The Kansas City Chiefs are facing one of their biggest games of the year on Sunday, as the Dallas Cowboys come to Arrowhead Stadium. The game's outcome will not only decide where the Preston Road Trophy will reside until the next matchup between these two teams but also where Kansas City stands on the defensive turnaround that has occurred over the last three games.
"I try not to go down the 'turnaround road,'" said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo when he spoke to reporters on Thursday. "The only reason I say this is that I don't want to turn it the other way."
But after giving it some thought, Spagnuolo was willing to theorize why he thought his unit has allowed fewer than 13 points a game during the last three weeks.
"It feels better in the continuity realm," he said. "I'm trying to go back to where we've struggled a little bit. I know that in that period, Charvarius Ward was out. I remember [Chris Jones] has been dealing with the wrist fr a long time. Melvin Ingram coming here, I think, has been a huge plus for us. [Frank Clark] was banged-up."
Still, Spagnuolo didn't want to make it sound like it was just about the injuries.
"It always feels better — or seems to come together — when you can have some consecutive weeks of the same guys," he remarked. "Now, do we put a couple of wrinkles in there every week? Yeah — so [we're] not doing the same thing all the time. But [for] the gist of what we do — 70-75% — when you can get a volume of reps under your belt with the same guys talking to the same guys, to me, that would be the biggest thing."
tackle end lineman Chris Jones feels much the same way.
"It's important that everyone's getting healthy, getting our legs under us and coming together as a group, staying after practice, [and] making sure we're doing drills," he told reporters on Friday. "I think it's the players committing to one another, making sure we're getting the best out of one another — and [Steve Spagnuolo] dialing up schemes and plays where we can get one-on-ones. That's what we harp ourselves on: winning one-on-ones."
And both Jones and Spagnuolo recognize that they will be facing a stern test against the Dallas offense, which currently leads the lead in scoring.
"It begins inside with that offensive line; that's a solid offensive line," noted the coordinator. "Obviously, that's been a focus down there for a long time. Then it's the quarterback, it's all the skill on the outside — and then you go back to the runners.
"They've got a complete repertoire of weapons. I know they've got a couple of guys back that were injured. But when you can roll two running backs through like that — and I wouldn't say that they always commit to the run, but that run threat is always there. If you don't stop that run, they'll just mow you over."
"They're definitely one of the better groups that we'll see this year," said Jones. "They do a very good job of protecting [Dak Prescott]. They match very well — a couple of All-Pros in that line — and they work well together. They've got a veteran quarterback who is playing lights out, completing 70% of his passes — and they're the main reason for that. They're protecting him, making sure he has a clear pocket."
But whether Jones will be seeking to disrupt that protection from the inside or the outside remains open to question. When the team first said they would use him as a defensive end this season — moving him outside from his longtime defensive tackle spot — Spagnuolo said that where Jones would play would depend on the situation. After all, Jones had played a significant percentage of his 2020 snaps on the outside; essentially, the team was planning to flip his emphasis.
But it didn't necessarily work out that way. Through the season's early games, Jones played only a small percentage of his snaps on the inside. As the season has progressed, however, his proportion of inside snaps has increased. In Sunday's 41-14 defeat of the Las Vegas Raiders, Jones was listed as a starter at defensive tackle — and played 56% of his snaps on the inside.
But we shouldn't necessarily consider that to be a trend.
"It's something we're going to evaluate week-to-week," defensive line coach Brendan Daly explained on Thursday. "You know, we did a little bit of him inside and outside in [Sunday's] game. I think each week, there are some different things to consider; there's never, like, one solid reason in terms of where he's going to go and how we're going to deploy [him].
"I think you try to make the decision [based on], 'OK, what do we need to do to win this game? How do we best utilize the personnel that we've got available to do that?' And there are some different reasons week-to-week — whether it be run game, pass game [or] what that team does protection-wise. Maybe it's a matchup on one end or the other. So it's kind of an ongoing process that changes."
According to Jones, all of that adds up to one thing: versatility.
"We've got a lot of guys that can play different gaps and different areas on the defensive line; I just do my 'one-eleven,'" he said. "It's like a chess match: week-in and week-out, putting me in the best place so I can set up this defense to win."