At 10-3 — and with a playoff appearance all but sealed — the Kansas City Chiefs have reached the point of the season in which a contender’s flaws are analyzed under a microscope.
For the Chiefs, the most glaring blemish is the team’s turnover differential through 13 games. The Chiefs have turned the ball over 19 times this season while forcing only 14 takeaways. The season-long differential of negative-five is even with this week’s opponent — the 1-11-1 Houston Texans.
Chiefs defenders know the urgency to improve before the games that matter begin in four weeks.
“Yeah, we’ve been putting a higher emphasis on takeaways,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid confirmed when speaking before Wednesday’s practice, “however, we can get them – interceptions [or] forced fumbles. There haven’t been enough so far in the season, but the positivity is that hopefully, we’re just saving them for this last stretch in December, January and February — and we can get them all now.”
In the locker room, rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie agreed on the importance of creating more turnovers.
“I think that’s a huge thing,” the 21st overall pick in April’s draft acknowledged, “especially now coming to the end of the season. I think we’ve just got to do a good job of taking the ball away. I feel like we’ve got our technique down [and] we’re starting to make tackles here and there. I think the best thing for us overall as a defense is takeaways. That’s the biggest thing we can do as a [defensive back].”
Reid agreed with the rookie that technique must come before advanced ball skills. Throughout the season, McDuffie and fellow rookie defensive backs Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson have repeatedly appeared to come just short of making big plays. The veteran believes their time is coming.
“That’s just an experience thing,” Reid explained. “As you play in the league longer, your confidence level continues to build up. Honestly, you start seeing route concepts a lot more because the game changes from college to the NFL. Once you get used to the coaching and the style of offenses NFL teams run, you start to learn how teams want to attack us.
“First, you get our defense down, and then once you really feel comfortable in our defense, you can start noticing patterns in how teams like to attack us. You start being able to predict plays. When you get in those situations, you have a little bit higher level of confidence to turn around and make the play.”
Reid reiterated that a hard deadline could not be set to transition from learning the defense to making experienced plays.
“It’s different for every player,” Reid claimed. “Guys come along at different speeds. For me personally, it was really after I got the first one. My first pick — after that, once you get one, they come in bunches. I ended up getting two more that year.”
Whenever his young teammates take their game to the next level, Reid expects to see it during the week before the highlight plays start happening on Sundays.
“First and foremost is practice habits,” he stressed. “If it doesn’t happen in practice, it’s not going to magically just start happening in the game. We’ve been harping on it — really had a focus on — getting our head across, getting physical, punching the ball out, that type of stuff. Then in the game, you’ve just got to follow through with it.
“You can’t let your coaching [and] your training go by the wayside when you get to the game situations. Obviously, there are opportunities when you’ve got to make the tackle and secure it first. But when the opportunity is there that the tackle is secured and you have a chance to rip out the ball, we need to do that a little more.”
McDuffie added that Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt has emphasized taking advantage of turnover opportunities.
“Honestly, it’s just make the plays when they come to you,” the rookie said of what he is learning in practice. “We know that [against] certain defenses, [at] certain times during the game quarterbacks make mistakes — and we just have to capitalize on them.”
One such mistake came early in the Chiefs’ 34-28 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday. On the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage, a deep pass from quarterback Russell Wilson was badly off-target for a prime interception opportunity. After Reid appeared to barely get a touch the pass, the ball bounded off of McDuffie’s face mask.
“I did get a hand on it,” Reid confirmed, “[and] changed the directory slightly.”
McDuffie was not sure his teammate had affected it.
“Honestly, couldn’t tell you,” he recalled. “[I] couldn’t really see the ball at all. I knew the ball was in the air based on [Broncos tight end Greg Dulcich], and I saw Justin’s hand go up. I was like, ‘The ball has to be somewhere,’ so that’s why I stuck my hands out — and it hit me square in the face. When I turned around, I just couldn’t find it.”