The Kansas City Chiefs are not going to miss (or lose) the Super Bowl because they don't have a great run defense. They can, however, certainly come up short of those championship aspirations by having a league-worst run defense — which is what they have been through two weeks.
In this film review, we will examine what went wrong on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, along with and if — and how — it can be fixed.
Lack of gap discipline and control
Once a defense has stacked up negative play after negative play, defenders can lose the trust that their teammates will do their jobs. It's not that Baltimore didn't also set up their share of big plays with great execution of a complex running offense — they did — but in many instances, the Chiefs put themselves in poor positions to execute.
Chiefs' edge defenders not named Clark definitely struggled quite a bit reading the QB/RB mesh and trusting their teammates to take care of the inside. Left Lamar a lot of space to roam w/ blockers out in front. pic.twitter.com/etOV8rIUaO— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
Jones @ DE remains a learning process ~ here he wants to get his eyes in the backfield and ID what's going on, but quickly its too late and the edge is surrendered. Hitchens was blitzed out of the play from the start. pic.twitter.com/fvSiMA9E90— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
3rd-and-5 late in the game, Jones is kicked inside to DT and Clark takes a risk on it being pass with his rush. Jackson then has the easy keep read, 56 is retreating, the tackling... all sets up the go-ahead TD. Rough execution. pic.twitter.com/oKPjgKeNtZ— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
On paper, it was thought that the Chiefs were set up to really control the line of scrimmage with a strong, powerful defensive front seven. It might have a little to do with some injuries, too much early-season reliance on the team's superb offense — or some combination of other problems — but the bottom line is that versus the Cleveland Browns a week ago and the Ravens on Sunday, they simply were not competent against running plays.
Let's talk run defense. First play of the game - we see what would become a rough theme throughout much of the contest (first half especially) with the interior DL not holding up. Bolton at his best in attack mode, tackles well. pic.twitter.com/RjM5yjTohx— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
Hitch and Nnadi both popped up on the injury report today (Nnadi's been there since camp w/ a hip) and it came as no surprise after this review. 53 was especially timid compared to preseason action. 91 hasn't displayed that same strength we're accustomed to so far. pic.twitter.com/3uL9NtCb7o— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
Speaking of blitzes - the problem with the front line not doing a better job holding the point is it forced Spags to send more run pressures, and sometimes that led to even more confusion/defenders out of place. pic.twitter.com/7CBWHu6NqM— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
Additionally, having to send extra second-level defenders on blitzes more frequently meant that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson did not have to make as many tight-window throws as the Chiefs would have liked. When he did have to do so in few third-and-long situations, we saw great things — like safety Tyrann Mathieu's two interceptions.
These issues are indeed fixable. In fact, we have seen similar problems in the past — such as in the early part of Kansas City's 2019 season. But it just isn't going to get better on its own. The Chiefs' defense needs to work hard to get on the same page with their assignments — while also maintaining health at critical positions in the defense's first and second level.
Steve Spagnuolo's scheme — and really any other defense — will function at its highest potential when individual players are asked to do things they do well while rarely asking them to execute assignments with which they would naturally struggle.
Unfortunately, the latter has sometimes been happening. As defenders have been used in situations where they do not excel, certain physical deficiencies have been highlighted.
Niemann here is asked to come up against an unbalanced formation and can't hold the gap against a powerful blocker in Ricard -- as it is squeezed down, the hole to the outside is massive for the RB and 49 struggles to finish the play as so many KC defenders did on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/XgqFFBTcbk— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
There are certain things Wharton does exceptionally well but holding up against a double team or on the frontside of power runs is just not one of them. That's OK. Staff has to keep him in positions to succeed, but he isn't alone in the struggle here. pic.twitter.com/9u9OLqUpP4— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
This is also fixable. Whether it's from piecing together the defensive personnel more appropriately, injured players getting healthier or roster additions to fill specific roles — think of players like Mike Pennel or Terrell Suggs — we will see the defense clean these things up more and more as the season progresses.
Some positives from Sunday
Even on its worst day, the defense wasn't all terrible against the run.
It was great to have Frank Clark — the unit's most assignment-sound defensive end — back in the lineup.
Clark, as one would have predicted after the live game, was the best, most consistent run defender overall. Offers the power and technique to defeat blocks, tackle, and then smart and athletic enough to challenge BAL's handoff reads (clip 2). pic.twitter.com/rGCchKBouN— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
Second-round rookie linebacker Nick Bolton has experienced his share of rookie lumps — but he has also most certainly displayed a set of skills that can produce quality plays in both the short and long term.
Bolton (top of the screen) is starting to settle into what he's best at. He's been the surest tackler on the team through 2 games, and I think the coverage will improve if the defense can get into more clear passing down & distances. pic.twitter.com/jfDRYGi8Z6— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
What good front side gap control / block shedding can look like here below -- 3rd and 3, they played it tough and it was arguably Nnadi's best work of the game. Linebackers attacked as well. pic.twitter.com/VIGdSELs62— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
During the game's last drive, it looked almost as if a different defense was out there; I'm not completely certain why this was the case. It wasn't as simple as the defense knowing they would see running plays — they could have foreseen that throughout the game — but it did provide a glimpse of what could be.
Final drive - 53 and 56 don't even look like the same players in the first clip that we saw early in the game. Entire defense displays more effort, better execution. Frustrating but also means things can get better sooner than later. pic.twitter.com/vQzWa2rCUV— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 22, 2021
The bottom line
Starting this Sunday against a Los Angeles Chargers offense that has not yet rushed for 100 yards in a game this season, the Chiefs will have an opportunity for a bounce-back performance.
This defense will be at its best if it can stay ahead of the chains more frequently, putting opposing offenses in predictable passing situations; they'll most assuredly intend to do exactly that against Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert at Arrowhead.
Many of the problems I've outlined are largely fixable — or at least somewhat improvable — and from here on out, that's all the Chiefs need. For the team to reach its goals, it doesn't have to have a perfect run defense. It just can't be an awful one.