After the Kansas City Chiefs turned in a 41-10 thrashing of the Chicago Bears on Sunday, most game coverage will probably focus on the team’s besieged offense finally “getting right.” But the defensive unit continuing its exceptional 2023 start should not go unnoticed.
Bears quarterback Justin Fields finished with less than 100 passing yards — and the Bears were shut until out the fourth quarter. By then, the game’s outcome had long been decided.
Speaking after the game, head coach Andy Reid credited the win on the improvement of a number of young defensive players who helped deliver a Super Bowl victory in 2022.
“I thought we’d be where we are,” revealed Reid, “just playing well. The young guys have done a nice job... The young guys are better. I mentioned it during training camp: that the zones are tighter and man coverage is better and we’re getting the young rushers up there. They’re doing a better job.”
One of those young players is cornerback Trent McDuffie, who was the team’s first-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. When he took his turn with reporters on Sunday evening, McDuffie bragged about how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had prepared the team to face a running quarterback like Fields.
“Coach Spags called a really good defense [and] kind of mixed up the looks,” explained the second-year pro. “I thought we had a really good week of practice — knowing where Justin Fields is and knowing the kind of playmaker he is when he has the ball in his hands.”
Studying Fields’ tendencies helped McDuffie deliver one of the Chiefs’ biggest defensive plays of the day. Late in the second quarter — deep in Bears territory — he knocked the ball from the arms of running back Khalil Herbert. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. recovered the fumble, kicking off a run in which the Chiefs scored 13 points in the final three minutes before halftime.
“When it came to that fumble,” recalled McDuffie, “there was a certain look we gave — and knew they might check their screen. Sure enough, they did. We just made a play on it. Coach Spags over the week just talks about getting the ball out — punching and stripping it. Fortunately enough, we were able to get it out.”
McDuffie said that the work he and his teammates put in as rookies is paying off as they start their second season.
“Honestly,” he remarked, “I think it just comes to how young we are. Knowing that you’ve got a bunch of guys who were new to the team last year, Coach Spags was able to kind of start with a clean slate, almost — kind of re-teach the defense and put in his philosophy with all of us. A lot of the guys bought into it. We were like, ‘We’ve got you; we trust you.’
“Last year, at least as a DB in my rookie class, I can say we were together every single day trying to teach each other the plays [and] just checking in on each other.”
In Sunday’s matchup, the Chiefs actually overcame a major defensive obstacle: MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton missed the game with an ankle injury. But free-agent acquisition Drue Tranquill did an admirable job filling in.
A lot of talk about who would step up in place of LB Nick Bolton against the Bears heading into the game. Drue Tranquil led the way with 8 tackles (four solo), three more than anyone else.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) September 24, 2023
Reid identified the position group’s depth as a strength — and noted that Gay was playing with a quad injury.
“The linebacker position is strong,” said the coach. “Nick Bolton didn’t play today, [and] Drue stepped in — and I thought did a heck of a job. Willie pushed himself through to play.”
Knowing the preparation required to step in for Bolton, McDuffie was impressed with what Tranquill was able to do.
“I was really excited that he was able to go out there,” he disclosed. “This defense is tough. There’s a lot of checks — and Spags puts a lot of pressure on MIKE backers. [Tranquill] just rolled with the punches. Throughout the week, you’d have safeties and DBs going, ‘What about this check? What do you see?’
“He was like, ‘Hey guys, whatever you see on this defense, you let me know.’ He was able to go out there and run an efficient game — and [he] came up with big tackles and was able to command this defense really well. I thought he did an amazing job today.”
While the defense is playing well, Reid wanted to caution his listeners: there is plenty of work ahead.
“I’m proud of them for how they’re playing,” he reiterated. “They’re playing hard [and] aggressive. The thing is, you’ve got to do it every week. You’ve got to make sure you prepare — and have yourself mentally ready to go every week.”
After missing much of his rookie season due to a hamstring injury, McDuffie seems ready to take Reid’s “every-week” challenge.
“Missing half the season last year definitely gave me a chip coming into this year,” he claimed, “just in terms of the impact I could have in this defense.”
McDuffie explained that Spagnuolo has a concept called ‘My Job Plus.’
“It’s pretty much knowing your assignment each and every play,” McDuffie elaborated, “reading your keys, eye discipline and stuff like that. It’s football, and things happen. Sometimes, even if you’re doing your job, things go the wrong way. It’s pretty much just — when things do happen or when things do go wrong — in any down and distance, being able to make the play when you need it.
“Even when there’s a freak long break — like Justin Fields ran up the field – being able to stop them and get back on defense. That’s ‘My Job Plus.’”