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For the Chiefs’ defense, 2021 is all about improving in the red zone

Inside the 20-yard line, the defense had more than its share of struggles last season — and it’s a point of emphasis for 2021.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Kansas City Chiefs kicked off their first week of full-team, on-field practice for the 2021 season. During these voluntary organized team activities, there still isn’t any live contact with other players — but offenses are allowed to line up on defenses, and it feels more like real practices than the walkthroughs they’ve been allowed to conduct during previous phases of the offseason program.

And for the Kansas City defense, the emphasis is on improving in the red zone.

“Our number one thing right now is that we fell short in the red zone last year,” Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens told reporters in a Thursday conference call. “I think we were top 10 the year we won the Super Bowl — and last year, it was 32nd, if I’m not mistaken.”

Hitchens wasn’t wrong. As our own Ron Kopp noted in these pages on Monday, the unit fell off a statistical cliff inside the 20-yard line during the 2020 season. And to the eighth-year veteran, the impact was obvious.

“You give three points up instead of seven? That’s a four-point swing right there,” he noted. “I mean, there were times when a team would get in the red zone three times and score three touchdowns. That’s 21 points. We can easily cut that in half — or less than half. So we’re just working on that right now. We had two red-zone days — back-to-back — the first two days.”

In fact, Hitchens said that it was one of the first things defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo brought up in their opening meeting.

“Spags put up — if I’m not mistaken — I think there were three criteria that led to bad downs in the red zone,” recalled Hitchens. “Some of them were physical, some of them were just mental — not doing a blitz correctly or not running in the correct coverage that was called — and some of them were scheme-related. He said he put some on himself — [where] he made some bad calls as well.”

Divisional Round - Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Hitchens said that to his teammates, it meant a lot for Spagnuolo to shoulder some of the responsibility.

“For our coach to own up like that? We take pride in that,” he said. “He’s sitting there in front of the whole defense saying he did some calls he could have done better. But at the same time, we’re also talking to ourselves that there were some things we could have done better as players. We’ve all got it in the forefront of our mind — and we know that in order to get better at it, you’ve got to work at it.”

And Hitchens isn’t the only team leader who is talking about it. Asked about what got him excited about his unit for the coming season, safety Tyrann Mathieu changed the subject.

“I think we could be better in the red zone,” he said. “We were pretty much at the bottom of the pack, really, in every red-zone statistic. So teams are going to be able to put drives together on us. I think it’s up to us — to the players — to really go out there and do our best to keep guys out of the end zone. I think that’s going to give our team a greater chance to win.”

But it won’t just be about last year’s defensive players doing a better job. Andy Reid wanted to highlight one of the team’s offseason free-agent acquisitions — one that he thinks hasn’t received enough notice: former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed.

“I mentioned before that he doesn’t spell his name quite right,” joked the head coach, “but he sure plays right. We’re always talking about the offensive line. But that signing right there was a really good ‘get’ — and I think [it] will pay off for us in a real big way this season. He gives us some flexibility with what we can do with Chris Jones. So I like that addition. You’re talking about a Pro Bowl-caliber player and just plugging him in.”

Reed will certainly be part of the solution. But Hitchens said that it all starts with the entire defense recognizing the challenge before them.

“We all know that we were the 32nd team in the red zone,” he said. “So we’ve got some work to do — and it started on Tuesday.”