It’s not often that Kansas City Chiefs fans get to say that the team’s defense won a particular game.
But they can say that about the Chiefs’ 27-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2. It wasn’t just the interception that rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson returned for a touchdown, either. The entire group played a hand in getting five consecutive stops during a crucial second-half stretch.
Let’s take a close look at how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit found a way to succeed.
Getting to third down
From the get-go, the Kansas City defense tried to limit the Chargers’ opportunities for points by inviting them to run against soft zone coverage, forcing Los Angeles to patiently chip away. When the Chargers used multiple tight ends in their formation, Kansas City would match with base personnel — using three linebackers to help stop the run.
#Chiefs matched Chargers 2-TE sets most of the time with Base, giving Leo Chenal a chance to impact the game— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 19, 2022
His play against the run helped KC allow only 3.4 Y/A to LAC RBs
1st clip he tries to jump gap to make play. Doesn't, but still takes up blockers to free up Bolton pic.twitter.com/GnOLmkQmSC
So rookie Leo Chenal got his first chance to contribute — and was an asset in the 22 snaps he played.
In the plays shown here, he impacts the run by aggressively attacking gaps — and then registers a quarterback hit during one of the few times Los Angeles dropped back while he was on the field.
This approach worked. Chargers running backs gained only 3.4 yards per carry on their 22 attempts. No back had a run of over eight yards.
This conservative defensive style constantly forced third downs — even if they weren’t the ideal third-and-long situations. They were still high-pressure snaps where the defense is challenging the offense to execute one play to make or break the possession.
In the first half, the Chiefs forced the Chargers into seven third-down situations — and Los Angeles converted only three of them. The defense’s ability to get their opponent into third down was a key part in holding them to only 10 points at halftime.
Second half adjustments
But in the third quarter, the Chargers’ offense came out on a roll. On their 11-play scoring drive, they only saw third down twice. The second one was another big play to wide receiver Mike Williams. The 15-yard touchdown gave Los Angeles a 17-7 lead.
You have to credit Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert. On the few first-half snaps where the Chiefs trusted man coverage, Herbert picked on cornerback Rashad Fenton: a defensive pass interference penalty on a third-down play — and then a 39-yard catch by wide receiver Mike Williams. Both plays led directly to the two scores the Chargers had at the break.
The third-quarter score was another example of Herbert and Williams beating man coverage; the wideout won on a jump ball against Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. That, however, would be Williams’ last catch of the evening — and the Chargers’ last scoring drive until the final minutes of the game.
The first stop of the 5 straight the #Chiefs D made in 2nd half— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 19, 2022
KC trusts basic Cover 2 zone against LAC's Mesh concept. The attention on the underneath routes leave the TE hook route open
Reid's quick recognition and drive from 2-deep alignment saves the day, forces punt pic.twitter.com/0h1tfoSW8W
On the following drive — with the score now 17-14 — the Chiefs’ defense forced a quick third down with the same early-down strategy they used in the first half.
Here we see that with two yards to convert, the Chargers elect to drop back. Herbert sees the same soft, two-deep coverage that he’s been seeing all night. But this time, safety Justin Reid isn’t passive in his coverage. From the deeper alignment, he quickly drives on a curl route at the sticks — timing the contest perfectly.
This forced incompletion is a great example of how to execute zone coverage, making throwing windows tighter than the quarterback thinks they are.
On the 2nd stop of the 2nd half, a slight adjustment made by the #Chiefs' defense came through— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 19, 2022
Unlike the 1st half, the defensive scheme better accounts for the back side of play action, giving Herbert no room to operate after the run fake
These plays led to Chris Jones' sack pic.twitter.com/lbTq79M6Oz
Here we see that on the Chargers’ second attempt to widen their lead from 17-14, Kansas City forces two incompletions on first and second down by attacking the back side of a play-action pass harder than they did at previous points in the game. In both of these plays, Herbert raises his eyes to pass out of the handoff action — only to see a defender clogging his throwing lane.
On the ensuing third down, defensive tackle Chris Jones ended the drive with a sack.
It's worth pointing out Willie Gay's effort on this blitz, in the 4th quarter and dealing with up-tempo, no huddle O.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 19, 2022
He easily gets past Ekeler, and gets hands up in the throwing lane. Contributes to a rushed, off-target pass and a Pick 6 pic.twitter.com/Pn7Sq2oDAW
The Chargers did get things together for their next possession, looking to score and break the 17-17 tie from the two-yard line — but then Jaylen Watson happened.
We see that linebacker Willie Gay Jr. blitzes, gets past the running back in pass protection and forces Herbert to hurry his throw — making the pass off-target.
The game-changing play gave the Chiefs a 24-17 advantage. This meant the defense now had to protect a lead. While the Chargers’ offensive mindset changed, Kansas City’s general game plan remained the same: funneling the gains into short passes or runs. On the next drive, that helped to immediately put Los Angeles in a third-and-2 — where a tackle for loss forced a punt.
As the fourth quarter woound down, the Chargers got a second shot to even the score — but by then, the Chiefs’ defensive front was beginning to overwhelm the pass blocking. The hits got to Herbert — both physically and mentally.
Well-disguised coverage in 4Q nearly forces an INT— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 19, 2022
Watson's manned up on Williams, but the rest of KC is Cover 2 zone. Herbert sees man, thinks Gay will widen with TE, and threads the needle btwn Watson and Bolton -- only for Gay to read his eyes and stay in the throwing window pic.twitter.com/nagHi5XtOY
On this third-down pass, Herbert identifies man coverage on Williams — but he’s the only one who is truly manned up. The rest of the defense has zone responsibilities. When he triggers the throw, Herbert has not accounted for them. He anticipates Gay will move out of the window to cover the tight end, but Gay is reading Herbert’s eyes — and follows them right to the catch point for a pass breakup.
When the Chiefs got the ball back, they tacked on three points. That put the Chargers away — even if they did tighten the score to 27-24 on their final drive.
The bottom line
For the most part, the Kansas City defense played a conservative brand of football against Los Angeles, forcing long drives and plenty of third-down attempts.
The Chargers did take advantage of some of the defense’s susceptible snaps — but in the second half, the Chiefs got five straight stops: four punts and a defensive touchdown. They allowed Los Angeles to convert only five of their 16 third-down opportunities on third down.
The defense was locked in with a well-adjusted strategy — and better execution from the players. It was a glimpse into how high the ceiling for this young group could really be.