Though the Kanas City Chiefs have clinched their seventh consecutive AFC West title, serious questions have been raised in recent weeks about the defense. The Chiefs continue to suffer lapses in coverage, leading to Kansas City surrendering the most touchdowns to opposing wide receivers.
Speaking before Wednesday’s practice, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took an attitude of looking forward — and hoping that the young secondary piece he has relied on this season is learning from the experience.
“It’s a little discouraging,” Spagnuolo admitted of the success of opposing receivers, “and yet, there isn’t anything we can do about those. It’s what we’ve got to do going forward. You hope that the foundation of the number of plays that the young guys has helps us down the road. But it’s not just secondary — it’s pass rush, it’s everything. That jumped on me — I was kind of surprised by it.”
One of the young players the coach hopes is building a foundation is rookie cornerback Joshua Williams. Speaking from the locker room on Wednesday, the Fayetteville State product discussed the difficulty of fine-tuning technique.
“In the NFL, there’s a lot of great receivers,” Williams stated. “There’s a lot of talented players who can make a lot of talented throws. A lot of times, you might be in the right position — but there might one little thing that’s off. Sometimes those small little minute details will be what gets you beat. We’re trying our best to limit those.”
With so many rookies taking on heavy roles in the defense, difficult stretches were widely expected throughout the season.
“There’s definitely some growing pains that are coming along with playing in this league,” Williams confirmed. “I think a lot of it is just the little things like leverage, the small details, knowing where my help is, and just understanding the defense even more.”
Another issue for the rookie has been developing instincts in coverage. Multiple times Williams has appeared just shy of making a big play.
“A lot of times, it’s me just knowing that I’m in a phase and need to get my head around,” he admitted. “I feel like on a lot of those plays where maybe I have gotten beat — I should have had my head around.”
The growing pains have been especially apparent in recent weeks when the defense has faced short fields due to offensive turnovers — a serious problem for a team with a season-long turnover differential of negative-six.
In Sunday’s 30-24 overtime victory over the Houston Texans, the Chiefs’ defense gave up a pair of touchdowns following offensive turnovers. Spagnuolo does not see any reason the defense should be playing worse in those situations.
“There should be a sense of urgency,” he emphasized of adverse situations. “It’s hard — one was at the 17 [yard line]. The way we look at it in that situation, we have to hold them to a field goal. That’s our job. To have them score in two plays was really disappointing. The other one was around the 42 — that’s plenty enough field where you’re not supposed to give up a touchdown.
“We do always talk about sudden change — sudden challenge — situations [and] what offenses like to do during those. And we’ve just got to be better at it. The 17-yard line was obvious. You don’t have to be real intelligent at football to realize we lost contain over there — and the quarterback took off. We’ve got to tighten some of those things up.”
On top of the young secondary, the Chiefs’ linebackers have been a liability in coverage in recent weeks. Spagnuolo noted that improvements must be made, though he countered that the second level rarely gets credit even when successful.
“I think they do a real solid job in what we ask them to do,” the coach claimed. “However, I think they’ll tell you we’re a pad-and-match team when we play zones — and there’s been instances when the matches haven’t been as tight as they should be. We work on it every week. I think it’s an eyes thing — I’m always talking to them about their eyes. There are areas this year that needed to improve.
“And yet, I think there’s a lot of times that goes unnoticed because when somebody covers it and matches it like they’re supposed to, sometimes the ball doesn’t go there. Those are the ones I see. But you’re right about some of the holes that have been there.”
Spagnuolo knows that his unit's problems must be addressed promptly, with the playoffs quickly approaching.
“The one thing we know about this league is people throw the football,” he offered. “If we don’t find ways to keep them out of the end zone when they throw it, it’s going to get challenging for us when we get down the stretch there — and start playing these good teams. Having said that, we’ll just keep working on what we’re doing and try to get better at it.”