While the Kansas City Chiefs brought a six-game winning streak into Thursday night's game against the Los Angeles Chargers, recent success had widely been due to outstanding defensive performance. Against the Chargers, the Chiefs faced the challenge of playing solid defense, even without defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Willie Gay Jr. (placed on the COVID-19 reserve list), and cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (who returned to the team this week after the death of his brother).
Without Jones, Gay, and Sneed — all key contributors to the defense's turnaround — the unit was not as dominant as in previous weeks. The Chargers gained over 400 yards and scored more than the combined total of the previous three opponents.
Situationally, however, the defense prevailed in the game's most important moments. The Chargers failed to convert three fourth downs — including two chances inside the Chiefs' 5-yard line. Defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton also forced a fumble on a carry by Chargers running back Josh Kelley at the Chiefs' 2-yard line. In the last minute of regulation — with the score tied — the defense forced a punt, allowing the Chiefs to eventually prevail 34-28 in overtime.
Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens claimed to have never played in a game with three successful goal-line stands.
"That's very impressive," he remarked. "And that's three (possessions) where you make them kick field goals or (have turnovers) in the red zone, that's huge. They could easily have nine more points and we'd be sitting here with a loss. Hat's off to guys fighting all the way to the end."
"That defense is rolling right now," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said after the game. "His (defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's) preparation has been tremendous."
Reid also praised the available defensive players for being able to step up in the absence of three of the team's best defensive starters — most notably the Chiefs' first selection in this year's draft.
"[Nick] Bolton steps in and has a big day," Reid acknowledged. "They all picked up the pieces. 56 (linebacker Ben Niemann), 49 (safety Daniel Sorensen) back there again, starting and did a nice job. 21 (cornerback Mike Hughes), you know the guys. Making plays, just going — no hesitation.
"It'll be good to get them back, though — all those guys."
The rookie Bolton — selected by the Chiefs with the 58th overall pick — was crucial in securing the win, finishing with 14 tackles and three passes defensed.
"He's gotten better at every opportunity he's had to play," Reid explained. "He's got a bright future down the road. (Chiefs general manager) [Brett] Veach did a nice job bringing him here. Brett and his scouts have really studied him. He's a great kid — doesn't say a whole lot, but he knows what he's doing.
"And the guys know that, the veteran players know that. And he's a sure tackler — he had a couple tackles down the stretch there, those are sure tackles right there."
Bolton also tipped a pass from quarterback Justin Herbert on the Chargers' second drive that landed in Hitchens' arms for an interception — leading to a 30 yard Harrison Butker field goal.
"It was pretty easy, to be honest," Hitchens recalled. "We had it crossed off — me and Nick. Nick matched the quarterback's hands so perfectly and tipped the ball. All I had to was just cradle it and cover it up."
Hitchens agreed with his coach about the level of Bolton's play.
"He's all over the field," Hitchens observed. "I'm not sure how many tackles he had, but he's been all over the field. TFLs. Sideline to sideline. He's going to be a great player in this league for a while."