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Film review: How the Chiefs’ run defense can — and must — improve

After last Sunday’s disappointing performance in Baltimore, Kansas City’s defense will be hungry to take the field again..

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

Player-specific weaknesses

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.