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Anthony Hitchens takes blame for continued red-zone woes against Chargers

The Chiefs’ middle linebacker took responsibility for a few of the ways L.A. got past the defense in the red zone.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The performance of the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense in their 30-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday was probably the best we’ve seen this season — which isn’t saying much.

The run defense improved, holding the Chargers to 3.5 yards per attempt on 22 carries with four tackles for loss. They limited Los Angeles to only four conversions on their 11 third-down attempts. They also set the tone early with two short drives to start the game.

However, quarterback Justin Herbert threw four touchdowns and was only sacked once, finishing with a 125.0 passer rating. Wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams terrorized the Chiefs’ secondary with 172 combined yards and three touchdowns — and yes, the red-zone defense was bad once again: Los Angeles scored touchdowns on four of their five trips.

Their struggles close to the goal line have been a theme all offseason linebacker Anthony Hitchens acknowledged it hasn’t gotten any better since 2020.

“That was our goal this year to get better, so that’s frustrating,” Hitchens admitted after the loss. “Focusing on that all offseason in OTAs and camp, and three straight games with teams scoring seven points down there. We just have to get it fixed some way, somehow... I’m one of the leaders on this defense, so I’ll be the first one to say I messed up; if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I’m just trying to get it right so we can win... we have to try to give up three instead of seven.”

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The unit did hold the Chargers to three points on the most critical red-zone drive of the game. As Kansas City held onto a three-point lead, the defense made an important stop late in the fourth quarter — even after a penalty gave Los Angeles another shot at scoring. The offense just couldn’t capitalize on the stop.

It doesn’t excuse the other red zone trips that ended in six. Hitchens explained how the Chargers’ offense used a faster tempo to their advantage in that area.

“They hurried up on us on two of them,” Hitchens recalled. “They did a late substitution, and the rules are we should be able to sub — and obviously they didn’t see that part; they subbed real quick. They didn’t give us time to sub, and by the time we did, a lot of guys weren’t on the same page. As the middle linebacker, I take fault in all of those — just because I’m the one setting people up. If I don’t get a call from Spags, I need to get a call out there so we can play something.”

Their last attempt at a stop in the red zone almost didn’t happen: with less than a minute remaining, the Chiefs forced the Chargers into a fourth-and-4 — which turned into a fourth-and-9 after a false start — but L.A. converted by way of a defensive pass interference flag on cornerback Deandre Baker.

The flag allowed Los Angeles to get into the red zone and score a touchdown from there. Hitchens wasn’t really surprised that the Chargers were aggressive on fourth down attempts.

“To be honest, that’s what we’re expecting now,” Hitchens shared. “Teams are doing everything possible to not put the ball back in Patrick Mahomes’ hands, and sometimes you have to go for it on fourth down. We realize that. For us, we think we had a pretty good call, had pretty tight coverage, that’s all you can ask for on fourth down.”

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Whether the defense or the offense is to blame, the Chiefs have played in an incredible amount of one-possession games. Excluding Week 17 of last year, the Chiefs have played in 10 consecutive regular-season games that finished with the teams being at least within a touchdown of each other.

Before the last two losses, they were 8-0 in those games. Players aren’t used to being on the flip side of these close calls.

“We’ve been here before; we were just on the other side and winning,” Hitchens reflected. “It is a little frustrating when it comes down to one possession every week, and we don’t capitalize as a team — not just one play here or there. We just have to keep grinding away. The years we went to the Super Bowl, we won those close games. That just shows you how small the margins are in the NFL.”

The Chiefs are proving how small the margins are. Even if this start to the season has been discouraging, the Chiefs have been in position each of the last two weeks to finish the game with an offensive possession; both have ended with a demoralizing turnover.

The defense needs to be better, but it also doesn’t need to be perfect. They just need to be better in the situations involving the red zone and fourth down — because right now, it’s bad.

The Chiefs have allowed five of the six attempts to convert a fourth down this season and have also allowed touchdowns on 12 of 13 red-zone drives. Plain and simple: they have to get more stops in those situations.