What have you done for me lately?
That’s the name of the game in the National Football League. Week to week, perceptions change. Teams change. Units change. In recent weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense — albeit against what was sometimes lesser competition — has looked vastly improved from the work they put on film during the opening weeks of the 2021 season.
The hope is that as the playoffs approach, this is yet another season where coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense gradually improves — and there are plenty of good reasons to believe it really will.
Let’s take a look at work this defense did to hold the Las Vegas Raiders to just 14 points scored — and what that might tell us leading up to its biggest challenge to date: the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday afternoon.
Spagnuolo and his assistants have really honed in on finding the best roles for their defensive backs — and more importantly, those players have been aided by a much more formidable pass rush in recent games. Against Las Vegas, cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton made some really impactful plays not only in coverage, but also as tacklers.
Sneed (pressed up vs. Renfrow toward top half of screen) continues to tackle very well in space. Physically passes off LV receivers to nearby zone defenders, then flashes elite closing speed prior to coming under control to finish the play and get the defense off the field. pic.twitter.com/R1vFltqGlX— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 18, 2021
High football IQ play from Fenton on 3rd and short - the way he sits on the route in man coverage tells me he had a good idea of the types of routes he might get. Will need more of this esp. Sunday vs. DAL's elite WR corp. pic.twitter.com/rbyv5MbHYL— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 18, 2021
Detailed this more on the AP Film Room - but part of the reason that play became a sack is the physicality L'Jarius Sneed displays against both Edwards and Waller to disrupt their paths. Just one more example of how he handles the slot CB role so well. pic.twitter.com/DTm3dvofhd— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 18, 2021
Even when things had started to look bleak, Fenton made what was likely the best play of the game: when he flat-out stole all the momentum the Raiders had built during the second half.
The play that killed any hope for LV - I like Ingram's quick recognition here to ID play action and put together a solid rush. Actually think 22 + 32 are in solid position vs. this 'Yankee' route concept, and this ball might get picked or at least knocked down most of the time. pic.twitter.com/t7ijMn5pI0— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 18, 2021
As we see, once Fenton realizes he has no immediate threats in the shallow levels of the defense, he is able to sink deeper downfield and help finish the play after Mathieu sells out to make a play on the ball
Fenton and Sneed are both highly-confident players who physically rise to the challenges presented to them. In fact, all levels of the defense are now playing with visible confidence. That will need to be maintained for the unit to keep playing well — especially against the league’s more talented offenses.
Defensive tackle Jarran Reed continued to get better and better, flashing some of the playmaking capabilities that made him an attractive free-agent target in the offseason.
Jarran Reed is taking advantage of his solo matchups multiple times each week lately, and it's a great sight to see for the #Chiefs. He's beginning to have the impact the team likely envisioned when he was signed. pic.twitter.com/FqJCJXVrc9— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 18, 2021
Here we see the power element of his game — along with relentless footwork that allows him to work around the offensive guard’s hips.
Reps like this are really encouraging, because many times in sure passing situations, the Chiefs can count on at least one of their playmaking defensive linemen — Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Melvin Ingram — to quickly win their matchup. But even when they don’t, Reed is also capable of winning his matchup, allowing him to leave a meaningful imprint on the game.
Even though it was a really solid defensive performance, the Las Vegas offense did make a few plays.
LV TD to Edwards - 22 is rightfully giving Waller extra attention up top to help Fenton, but the result is little help deep over middle. Mathieu has to honor both verts from 7 and 89; trying to play both. Great call by LV that puts Hitchens in a mismatch + a great throw. pic.twitter.com/jcGU2F6qaZ— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 18, 2021
On this rep, I don’t think Thornhill can be faulted for widening towards tight end Darren Waller; that’s just the way it sometimes goes when you’re trying to contain an excellent offensive player — and remember: Waller was held to just 24 receiving yards in the game. Still, the Raiders leverage Thornhill’s attention into a really favorable matchup, essentially getting a wide receiver running up the seam with Anthony Hitchens one-on-one.
Spagnuolo will have to be leery about avoiding these kinds of situations — especially against the Cowboys’ elite receivers.
Meanwhile... while the Chiefs’ pass rush was still much better than it looked during the first month of the season, they didn’t get a dominant performance from any single player — as they did in some early November games. So while it was obvious that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was uncomfortable in his dropbacks, multiple players weren’t simultaneously collapsing the pocket very often — specifically during four-man rushes. As we discussed during this week’s AP Film Room, much of this could be attributed to the number of times that Jones was rushing as a defensive end.
The bottom line
During the current three-game winning streak, Kansas City has surrendered just 12.67 points per game. Even before the Chiefs’ offense began to show signs of rejuvenation, that kind of defensive productivity was enough to win tight games. Now — with the offense potentially getting back into a groove — the Chiefs could once again be becoming one of the league’s best two or three teams.
But the reality is that those games came against the New York Giants, the Jordan Love-led Green Bay Packers and the Raiders; before we set expectations too high, we need to see more evidence the defense can succeed against a top offense. For this defense, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and his elite surrounding cast will be the ultimate test.
If the unit fails against Dallas, it will render much of what we saw in Las Vegas meaningless. But if they do stay hot, the Kansas City hype train will continue to race along — and the defense will get a well-earned week of rest before the season’s final run.