”
The defense is getting every opposing offense’s best shot because the opposing teams know they have to match the Chiefs’ offense and its production. It results in unique game plans, differing from what the offense will typically do against any other opponent.
It makes game preparation that much more difficult, but Hitchens has started to adjust to it.
“Everyone wants to run the ball more, to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field. They go for it on fourth downs, going to hurry up randomly... my film studies are more of self-evaluation, like what are teams doing against us that is repeating week in and week out? We have a plan for all that, we just have to get better at.”
He also noted that teams will treat third down like second down because they’re already planning on going for the conversion on fourth down.
It’s an adjustment that Hitchens and the rest of the defense are getting used to. They struggled to hold the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense down in Week 4, but got three red-zone stops — two more than they’ve had all season before that. Hitchens detailed what was better about that performance than the previous ones.
“Getting lined up and knowing what we’re trying to do, accomplishing it, finishing the series,” Hitchens recalled. “We went out there with a mindset to hold them to three points, and we did that — and we won. If we would’ve done that in weeks prior, we’d be undefeated right now... we’ve been working on this since OTAs, and it might not show up Weeks 1, 2, 3, but it showed up last week. There’s no guarantee it will this week.”
Hitchens is right about there being no guarantee this week — but at least they’ll be facing a team that’s struggled scoring in the red zone themselves. Buffalo has the 23rd-ranked conversion percentage in the red zone.
Quarterback Josh Allen hasn’t been as effective in that area — or any part of the field — as he was last year. That said, he’s a very talented player; he’ll be a key individual matchup for Hitchens to take on.
“He’s a big guy, big target,” Hitchens began. “There’s a certain way you need to tackle him... can’t be diving at his legs and feet, he’ll just keep it moving. He has a good pump fake, strong arm, can hold the ball with one arm... ability to run, ability to check at the line, he’s going to be in this league for a long time and play some good ball. We got some things for him, so me and him can play a little cat-and-mouse game with the checks and audibles.”
The defense can’t be expected to stop the Bills’ offense from putting up points; they need to continue to play strong against the run on early downs, forcing teams into third or fourth downs with long conversions — which will be less appealing to go for. That, combined with a few stops in the red zone, is the recipe for a win on Sunday night.