From a defensive perspective, the Kansas City Chiefs' performance on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers wasn't as ugly as the team's first two games — but there's still a sizable room for improvement.
The unit attempted to overcome the offense's four turnovers, but it wasn't enough to finish victorious. With less than 24 hours to reflect on the second loss of the season, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo addressed reporters on Monday via Zoom. He had plenty of observations to share, starting with the good.
"I thought we had some positives," Spagnuolo began. "One of them being the way we started the game, the mindset we had on the first two drives — I thought that was really good. We tackled much better than we had in the previous two games, so that's encouraging. Our first and second down run defense was 3.5 yards per rush; that's encouraging. Third down was much better... That was right at our goal of 36%."
It was the defense's best game of the year in terms of rushing yards allowed. Their third-down conversion percentage was good — but it held the Cleveland Browns to only 29% in Week 1.
The missed tackles were a lot less prevalent against Los Angeles; per PFF, they only missed two. Even with the positive takeaways, there were obviously some negatives that Spagnuolo noticed.
"We did not create a turnover," Spagnuolo pointed out. "When our offense has a rough day, we need to offset that by getting some turnovers. The explosive passes really did hurt us — most notably the one for 42 yards on that last drive. We needed two red-zone stops that we didn't get. We did have one, but we needed two more, I thought. What really killed us in some of the red zone stuff was second-and-long; we had a second-and-12 and a second-and-10 that they were successful on. Then obviously, not closing the game out — giving up 10 points in the fourth quarter is not where we want to be."
Spagnuolo's units can usually force at least one turnover; there were only two games in the 2020 season with the starters in which the defense didn't earn a takeaway: Super Bowl LV and Week 9 against the Carolina Panthers. The Chiefs forced two turnovers in each of the first two games of this season.
The woes of the red-zone defense are nothing new — but the way it failed in that area in this game was different. The Chargers strategized to quickly get to the line and run a play with faster tempo in the red zone multiple times; two of those times ended with touchdowns.
There was clearly miscommunication on two of those plays, and Spagnuolo did his best to explain what went wrong.
"I tried to get a call to Hitch — I probably should've made it an easier call, I would say," reflected Spagnuolo. "He did the best he could — as fast they were going — to get everybody lined up and we weren't, then they threw a quick one. Another one, we brought a pressure and it didn't get executed exactly right. That's when (Austin) Ekeler caught it, and he looked wide open... There were too many mistakes there pre-snap that hurt us."
However, the defense did get their first red-zone stop of the year in a very crucial situation. Defending a three-point lead, the defense had to hold the Chargers on three consecutive plays from the 1-yard line. It succeeded, forcing Los Angeles to settle for a field goal.
"I thought it was really gritty," Spagnuolo said. "They helped us a little bit by getting a penalty and getting backed up. The very first play, we keep them out of the end zone. Then we have two snaps where we play really good coverage and get to the quarterback enough; one of them (Justin) Herbert had to throw it away, so there was pressure there and the back end did a great job covering. Then we stopped them again, getting that incomplete pass. That really was encouraging, our guys should feel really good about that."
It might have been a step in the right direction, but the defense still has higher expectations than the way it played — and it should. Spagnuolo admitted as such and had an honest moment about how close he thinks they are to where they need to be.
"Sometimes, I feel like we're quite a ways away," Spagnuolo shared. "There was a lot of good football play — but in this league, against a really good team in a close game when you're offense is struggling a little bit, it's 3 or 4 plays that make the difference. The one that sticks out in my mind is the 42-yard explosive pass play; we didn't survive that. We're right on the verge of things, but we need to get there... When our organization or our team needs us to hold them to 14 or 17, we need to be able to do that."