One of the themes of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' career has been the team's mediocre defenses.
Since he became the team's starter in 2018, the Chiefs haven't ranked in the top 16 in expected points added or points per game — and have only ranked above average in defensive success rate once (2022). The defense hasn't been historically bad every year besides 2018, but there has only been one year where the defense was around league-average or better in most defensive statistics. That was in 2019 — the year Kansas City won Super Bowl LIV.
Still, the Chiefs have competed for a Super Bowl annually, finishing among the top four teams in every season Mahomes has started. That speaks to Mahomes' greatness. But organizationally, it's been a goal to improve the defense beyond mediocre, giving Mahomes some help on the other side of the ball.
But 2022 is another season where Kansas City has — at best — a mediocre defense.
None of these stats suggest the Chiefs are much worse defensively than they have been in other recent seasons. So let's answer the most important question:
Objectively speaking, Kansas City can absolutely win the Super Bowl with its current defense.
I still believe that.
That said, over the past three weeks, I've started worrying that the defense is taking steps backward. Overall, the stats continue to look fine. In those three weeks, the Chiefs are only giving up 5.0 yards per play — tied for seventh in the NFL — and rank ninth in defensive success rate in that period.
But stats don't tell the whole story.
The film from the past three weeks has just been bad. I know that's anecdotal. But every time I sit down to watch this defense, I feel like it's coming apart structurally. The defense has a great many issues to solve right now — but if I had to rank the three main problems, here's what they would be:
- A lack of middle-of-the-field defense
- Poor linebacker play
- A lack of pass rush complementing Chris Jones
Let's dive into the film:
1. Lack of middle-of-the-field pass defense
Say what you want about Tyrann by the end of his tenure, his MOF defense is sorely missed right now— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 20, 2022
Teams have no fear of throwing over MOF, which hurts when KC gets into their two-high looks. Both LBs really struggle reading and getting into throwing windows. pic.twitter.com/5zf5cfEk0a
This is the main difference between past Spagnuolo defenses and this year. The middle-of-the-field defense has been bad this year.
Teams have consistently worked the middle of the field vs. the defense, not afraid to attack the linebackers or safeties in space. Look at Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow's passing chart against the Chiefs, for example:
What's the main difference between past years and this year? No Tyrann Mathieu.
Mathieu had warts in his game by the end of his Chiefs' tenure, but his middle-of-the-field defense was critical to this scheme to work. On any critical down, Mathieu would roam the middle of the field in Tampa 2, and quarterbacks wouldn't target those zones.
Without him, teams don't feel that fear throwing there. If you're going to call 2-high coverages, you have to have strong middle-of-the-field defenders to make up for that open space, but the Chiefs don't have that. Teams are getting too many easy completions there.
2. Lack of pass rush around Chris Jones
Here's a 2 minute compilation of the four-man pass rush struggling over the past three weeks— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 20, 2022
(The original video was five minutes) pic.twitter.com/ZAvpjAkuuh
Fun fact; Chris Jones has played an absurd 81.55% of snaps this season. For comparison, Jones has played 56.1, 64.5, and 58.5% of the snaps over the last three seasons, respectively.
The burden Jones has had to carry this season is unsustainable. Aaron Donald is the only guy I can remember who has been able to play 80-plus% of snaps and sustain excellence at defensive tackle. It's almost impossible to carry the load Jones does for this defensive line and remain excellent over the course of the season.
That load is starting to show up on film. Jones did have an illness coming into the week, but it's clear Jones is starting to wear down on film and statistically. Over the past three games, Jones has totaled only two total pressures and one sack. This isn't to say Jones is playing worse, but it does appear that Jones is starting to wear down throughout a long season.
The problem is Kansas City can't generate a pass rush outside of Jones. The Chiefs' top four defensive ends — Frank Clark, George Karlaftis, Carlos Dunlap and Mike Danna — only have 59 pressures and 15.5 sacks. On average, each defensive end generates 1.18 pressures per game and .31 sacks per game. Chris Jones individually is averaging 2.14 pressures per game and .79 sacks per game. If the Chiefs want to generate any pass rush, they need Jones on the field, but it's reaching the point of diminishing returns since Jones is getting worn down.
The fact is, Kansas City isn't generating enough pass rush if Jones isn't winning on every single down. If he's not able to do that, then there's little the Chiefs can do to generate a pass rush without blitzing, which isn't a strategy vs. elite quarterbacks like Joe Burrow or Josh Allen.
3. Poor linebacker play
One of the bigger differentiators of this recent down stretch defensively (filmwise) is just bad LB play imo— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 20, 2022
This isn't isolated at one guy - Willie, Harris, and Bolton all have been bad. Whether it's tackling in space, man coverage, or trying to fight off blocks, the tape is pic.twitter.com/jWQsP7VYBf
It's time to start a dialogue on the Chiefs' linebackers.
Nick Bolton and Willie Gay have not been good for large parts of this year. This organization has put a lot of investment into their development, but neither has been particularly good in this recent stretch.
Their games aren't the same, but both of their tapes are littered with the same issues: they can't get off blocks and struggle to read anything in coverage and make tackles in space. Bolton, in particular, struggles with making any play in space, which reared its ugly head multiple times on Sunday.
Gay's bigger problem has been his coverage recently. Whether it's his man coverage reps or trying to find routes in play action, Gay's recently been a liability in coverage. This has led Spagnuolo to even put Darius Harris on the field — albeit, he's not playing well either.
The Chiefs put a lot of investment in Gay and Bolton as cornerstones of their defense, but neither has justified that return on investment yet. They both have moments of excellent splash plays, but the overall tape hasn't been good enough, and it's hurting the defense.
The bottom line
I'm not going to discuss Steve Spagnuolo's long-term standing as defensive coordinator while the season is going. There's no point in it currently. He's the Chiefs' defensive coordinator this season, and nothing will change that.
For me, it's only worth discussing this season.
In terms of this defense, the film is just bad now. The stats don't look terrible, but the Chiefs have been lucky to face Malik Willis, Bryce Perkins, Davis Mills and the corpse of Matt Ryan to help their stats. The film and process haven't been good, and it's been getting worse recently.
To answer my original question, I think the Chiefs can still win the Super Bowl, even with their defense. Patrick Mahomes and this offense are good enough to do that. Still, the margin of error feels incredibly thin. When the offense commits turnovers or Harrison Butker misses kicks, it feels way more consequential than any other point in the Spagnuolo era.
The margin of error is a massive thing in the playoffs. You can't play perfectly on any side of the ball in the playoffs. The Chiefs almost have to play perfectly on offense to compete weekly. That's just not going to work in the playoffs.
The defense has three more weeks to prove me wrong. It can turn this around. It's imperative to gain momentum for the playoffs and carry their weight on this team in some capacity. Otherwise, it will be a tall task to make a deep playoff run.