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Chiefs-Cardinals Instabreakdown: Mahomes has off-night; starting defense dominates

We got a longer look at the starters in preseason Week 2 — and one side of the ball looked better than the other.

Kansas City Chiefs v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Final score: Kansas City Chiefs defeat Arizona Cardinals 17-10

In 2021’s second preseason game, the first-team offense and defense got an entire half’s worth of work; the offense only scored three points, while the defense didn’t allow a first down to the Cardinals’ starting offense. A receiving touchdown by Jerick McKinnon highlighted the second half.

Offense (Ron Kopp)

The Chiefs’ starting offense got plenty of playing time on Friday night. Mahomes and the starting offensive line played together for 33 plays across three drives; two 15-play possessions with a three-and-out in between. Even with Henne under center on the fourth and fifth possessions, the first-team offensive line still manned their spots.

Even with the line performing well on most plays, Mahomes had a noticeably off night — by his standards. There were multiple instances where Mahomes unnecessarily left a clean pocket — including the play that led to a desperation throw and interception. Instead of moving up in the pocket, Mahomes got depth and tried to run outside of his tackle’s block. This is a tendency we saw last season; it gives the defensive ends easier pass-rush angles — and makes the offensive tackles’ jobs a lot harder.

On top of looking uncomfortable in the pocket, Mahomes also had more inaccurate throws than Chiefs fans are used to seeing. He had Mecole Hardman open in the end zone two times in the first drive, but both throws were just too far out of bounds. There were a few more uncharacteristically bad throws. He used his legs a few times — but even then, he took an unnecessary hit. Overall, he just didn’t appear to get in a rhythm or get comfortable.

In general, the starting offensive line showed good things in pass protection; there were more than a handful of clean pocket opportunities for Mahomes and Henne. They also had success in the screen-game; one screen to Clyde Edwards-Helaire went 12 yards thanks to good blocking — while another converted a first down with center Creed Humphrey leading the way.

With wide receiver Tyreek Hill sidelined, Hardman took over as the primary target in the starting offense. He had five targets on the opening drive, catching the first two; he ended with a team-leading eight targets . After those initial catches, he and Mahomes were on different pages for a few throws. His first throw from Henne was off-target and behind him — but Hardman made an incredible, fingertips catch to secure the pass in the end zone for a touchdown. It was great to see Hardman turn a bad play into a good one, rather than just taking advantage of a schemed-open touch.

Behind the starting line, running back Darwin Thompson got a few opportunities to break big runs — although his insistence on hurdling tacklers is puzzling. It’s a very inefficient method to try and make a defender miss.

Offensive Player of the Game: Wide receiver Daurice Fountain

After being thought of as a camp body entering this year’s training camp, Fountain has emerged as a challenger to win a roster spot at the bottom of the depth chart. He caught three passes for 54 yards — one of them a 41-yard bomb down the left sideline where he impressively created separation as the pass was in the air. He’s forcing the Chiefs to take a harder look at how to handle that position.

Defense (Ethan Willinger)

The starting defense of the Chiefs was dominant against the Cardinals. It held the Arizona offense to 79 yards in the first half, netting three sacks, an interception — along with several hurries, tackles for loss and pass breakups.

The Chiefs’ cornerbacks set the tone early in the game, taking turns in making plays. L’Jarius Sneed was up first, coming up to make a strong tackle in the running game on the first play from scrimmage. He followed that up by screaming across the field on second down to force speedy wide receiver Rondale Moore out of bounds for a short pass completion. The Chiefs played sticky pass defense on third down to force a three and out. That would be a theme.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray opened the second series by scrambling outside the Kansas City containment for eight yards. But on the next play, Charvarius Ward sniffed out a run in the backfield and made a big hit on James Conner for a loss. On third down, Mike Hughes had a textbook pass breakup to force another three-and-out.

In the third series, the pass rush took over — forcing a scrambling Murray out of bounds for a loss of yards on first down. On second down, Chris Jones recorded his first sack from EDGE, slipping back inside with a nice move and overwhelming Murray. On third-and-23 — yes, third-and-23 — Juan Thornhill broke up a pass intended for A.J. Green to force the defense’s third three-and-out. Through the first three drives, the Cardinals’ offense netted minus one yard.

It was more of the same for the remainder of the half. Colt McCoy relieved Murray at quarterback for the Cardinals’ fourth drive, which resulted in another three-and-out after Jones batted down a pass on third down — one in which Ward was well-positioned to make a play on the ball anyway.

The Chiefs’ defense finally gave up a first down on the second play of the fifth drive, but the defensive line quickly took over to stall the Cardinals. Mike Danna recorded a tackle for loss, followed by a Jarran Reed sack on a play where at least three Chiefs defensive linemen had a chance to take down McCoy.

The Cardinals started moving the ball at the end of the half, but Thornhill capped off a brilliant half of defensive football with a diving interception in the end zone.

On the first play of the second half, it looked like it would be more of the same for the Chiefs. Nick Bolton came screaming off the edge on a blitz — missing McCoy but tripping him up to help Darius Harris record a sack. But McCoy and the Cardinals then found a rhythm in the passing game and marched the ball up the field. The Chiefs played tough red-zone defense to hold the Cardinals to a field goal. Bolton was quick to his run fits on several occasions; Josh Kaindoh recorded a tackle for loss and Deandre Baker stuck to a receiver like a glove in the back of the end zone to record a big pass breakup.

The Cardinals scored a touchdown on the next drive, going 88 yards in 12 plays. Dicaprio Bootle provided one of the few highlights, sacking quarterback Chris Streveler for a loss of ten yards. But Streveler picked up where McCoy left off in the previous drive: methodically picking apart the defense with short and intermediate passes over the middle of the field. Once again, the biggest play against the Chiefs in this game occurred with Devon Key in pass coverage. Ross Travis managed to get over the top of Key for a 20-yard touchdown reception. After all the buzz in camp, Key’s performance in the preseason thus far does not bode well for his chances of making the roster.

In general, it was a tale of two halves for the Chiefs’ defense. The first team pitched a shutout in the first half, but the reserves gradually gave up ground in the second half. Several young players flashed at times, but the second half ultimately featured two scoring drives for the Cardinals.

Defensive Player of the Game: Juan Thornhill

This could be several different guys from the Chiefs’ first-team defense. However, after getting reps with the third team in practice this week — and hearing all the whispers in the media — Thornhill arguably stepped up the most. He got a taste of the ball on a nice pass breakup early in the game, following that up with the defensive play of the game when he intercepted McCoy in the end zone. He certainly looked healthy on that play. Thornhill continued his solid play deep into the second half — notably playing tight coverage on third-and-goal to force the Cardinals to kick a field goal in the third quarter.

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