Kansas City Chiefs

Red-Zone Defense Is Holding Kansas City Back

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan (USA TODAY Sports)

Following the Kansas City Chiefs’ 36-35 defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Chiefs Kingdom has found plenty of targets for their blame over the season’s first loss. There were plenty of guilty parties, from Andy Reid’s timid fourth-quarter play-calling to the defense’s inability to stop the run, to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s fumble just as the offense was positioning themselves to kick a game-winning field goal.

While any loss cannot be chalked up to a singular player, coach, or moment, there appears to be one glaring trend for this Kansas City team through the first two weeks, a trend that haunted them repeatedly last season as well: poor red-zone defense.

Okay, so maybe poor isn’t a strong enough adjective to describe the Chiefs’ red-zone defense. Atrocious might be better suited to explain just how inept they have been in preventing opposing offenses from scoring touchdowns when backed up inside their own 20-yard line. The Cleveland Browns and Ravens combined to drive the ball into Kansas City’s red zone eight times, scoring a touchdown on every single one of them. That 100% touchdown rate easily places Kansas City in last place amongst the rest of the NFL through two weeks.

Yes, two weeks seems like a small sample size to merit hitting the panic button, but unfortunately, having a red-zone defense with the stability of a hastily built house of cards is nothing new to Chiefs fans. Just last year, Kansas City finished the season with the worst red-zone defense in the league, surrendering a touchdown 77% of the time opponents backed them up inside their own 20. While they overcame those shortcomings and advanced to the Super Bowl, their putrid red-zone defense never gave their struggling offense a chance to stay in the game, allowing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to score three TDs from inside the 20.

Their defense as a whole has been a mess so far in this season, but for the Chiefs to hoist another Lombardi Trophy this February, they should be prioritizing their red-zone defense. When the defense can execute a bend-don’t-break style and force more field goals, they become almost impossible to beat. It can be highly frustrating for opposing teams to execute long drives ending in field goals, only to watch Patrick Mahomes and Co. score touchdowns in lightning-like fashion going the other way.

Look no further than the 2019 campaign for proof and how that defense stacks up against the past two seasons. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit finished ninth in red-zone defense that season, surrendering touchdowns just 51% of the time. The similarities are surprising when comparing traditional defensive rankings from the last two seasons to their Super Bowl-winning defense.

Passing Yards/Game Rushing Yards/Game Red Zone Defense
2019 8th 26th 9th
2020 14th 21st 32nd
2021 18th 32nd 32nd

Statistics via pro-football-reference.com

All three teams prove to be about average in the passing game and towards the bottom of the league in rushing yards allowed per game. The apparent difference can be seen in their red-zone defense. While the 2019 defense surrendered their fair share of yards, they were far more successful at keeping teams out of the end zone.

The ability to limit teams to more field goals is all Mahomes and the offense need, as demonstrated in their 2019 postseason run. Kansas City completed comeback after comeback, primarily due to their offense being otherworldly. Still, they were helped along by the defense simply limiting the opposition to more field goals in the red zone. They failed to do so the following year in 2020, and it finally caught up to them in the Super Bowl. Early returns on the red-zone defense from this year’s team are historically bad, playing a huge role in Kansas City experiencing their first loss in September during the Mahomes era.

The Chiefs should have every reason to believe they can improve their red-zone defense. Spagnuolo remains their coordinator, and impact defenders from the 2019 championship defense are still around, like Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, and Chris Jones. The pieces are there to be the complementary defense they need to be.

The defense doesn’t need to improve in all facets of the game, as some may suggest. Simply not being historically bad in the red zone is all they need to remain at the top of the NFL heap.

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