It's possible that Week 2' 36-35 loss to the Baltimore Ravens was the team's worst defensive performance since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo joined the Kansas City Chiefs' staff in 2019.
Aside from two interceptions, the defense could not stop Baltimore's offense. In total, they allowed 481 yards — with 251 of them coming on the ground. Pro Football Focus tallied nine missed tackles for the team, and the only time they hit the quarterback all night was when a blitzing Dan Sorensen earned a sack.
Players needed to execute better — but ultimately, Spagnuolo holds responsibility for how his unit plays. On Thursday, he reflected on the woeful performance — and what factored into the failure.
"It's never good to give up 36 points," Spags told reporters. "Our focus is always on points allowed; to us, that's the most important thing. The number one factor in that was the tackling; I think that's kind of obvious. We have to play better in the fourth quarter; that was really two drives. There was one long drive they kept the football, and then we went into what we call a four-minute defense — [in] which for two downs, we did really good. You get them into a third-and-8, that's a good thing... but we didn't make the play, got to a fourth-and-1, and we know what happened after that."
He's referring to the first down conversion by quarterback Lamar Jackson to seal the game. If the defense had made a better play on third down, Baltimore might have hesitated to go for the fourth down — but they were rightfully confident in gaining a small amount of yardage.
Their short-yardage success was most prevalent in the red zone, where the Ravens scored touchdowns on all four of their trips. In fact, the Chiefs' defense has now given up a touchdown on each of the eight times their opponent has entered the red zone this season.
Throughout the offseason, the red-zone defense had been a point of emphasis for Spagnuolo — but he said that in this week's meetings and practices, he's pushed the message even harder.
"There's been an extreme focus on it," Spags said of the red-zone defense. "We did have some wrinkles last week in the red zone — one that I thought worked pretty good and one not so good... but it needs to get better. It begins with a lot of things, like basic football — 'bear up' or 'man up,' as we say. The two teams that we've played have been pretty challenging in that regard: red zone and the run defense. Hopefully, it will make us better moving forward — but what we're putting out there now is obviously not good enough."
So there were problems with run defense, red zone defense and tackling. There was even a blown coverage that led to a 42-yard touchdown catch. There's a lot that needs to improve — and Spagnuolo knows it.
"We have to fix it all," he declared. "I'm not going to prioritize. We have to fix it all."
One player who had a noticeable struggle was defensive end Chris Jones. He has established himself as an elite NFL defender as a defensive tackle. At defensive end, however, he still has a lot to learn — but his boss isn't yet ready to pull the plug on the position change.
"I don't think we're going to panic in that regard right now," said Spagnuolo. "The four inside guys have been rotating in there — and we need to keep them in there. Chris still has to settle in the new position he's in."
Defensive line coach Brendan Daly has obviously played a significant role in preparing Jones to play defensive end. On Thursday, he had a chance to share his thoughts on Jones' first two games on the edge of the line.
"He's done a great job with what we've asked him to do," he began. "There are some things that are a little more foreign to him — that he doesn't have as much time on the job with — that he's working through. He's doing a great job of detailing that to the best of his ability, I'm kind of pleased with the direction that's going. We all know that is a work in progress."
On Sunday, the Ravens' option runs consistently put Jones in a bind — but there were also times where he failed to set the edge, allowing an off-tackle run to get past him.
"There are some things in the run game that are a little different out there," explained Daly. "Technique-wise — and responsibilities in terms of kick-out blocks coming back and where your eyes need to be. Things happen differently out there than they do inside."
Even with the growing pains defending the run, Jones is still an explosive pass rusher no matter where he's aligned. When he spoke on Thursday, linebacker Anthony Hitchens explained why he thought Jones hasn't been in quarterbacks' faces as much as usual.
"Our main focus is stopping this run — making it second-and-long, third-and-long — so we can let our rushers rush," Hitchens told reporters. "We don't have many sacks. The reason why is because [when] it's third-and-2 or third-and-3, they can run or pass. We just have to correct that aspect, so we can let Chris and Frank Clark just take off and sack the quarterback."
Having a laundry list of problems is not new to Spagnuolo or the team. We've seen the defense face similar struggles — and then bounce back and win a Super Bowl.
"Our guys have been down this road before," recalled Spagnuolo. "We were here in 2019. Somewhere along the way, we went 16 points, 3 points [and] 3 points."
"I'd like to think the track record means something.... I do think we have the right group of men to head in that direction."
The first step to reversing this lousy stretch of play is to acknowledge it. Spagnuolo has done so — and said his players have, too.
"We feel like we failed," Spags said point-blank. "And I know that the guys have a lot of pride in that. Hopefully, we can bounce back — and be one of the reasons we win."