Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. Sometimes “coach speak” carries weight
Kansas City’s coaching staff has spoken in platitudes quite often this season. Each time they take the podium, we seem to hear about needing to clean things up, fix this or that, hang together, pull in the same direction — and keep building, growing and striving.
When a football team is underperforming — as the Chiefs have all year — hackneyed “coach speak” is uninspiring to fans who are anxious to find immediate and tangible reasons for hope. However, despite its banality, sometimes, coach speak is valid. Increasingly, the 2021 Chiefs defense seems to be a testament to that.
After starting on pace for a historically bad season, Kansas City’s defense is allowing just 16 points per game over the team’s past four games. While Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has made some notable personnel changes over that stretch, the improvements on defense have just as much to do with getting healthy and slowly developing cohesion as a unit. Frank Clark wasn’t healthy, but he is now. The same can be said of Willie Gay and Charvarius Ward. L’Jarius Sneed had a slow start to the season, but he looks more poised with each passing week. Those players were among the most impactful for Kansas City’s defense in Week 9.
While the defense waited to get healthy and develop the intangible qualities they needed to start performing better as a unit, perhaps hanging together, pulling in the same direction and continuing to build was precisely the guidance they needed. Those platitudes may have just helped this unit weather its brutal start to the season.
2. Deep ball troubles are crushing the offense
In two consecutive games, the Chiefs’ offense has moved the ball with relative ease using its opening script. On both occasions, the Chiefs used a blend of short passes and runs to methodically dice up the two-high shells of its opponents. However, once the offense went off script — and Patrick Mahomes had the option of pushing the ball downfield — the offense struggled.
Against the Packers, the offense seemed to lose a bit of confidence each time Mahomes failed to connect with a receiver on a deep pass. Kansas City’s third drive was a microcosm of this recurring issue. The Chiefs had moved the sticks twice and were gaining momentum. Then, on first-and-10 from the Kansas City 44-yard line, Mahomes took a deep drop and launched a bomb to Mecole Hardman. The receiver was double-covered on the play, and the pass fell incomplete.
Meanwhile, Travis Kelce was wide open in the middle of the field. On second down, Kelce could not haul in a contested pass on a slant route. On third down, Tyreek Hill slipped coming out of his break, and a pass from Mahomes sailed over his head. With that, a promising drive stalled.
Over the season thus far, several factors have shouldered the blame for Kansas City’s struggles on offense: falling behind early in games, turnovers and inconsistent pass protection — to name a few. None of those factors played a part in the Chiefs’ issues against the Packers. Increasingly, the frustration that boils over when the offense can’t push the ball downfield seems to be its most critical issue.
One way or another, the team needs to find a way to maintain the rhythm of its scripted plays and build slowly to taking shots downfield. Like how basketball players in shooting slumps seek opportunities to go to the free-throw line, I would like to see Mahomes continue to work underneath and intermediate routes until he gets a wide-open shot downfield. The big-play potential still exists in this passing game; Mahomes just need to see the ball go through the net a few more times early in games before he tries to open it up.
3. The running game continues to be peculiar
With Mahomes struggling to air it out, the Chiefs have sporadically leaned into the running game to keep drives alive. Unfortunately, sporadically is the operative word here. Several times on Sunday, the Chiefs abandoned the run at moments when attacking the Packers on the ground seemed prudent.
During a sequence in the third quarter, running back Derrick Gore ripped off a 7-yard run on first down. Rather than feeding him the ball with three yards to gain, the Chiefs threw two incomplete passes and were forced to punt.
With a 13-0 lead and 8:55 to go in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs had the ball at their own 5-yard line. Mahomes handed off to Darrel Williams on first down for a loss of a yard. With their next two plays, the Chiefs tried to force the ball deep downfield to Hill. Both passes fell incomplete, and the Chiefs punted from their own 4-yard line. The drive only managed to run 53 seconds off the clock.
Many fans are clamoring for the Chiefs to feature their power running game prominently in the offense. However, regardless of how often it’s featured, when it’s featured could be just as vital to turning things around offensively.
4. Steve Spagnuolo is a terror for inexperienced quarterbacks
While playing against a team’s second-string quarterback is preferable to their starter, defensive coordinators constantly emphasize the challenge that backup quarterbacks present. Finding recent tape on backup quarterbacks is difficult, which makes game-planning against them tricky. Last week, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush and New York Jets quarterback Mike White were able to pull off upset wins in relief of their teams’ starters.
Spagnuolo is among the best at overcoming the challenge of facing a relatively unknown player because he flips the uncertainty right back at opposing offenses. Throughout the game on Sunday, Spagnuolo alternated between coverages and blitz packages to make life difficult on first-time starter Jordan Love.
Heavy pressure was the only common denominator between the looks Spagnuolo dialed up, and he brought it relentlessly throughout the game. Sometimes he created pressure with four-man stunts, and other times he got it by blitzing six or seven players. While the Chiefs only recorded one sack in the game — courtesy of Tyrann Mathieu — they kept constant heat on Love all afternoon. As a result, the quarterback made several off-target and turnover-worthy passes — one of which was intercepted by Sneed.
On Sunday, Spagnulo continued to prove he thrives in a game of uncertainty. He truly is the king of chaos.
5. The focus on special teams already paid off
The discrepancy between the special teams play of the Chiefs and Packers was a determining factor in the game on Sunday. Whereas Packers kicker Mason Crosby was 0 for 2 on field-goal attempts, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker was 2 for 2 — including a 55-yard make in the second quarter. While Crosby’s first field goal miss was largely due to a lousy hold, his second attempt was blocked by Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor.
Chiefs punter Tommy Townsend had one of his strongest performances as a professional — routinely pinning the Packers deep in their own territory. He boomed two punts that were fumbled by Green Bay’s returners. The Packers recovered the second, but Chiefs cornerback Chris Lammons pounced on the first at the 9-yard line.
Kansas City’s emphasis on special teams irks fans during roster cutdowns, as depth players on offense and defense are often edged out by special teams aces. However, Sunday’s performance in the often-overlooked third phase of the game was an important reminder of why the Chiefs build their roster this way. Players like Lammons, who get most of their snaps on special teams, helped the Chiefs eke out a win in a game in which the team struggled mightily in other areas.
The win — no matter how ugly — could prove invaluable as the Chiefs try to claw back into a suddenly wide-open AFC playoff race.