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.
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.
Spags goes Cover 0 on this 3rd & 5 leaving 27, 32, 22, and 35 manned up 1-on-1 with no help defenders. The gamble pays off as there are 7 blitzers v. 6 blockers - Sneed comes free right in Dak's line of vision w/ elite closing speed, smart to attack his arm. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/xsPMKGtLLN— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 24, 2021
Notice Mathieu's disguise - he's not showing man coverage on the TE pre-snap. He teases that he's helping cover Lamb, makes it tough on Dak to trust that 88 will be open on the post. Elects to throw the hitch where Ward is in great position to beat Gallup @ the catch point (2/2) pic.twitter.com/ob4THe4lwV— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 24, 2021
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.
More quality man coverage + a nice pass rush win for Danna (vs. RT) despite 1st down (soft) play action.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 26, 2021
Dak sees a man coverage indicator w/ Sneed following #1 across the formation, decides to give his TE a chance on the wheel. Mathieu maintains great leverage throughout. pic.twitter.com/YIvN5jF8kE
2-Man coverage on this key down in the 4th QTR - defenders stay in the hip pocket of receivers across the board. Safeties are in solid position to help in their respective halves of the field. Dak has to pat the ball a split second too long and the result is a drive killing sack. pic.twitter.com/8qs3Bio5w8— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 24, 2021
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.
A confident Charvarius Ward is a good Charvarius Ward. Great, technically sound play here from snap to finish, Dak gives his best WR a chance but Ward's ball skills shine here. Pocket also caving in quickly on Prescott. pic.twitter.com/fYEByagWtF— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 26, 2021
What Gallup must've been thinking about his TE who 'blocked' Sneed here— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 26, 2021
Pre-snap actually looks pretty favorable for DAL to pick up and easy 5+ yds. Sneed has seriously rare closing speed and is an elite tackler for a CB on top of it though. pic.twitter.com/WsDrKHmLKL
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.
Dallas trusted their All-Pro guard against Jones in key moments - CJ is just special at the 3-technique. And he does all this while keeping his eyes on Dak in case he needs to get his hands up in the throwing lane, tight man coverage helped seal the deal. pic.twitter.com/UmJ0JoqJWk— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 24, 2021
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.
Thinking back to early season v. now and one of the biggest changes for the #Chiefs defense has to be Willie Gay's sideline-to-sideline coverage. 1st clip is man; 2nd clip zone. Both result in 1-2 yrd gains that set DAL back offensively. pic.twitter.com/aQhh7lFKKO— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 26, 2021
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.
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.
Wildcat chunk play by Pollard - LBs get caught being overaggressive. Something they'll have to adjust for in the future. Bolton sees a chance to make a highlight attacking the reverse and gets caught - Gay then in no man's land by the time he recognizes reverse as an option. pic.twitter.com/kxOmFFKZat— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 26, 2021
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.
Bolton's one heck of a tackler and he and Ward get to tee off somewhat here - but why? It's bc this group is doing much better playing team-oriented run defense, trusting their peers to do their jobs, being in the right spots. Elliott can't accelerate to any one hole. pic.twitter.com/g7Y6oYgdZn— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 26, 2021
Excellent effort rep here from both Okafor and Hitchens that deserves a little shine. Elliott wants to press the cutback but that already small window closes shut after 97 and 53 fight through some tough blocks. pic.twitter.com/ayOfUKCuVj— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 26, 2021
2nd & 7 - the kind of play KC wasn't making early in the year to put the defense in advantageous 3rd downs.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 24, 2021
Really quick processing by the entire D recognizing wide zone run. The picture is murky for the RB.
Ingram splits the combo w/ ease + squeezes down the cutback. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/qTBxC8outC
And a big shoutout to Nnadi, who locks out vs. arguably the NFL's best guard and then sheds backside to assist w/ the tackle. Truly one of the team's most underrated roles of the past few years is #91 vs. the run. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/LCGPoD2ihC— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 24, 2021
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.