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Film review: Chiefs’ defense has officially found its winning formula

Compared to September, the Kansas City defense looks completely different — but why?

Dallas Cowboys v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

November through December is when truly great NFL teams rise to the top. Some others falter in the wake of the games that have already taken place. Luck — and sometimes, optimal timing — also goes into a team making a deep playoff run. Peaking too soon can be a real thing.

Here at the end of November, we can confidently say that the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense has figured out how they can win. Its journey is still far from over; in the coming weeks, much could change. But let’s see exactly what has been making this defense click in recent weeks — specifically, what it did so well against the Dallas Cowboys during Week 11.

Identity

Football coaches and players will occasionally speak about finding an identity — an approach in which their team operates philosophically. While I think the Chiefs’ defensive coaches have always known the identity they wanted the unit to find, they were unable to implement it due to injuries at all levels of the defense. Early in the year, this was especially true along the defensive line and at linebacker — and while he was injured, the unit missed cornerback Charvarius Ward much more than we probably anticipated it would.

Now — with most of his players back — defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is finally playing to the strengths of his personnel. And the defense is in full-blown attack mode.

Pass defense

It isn’t just blitzing, either. The defensive talent now available can win against high-quality offenses in multiple ways. When Spagnuolo can trust his defensive line to get pressure with just four players, he can then can mix in his creative and exotic pressure schemes to further confuse the opponent — all while playing physical, aggressive coverage in the secondary — and as a result, his unit is starting to cook with fire.

It’s no coincidence that Kansas City cornerbacks are all playing much better since the defensive linemen and linebackers have upped their game. These things are all reciprocal — but even the greatest coverage defenders can struggle if they aren’t receiving adequate support from the pass rush. Right now, they are getting it.

Ward, L’Jarius Sneed, and Rashad Fenton all look like legitimately confident playmakers in this uber-physical defensive scheme; they like the way they are being allowed (or asked) to play. At cornerback, confidence is critical to individual success — and the Chiefs’ current group is playing with tons of poise.

Of course, a big reason why the defense’s identity is coming together so impactfully is Chris Jones’ ability to wreck games from the interior of the defensive line. The AFC defensive player of the week logged 3.5 sacks against Dallas — and some of his best plays were while he was going up against Zack Martin, who is arguably the NFL’s best offensive guard.

It isn’t just Jones, either. Other defensive linemen continue to be productive, demonstrating game-altering impacts from week to week. For players like defensive ends Frank Clark and Melvin Ingram, this is officially a trend. They are consistently showing up — and showing out.

One of the biggest improvements for the defensive unit shows up at the second level, where second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. is helping to erase some of the big gains that were being surrendered early in the year — especially from sideline to sideline in the short areas of the field.

When reflecting on a game, plays like these are rarely the first to come to a viewer’s mind — but they have an enormous positive impact. Instead of surrendering cheap, short throws that go for first downs or create second-and-short situations, the defense finds itself in more long-yardage situations on second or third down — which is when Spagnuolo can really dig into his bag of tricks to create turnover opportunities.

Run defense

In Week 11, Dallas was only able to muster 82 rushing yards on 16 carries — and 31 of those yards came when Kansas City’s young linebackers were caught guessing on one play.

Moving forward, we can expect to see more of these kinds of misdirection plays, which will test the discipline of second-level defenders. But without this chunk run, Cowboys running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard totaled just 51 rushing yards on 15 carries, which is just 3.4 yards per attempt.

Health might be the biggest reason why we are seeing this kind of success — but the selfless, high-effort, physical way the entire unit is playing is another major factor.

With everyone healthy, the defensive coaching staff is able to cycle through their depth, keeping key contributors fresh. This also allows rotational players like Mike Danna, Tershawn Wharton and Alex Okafor to reach their best possible level of play.

A lot of run defense success comes down to sheer ‘want to’ — along with the discipline players need to simply do their jobs. Right now, these are the things the Kansas City defense is doing much better. As the months get colder — and games become more meaningful — the unit will need to keep it up.

The bottom line

If you have remained a little skeptical about the Chiefs’ defense, I hope this has helped you feel more confident. The reality is that this group was always capable of this kind of production. It’s just that early in the season, the talent just wasn’t available to make it happen.

Key contributors like Clark, Jones, Gay, Ward — and Derrick Nnadi — have all become significantly healthier. Difference-making moves (like Ingram’s addition) have also helped to unlock the scheme; they have allowed Jones to live primarily on the interior, where he is second only Aaron Donald. Since rejoining the starting lineup, free safety Juan Thornhill isn’t having his name called very often — and generally, that’s a good thing for a player whose main job is to back up the players in front of him.

On defense, every part of the unit impacts every other one. And right now, the individual parts of the Kansas City defense are working together very well. The unit is full of well-earned championship swagger but maintaining its high level of focus (and good luck with injuries) will be absolutely essential in maintaining its success.