If you squint, the last two weeks of Kansas City Chiefs football might have looked like the Alex Smith era — or perhaps the entire decade of the 1990s.
They’ve won by scores of 20-17 and 13-7; in both games, the Chiefs came out fast and drove the field on their first possession and took an early lead — then preserved it with great defense and special teams for the rest of the game.
Regardless of who they have faced, the defense has been impressive — and that has created momentum moving forward into the most crucial stretch of the season. Safety Tyrann Mathieu can feel the improvement.
“It’s getting stronger,” Mathieu told reporters on Thursday. “Anytime you can put together two solid games back to back, that consistency starts to add up.”
Before, it was hard to pinpoint which position group was the biggest problem — but now it’s difficult to pick which group’s play has been the most significant factor in this stretch.
An easy thing to point to right now is the group that made an addition midseason: the pass-rush unit has been at its best the last two games. Between those two weeks, the Chiefs traded for edge rusher Melvin Ingram; he jumped right in and earned four pressures against the Green Bay Packers.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo isn’t surprised how soon Ingram is contributing.
“It allows us to do some things that we weren’t able to do initially,” shared Spagnuolo at his Thursday press conference. “He’s a pro, real smart, intelligent football player; he picks stuff up really quick.”
One player Ingram’s presence directly affected was Chris Jones, who primarily played defensive tackle against the Packers after playing the entire season as a base defensive end. It appeared that the original plan was abandoned, but Spagnuolo is reserving his right to be creative with it at times.
“We’re still going to have some flexibility with Chris,” Spagnuolo explained. “I don’t think we’re going to lose that — but it does allow us to have him more on the inside than outside. We’re not going to restrict him to one spot... When he’s in there, he can do some dominant things... I think he’s comfortable in there because he did it for so many years, but hopefully, as he gets more reps inside and outside, he’ll get better at both.”
Behind the pass rush, the linebackers are finally healthy as a group for the first stretch of multiple games all season. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens was back at the MIKE linebacker position against the Packers — replacing rookie Nick Bolton who filled in admirably — but his role wasn’t exactly the same. The coaching staff game planned to make sure their best two or three linebackers were in the game for each type of situation.
“You guys know how much I value Hitch and his reliability,” Spagnuolo pointed out. “He makes the other 10 better when he’s out there, in my opinion. We have some young linebackers that are running around and doing a good job — so we’ll keep the mix going. A lot of it will be determined by what the offense puts in, then down and distance.”
The coverage — specifically from the cornerbacks — has been excellent in recent weeks.
Cornerback Charvarius Ward has played great in his return from injury, L’Jarius Sneed has begun to make plays again, and Rashad Fenton has continued putting together a great statistical season.
Rashad Fenton has broken out this season— PFF KC Chiefs (@PFF_Chiefs) November 10, 2021
81.9 PFF Grade (2nd among CBs with 100 snaps)
80.9 Coverage Grade (5th)
59.5 Passer Rating Allowed (7th) pic.twitter.com/k5mzo78WN5
Spagnuolo was impressed with their performance against Packers’ wide receiver Davante Adams.
“I thought Charvarius Ward and Sneed did a great job on the outside, especially with Adams,” Spagnuolo said. “If I’m them, that would build confidence in me — and I think the rest of the guys feed off that. When you can be really good on the outside, it just makes you so much better inside.”
Spagnuolo’s words of complementary football ring true — and it goes the other way too.
“It all works together,” he confirmed. “Ask any cornerback in this league how important a pass rush is — and I bet they’d tell you it’s pretty important. You can only cover them for so long.”
He doesn’t want to hear the qualifier of playing a first-time starting quarterback; there was enough belief that he’d succeed before the game to motivate Kansas City and make them feel disrespected.
“The mindset was right; we were determined,” Spagnuolo reflected. “There was a lot of talk about this young quarterback being very fortunate for playing the Chiefs’ defense. I think our guys took that personal.”
The Chiefs’ defense will continue to be disrespected until they have similarly impactful performances against top-tier offenses. They have an opportunity coming up with the Las Vegas Raiders and Dallas Cowboys; both offenses have been very productive through the air this season.
If the defensive surge continues moving forward, it will be because every level of the defense is building off each other’s performances.