Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu burst out of the gate hot on Sunday night. Three plays into the game, he picked off an errant pass from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
Sunday Night Football hosts Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels had not even had a chance to announce the Chiefs starting defense yet on the broadcast. Mathieu’s 2021 campaign was off to a volcanic start.
Mathieu picked off Jackson again later in the quarter, and it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Ravens.
Obviously, we know now that things did not work out the way we would have liked them. Mathieu played well on Sunday night, but don’t talk to him about personal accolades. Not after a loss like this — one in which the Chiefs squandered a two-possession lead in the second half and failed to stop Baltimore’s rushing attack on several key downs, including a failure to get stop on fourth-and-one with 1:05 left in the game.
“I feel kind of bad,” said Mathieu, reflecting on his personal first-quarter highlight reel. “We lost. Yeah, I mean, it feels good to make plays, you know, for your team, but I’m not too worried about personal accomplishments right now. I felt like this was a game we should have won. I mean, but that’s what happens when you let good teams stick around toward the end. They found a way to win the same way we do. So yeah, it’s got to get it cleaned up.”
On passing downs, Mathieu looked like he was in midseason form, but more often than not, he and his defensive counterparts had no answer for Baltimore’s rushing attack — and specifically quarterback Lamar Jackson, who seemed to be slathered in bacon grease and possessed by the ghost of Barry Sanders for much of the evening.
The Chiefs looked slow to the ball and were bullied at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens ended the game with 251 yards on the ground on 41 carries. If you ask Mathieu about it, what went wrong tonight is quite simple.
“I mean, this is assignment football,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what defense you play on. It all comes down to assignments. And then from there, it’s execution. And any time you miss a line or blow an assignment against a good team, they’re going to make you pay for it. It just wasn’t our best effort defensively tonight.”
Mathieu said that the first thing the defense has to do is commit to stopping the run, and that means looking inward.
“It’s a commitment that you have to make to yourself first,” said Mathieu. “I think when you when you play against these kinds of teams — the Ravens, the Titans, the Browns — you have to be ready to stop the run. You have to be committed to that. And that’s not just the D-line. That’s the other guy behind them as well. So it’s a team effort, and we just have to be more committed to stopping the run.”
Mathieu already seemed to had found a silver lining to what transpired in Baltimore shortly after the game.
“Every now and then, you need an ass-whoopin' — you know?” he said. “And I think our team responds best when we get punched in the mouth, and we’re not able to kind of recover from it.”
To Matthieu, Kansas City’s coaching staff and veteran leadership separate the Chiefs from other teams in the league who find themselves in a similar situation.
“So we’ve got some good coaches, and we’ve got great leadership, and I just look forward to seeing us turn the page going back home against a division opponent, another must-win game... I mean, this is the everyday, every week thing that you have to stay dedicated and stay committed to. So I just look forward to seeing our group respond.”
And how will they do that?
“Well, you come back in the lab, you put your head down,” he said. “You don’t point fingers. You take the coaching — as hard as it may be — and then you just accept the responsibility. Obviously, that starts with the leadership, and so we can’t wait to get back to work. I know I can’t. So like I said, we got another big, big-time game coming up. And so it’s going to be important to see how we respond.”
How the Chiefs answer next Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers will tell us a lot about the mettle of this team. The Chargers are a division rival whose roster is stacked with talent on both sides of the ball. Thus far, the 2021 version of the Chiefs defense has not been good enough. It was not good enough against the Cleveland Browns last week, and it was not good enough against the Ravens on Sunday night.
The Chiefs have championship ambitions. The defense cannot rely on Patrick Mahomes to bail them out in the fourth quarter each week to reach its goals. This defense is going to have to carry its weight.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Mathieu and the rest of the unit will have to ask themselves the following: do we want to be the reason the Chiefs win — or are we content to have victories happen in spite of us?