Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City’s Defensive Changes Paid Off Immediately

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan (USA TODAY Sports)

The frustration had reached its tipping point. Through the first five weeks of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs fielded the NFL’s worst defense, and one of the worst the league has offered in recent memory. That frustration culminated last Sunday night in their 34-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills, forcing head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to finally make some necessary changes prior to their Week 6 showdown in Washington, D.C.

In an effort to be both faster and more athletic, Reid and Spagnuolo removed a couple aging, struggling vets from the starting lineup. Both free safety Dan Sorensen and inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens saw a significant decline in their snap counts in Week 6. The results were instantly noticeable. Kansas City rolled over the Washington Football Team on Sunday, 31-13, providing their best defensive performance of the season to date.

However, Reid and Spagnuolo shouldn’t receive much praise for these moves. Chiefs fans and reporters have been puzzled by their commitment to middling free safety Sorensen for weeks now. In past seasons, Sorensen gained fame within Chiefs Kingdom for his big-play abilities during long postseason runs. But even in those iconic performances, Sorensen was mostly tasked with the third safety role, leading to limited snaps generally played near the line of scrimmage due to an inability to run in space.

This year, the coaching staff has given him a more prominent role in the defense at a position where he has typically struggled. Sorensen never had great speed, so why at an older age would he be tasked with the role of a starting free safety, a position requiring the athletic makeup he simply never possessed?

To further the mind-boggling decision, right behind Sorensen on the depth chart has been former second-round pick Juan Thornhill, who was drafted in 2019 to specifically fill that role. The solution was incredibly obvious, and it was right in front of the coaching staff all season long.

On Sunday, their roles were finally reversed, with Thornhill staying on the field for all 59 of the defensive snaps, with Sorensen featured in his limited role at 32% of the snaps. The results were not surprising, as Thornhill’s elite speed allowed the Chiefs’ defense to limit big plays in the passing game as well as giving Tyrann Mathieu’s arms a break from raising them in frustration 20 times per game.

At linebacker, aging veteran play-caller Anthony Hitchens had his snap count drop significantly too. On Sunday, Hitchens was on the field for just 19% of the defensive snaps, down roughly 40% from his season average. Hitchens has struggled mightily this year when forced to make plays in coverage or in sticking with running backs stretching out runs to the sidelines. The Washington Football Team’s offense primarily runs through Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic, who both excel on the boundary.

Hitchens was replaced with faster linebackers in Ben Niemann and rookie Nick Bolton, with the latter leading the team in tackling. Together, they helped a historically inept rushing defense hold Washington to under 100 yards on the ground. They also contained Washington’s running backs to just 65 yards receiving on the day. Those performances themselves played a major role in holding Washington to zero second half points.

Yes, they were facing a less than average offense with backup Tyler Heinicke starting in place of injured journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, but they still put in a promising performance nonetheless. While the coaching staff should have made these adjustments weeks ago, Chiefs fans should be encouraged their defense can make the necessary improvements to climb back up the AFC West standings.

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Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan (USA TODAY Sports)

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