Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. The offense is taking a better approach — but not often enough
In recent weeks, Chiefs coaches (and their quarterback) have repeatedly spoken about the need for the offense to concentrate on what defenses are giving them — to combat two-deep safety looks by running short, underneath passes and increase the team’s reliance on the running game.
And in moments on Monday night, the Chiefs (and their quarterback) were showing that they could actually do it — and that when they did, it worked exactly as advertised. Before Patrick Mahomes’ interception at the end of the team’s opening drive, the offense looked as efficient as ever.
It wasn’t the only time we saw it on Monday night. We just didn’t see it often enough. Too much of the time, the Chiefs continued to focus on long passes. It wasn’t necessary for the team to do it — and even worse, it wasn’t working.
It’s not sufficient to simply throw a few short passes, hand off the ball for a little bit and move on. Until the Chiefs can commit to it — forcing defenses to respond in kind — deep passes will continue to be unavailable to them.
We should understand (and appreciate) the team’s often-stated desire to allow its players to let their personalities show. It’s a big part of what has allowed head coach Andy Reid to build a winning culture in Kansas City. But it should never take precedence over an effective on-field strategy.
2. The offense is no closer to having a true No. 2 receiver
Wide receiver Josh Gordon had plenty of snaps on Monday night. But he had just one target — a pass that went through his hands and bounced off the helmet of one Giants defender and landed in the hands of another.
So far, Gordon has appeared in four games and has been on the field for 60 offensive snaps. He’s been targeted three times and has made one catch. Two others sent his way have been intercepted.
This is nowhere near what we expected Gordon to produce. But the team’s remaining pass-catchers continue to get targets — and be efficient when balls come their way. On Monday night, Darrell Wiliams, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson combined for 13 of the team’s 29 receptions on 16 targets. (Gordon and Blake Bell combined for three targets and no catches). Among those, the six receptions Williams had on his six targets — most of them in the flats — are the most significant, as they represented part of the shift away from the deep passing game.
Kansas City took very little risk in acquiring Gordon, so it’s hard to be too critical of the decision. But it hasn’t panned out so far — even, apparently, when he is simply serving as a decoy to make Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce more efficient; against the Giants, the two of them had 16 receptions on 25 targets.
3. Derrick Gore wasn’t a preseason illusion
During late drives in the preseason, the undrafted running back from the University of Louisiana-Monroe got lots of attention from Chiefs fans who noted his speed, patience and vision.
There was just one problem: his snaps tended to be late in those preseason games, when he was playing against back-of-the-roster players. It’s always hard to really tell what you are seeing in that kind of situation. Is the player performing well because he’s that good, or because the opposition is that bad?
To be sure, Gore wasn’t playing against the NFL’s best running defense when the Chiefs started giving him running snaps on Monday night. (Gore had played in two games since being activated from the practice squad after starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire went on injured reserve — but had never taken a handoff). He made the most of his opportunity, which began during a second-quarter drive in which his number was called on five consecutive plays. Both the first and last of those handoffs went for nine yards — but the last one was a terrific touchdown run.
Speed? Patience? Vision? Yes. Gore continued to show what impressed us in the preseason. Let’s hope the Chiefs can find a way to keep him — and continue to use him.
4. One bad turnover deserves a good one
Through its first two years under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Kansas City defense had 52 turnovers through 38 games — both in the regular season and postseason. That’s 1.34 per game. Through the first seven games of 2021, the unit had acquired seven. When quarterback Patrick Mahomes was among the league leaders in interception percentage — and as a team, the Chiefs were not fumbling the ball — that performance was more than adequate.
But when Mahomes is leading the league in interceptions — and he and his teammates are also pitching in with fumbles — the defense must do better than that.
The first two drives of Monday night’s game gave a perfect example of why this is so. After Mahomes threw his 10th interception of the season — yet another play where a reasonably-catchable ball ended up in the hands of a defender instead of its intended target — linebacker Willie Gay Jr. returned the favor, grabbing a Daniel Jones pass and getting the ball right back to his teammates on offense.
It’s true that there are things coaches can do to help players avoid offensive turnovers. But from a coaching standpoint, it’s much easier to force turnovers than it is to prevent them. The Chiefs need to do what they can to prevent giveaways — but also recognize that coaching the defense to get more takeaways works just as well.
On Monday night, there were signs that the coaching staff was doing precisely that. Mahomes was smarter while carrying the ball — and to my eye, the defense was more focused on forcing turnovers. While what we saw was enough of a change to defeat the Giants, it probably won’t be enough for the next few opponents. But it was an improvement over what we have previously seen.
5. We can’t lose sight of the big picture
It’s simply too easy to focus on the big plays that were given up by safety Daniel Sorensen and linebacker Ben Niemann during Monday night’s game. Those plays were certainly terrible. Those players should take full responsibility for those mistakes — and the coaches should do whatever they can to limit their opportunities to make them.
But the fact remains that even with those huge mistakes, the defense turned in a solid performance against the Giants. Holding an opponent to 17 points — about a touchdown less than the current NFL average of 23.5 — should be more than enough to support a fully-functioning Chiefs offense. Holding an NFL quarterback to a just-above-average passer rating of 96.1 should be sufficient for any defense that is supporting Patrick Mahomes. Allowing 3.6 yards per rushing attempt, 5.6 yards per play and 300 yards in total offense are all figures that are at (or below) current NFL averages.
All of that, of course, assumes that both Mahomes and the offense can get back to something like the production we have become accustomed to seeing. But that’s another matter. Right now, we’re talking about the defense — which did its job on Monday night.
Yes... all of that was against a below-average team. But too many times this season, we’ve seen the defense allow below-average offenses to play like powerhouses. They will certainly have to do an even better job when they face the Green Bay Packers in Week 9.
The longest journey always begins with a single step. We’ve already established that the distance this defense must travel is very significant. Let’s at least recognize a step in the right direction — and hope the team can make another one next Sunday.