If you watched the Kansas City Chiefs play against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, you probably saw what you would consider an excellent overall defensive performance at face value — yet there were only 3.0 sacks, and no turnovers were created.
Still, at one point, very late in the contest, the Chiefs were up 37-7. A couple of late touchdowns by Arizona against mostly Kansas City's depth defenders when the game was totally out of reach made the box score look closer than it truly was.
Make no mistake: the Chiefs defense did its job Sunday with an approach that was better for the overall unit's results. It's a short week leading up to Thursday night's home opener — so for now, let's take a quick look at how the Chiefs' defense fared vs. the Cardinals:
Speed, effort, intensity
In the post-game Instabreakdown here on Arrowhead Pride, I selected linebacker Nick Bolton as the defensive player of the game. Now, let's show some reasons why.
For Bolton, the defense's new primary on-field communication leader — angles and pathfinding come naturally. It helps that he's fast and plays incredibly hard, but his instincts are what make him special.
Looking at the defense as a whole, it exemplifies what it means to play on a string together on multiple occasions. This means simply executing their individual assignment while trusting their near teammates to fulfill their own responsibilities without creating any unnecessary overlap.
#Chiefs defense new-found speed was on full display Sunday from snap #1 -- combined with strong gap discipline. pic.twitter.com/YbZ8onc4LB— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
Speaking with local media Monday, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo described his defense from Sunday as "relentless and physical' upon his own film review.
It has been clear ever since the flurry of offseason moves started to take place that the Chiefs personnel and defensive staff have prioritized creating the type of hyperactive defensive unit that is very frustrating to try matching effort against.
So far, so good.
Angles, defeating blocks, tackling. The lifeblood of defensive football.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
Bolton and Sneed; two young #Chiefs star checking the boxes. pic.twitter.com/8kVIzfdFdp
There is something to be said for the messaging not only coming from coach to players but also from player to player. This is where monumental progress can be made.
The message can't become overly stale if everyone is on the same page. Having superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones play with this high degree of effort the coaches are preaching for just shows everyone else on the roster the expectation that needs to be met.
New defensive line coach Joe Cullen has been credited by Jones for establishing a higher level of urgency amongst the defensive linemen already — and at Arizona, it showed.
If this defense is going to build an identity on effort/intensity, the highest-paid guy battling like this well help pic.twitter.com/HVb9ligRBK— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
It wasn't just limited to the front line of the defense, though. The second and third levels all had their moments to show their increased urgency, effort and speed — whatever you may prefer to call it.
Slot cornerback L'Jarius Sneed had a couple of significant plays that helped shift the outcome of the game. The pass breakup shown below actually helped the Chiefs to get the football back and score three more points before halftime.
There's no doubt — Sneed lost the rep in the first second of the play. The receiver was able to create good separation and positioned himself to potentially get the Cardinals in field-goal position. Sneed played through the whistle, however, never giving up until the play was completely over.
In a league in which so many games can be decided by the outcome of just a few different plays, this type of effort is incredibly impactful. A similar outcome on a second-and-15 against the Chargers Thursday night could legitimately end up being the difference between winning and losing. This sort of thing is what all great defenses do — especially in the modern era, when the passing game is so difficult to contend with.
If Kansas City wants to have a great defense to complement the offense, it must continue these efforts every week.
this time it's Sneed - good things happen when defenders don't give up on a play; even when it doesn't start out so promising. pic.twitter.com/E8zhJPaXWD— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
Also, to Sneed's credit, he was able to log one of the three sacks the Chiefs had when he tackled the elusive Kyler Murray on the first third down of their season. The idea of whether or not Sneed should exclusively be a slot corner has been debated, but a play like this shows why it is the right call, in my opinion.
There just isn't anything he can't do at an above-average level from that spot.
Plays like this one are just example of why Sneed stays in the slot. Great skill set for a really tough position to play. pic.twitter.com/pOHNAr2rQz— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
Even though it was executed at a more controlled pace due to the dangers Murray presents as a runner, the Spagnuolo blitz package came through on several occasions Sunday. Like so many other rookies on this roster, safety Bryan Cook helped the cause with a solid outing.
Spags mentioned Bryan Cook doing some nice things in his most recent presser -- small detail I love to see is the timing of this bluff.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
Gotta think Fenton wants another shot to just attack this one and it's an easy INT. pic.twitter.com/h3VSuYhAGi
The timing of Cook's fake blitz is not an easy thing to do, yet he really nailed it, and he undoubtedly helped the pressure to come through so seamlessly. It's truly something you wouldn't have seen a whole lot when reviewing last year's film. This small detail of execution can help confuse the offensive line and quarterback, eventually leading to a big win for the defense.
It all plays together, too — when things are clicking, Spagnuolo can dig into his bag and be totally unpredictable. One week in, he is already showing third-down looks that include defensive ends dropping off into coverage unsuspectingly as linebackers and safeties go after the quarterback.
#Chiefs held AZ to 25% on 3rd-dwn; they tip the blitz early here. Murray knows it has to come out quick.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
Jones with the tip but also:
1) McDuffie in great position to contest
2) s/o @Ron_Kopp who pointed out Danna looking pretty fluid robbing for a short period underneath pic.twitter.com/ZYcu0m7xZr
It really is too bad that cornerback Trent McDuffie had to exit the game early with a hamstring strain. McDuffie shined in his career debut. McDuffie has a bright future and is maybe the Chiefs' best pure coverage defender already.
On the negative side of things, the tackling for Kansas City can be much better moving forward. It is difficult with how little tackling players do now in the true practice setting — the first regular-season game is their best form of practice, in a lot of ways.
Week 1 renders some bad tackling league-wide usually; Chiefs had their share of it too. pic.twitter.com/kLyWP5qtfg— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 13, 2022
Good tackling is a prerequisite to being a good defense — and nothing matters more. It will still continue to be a work in progress for a few weeks, but it will have to be much more consistent if Kansas City does indeed want to end up in the hunt for the AFC's No. 1 seed come late December.
The bottom line
The Chiefs have already moved on to the next game — and it's one of the most important on the schedule of the entire season: hosting the Los Angeles Chargers Thursday night.
This is going to be a much tougher challenge than Arizona was, as Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is among the elites at the position. The offense of the Chiefs will surely have to be great to win no matter what, but a similar defensive performance (with an added forced turnover or two) could be enough to give Kansas City a big early boost in the divisional standings.