When you start the season 1-2 and expectations are Super Bowl or bust, there will naturally be plenty of head-scratching and finger-pointing. The Kansas City Chiefs have many concerns after their slow start. However, the problems start up front on the defensive side of the ball.
It doesn’t help that Frank Clark has only played in one of the three games so far. It also isn’t great that Chris Jones’ move to the edge has taken a little more time to even out than what may have been initially expected. Despite all this, the success of this unit largely hinges on the defensive front figuring things out.
Last year, the Chiefs blitzed the ninth-most of any team in the NFL. They ranked 12th in quarterback pressures. While the sack numbers were in the middle of the pack, Kansas City could get to opposing quarterbacks at critical moments in games. That hasn’t been the case this year.
While the blitz numbers are still there so far in this season, they have the 12th-most blitzes in the league, the coinciding numbers have dropped off meaningfully. Kansas City is tied for 29th in sacks (4) and 24th in quarterback pressures (24). The blitz numbers are about even up, but the production has dipped off drastically, resulting in significant problems.
They couldn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together when the Chiefs needed a stop against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens on what ended up being the final drive of the game in Week 2. When Patrick Mahomes threw a baffling jump ball in Week 3 that the Los Angeles Chargers picked off, the defense let LA march right down the field for a game-winning touchdown with less than a minute left. Pressure on Jackson and Justin Herbert was nonexistent on both occasions.
Granted, the two teams play vastly different styles, but the Chiefs didn’t have any success slowing down either in crunch time.
This isn’t a revelation for the Chiefs. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo discussed the lack of a pass rush following the loss to the Chargers.
“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s funny, sometimes I feel like we’re quite a ways away,” Spagnuolo said of the unit. “But I will say this, when I talk with the guys tomorrow, I’m going to tell them that there’s a lot of good snaps in there. There was a lot of good football played, but in this league against a really good team in a close game maybe when your offense is struggling a little bit, it might be three plays that makes the difference. The one that sticks out in my mind is the 42-yard completion, that explosive pass play. We didn’t survive that.”
While it is just an expression, Chiefs fans don’t find anything funny about the lack of a pass rush — or the 1-2 start.
Spagnuolo remained glass-half-full and tried to look at the positives up front.
“It has come in spurts,” Spagnuolo said of the pass rush. “Maybe it’s been a little inconsistent, but I’ll tell you what I think Mike Danna did a great job yesterday. The sack he had was just a relentless sack. We had some other ones where we were right there, I know Chris [Jones] had one where he pushed the tackle into the quarterback one time. There’s other ones that stick out a bit where we were just there, we’re just missing a little bit. Part of that comes back to I’m not sure we’ve had enough of those downs and distances … we had more yesterday with the third downs where we could really pin our ears back and come after the quarterback. And I felt early that we did a good job of it. Let’s not forget, when Chris [Jones] draws a holding penalty that’s almost as effective as getting [to the quarterback].”
When you have to mention that drawing a holding penalty is “almost as effective as getting to the quarterback,” it feels like grasping at straws, even if Spagnuolo’s point has some truth to it.
The reality for Kansas City is that they haven’t been a dominant defense during this run over the last few years. It’s not what Todd Bowles has in Tampa Bay or even what teams like the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers have seen this year. Kansas City’s defense has leaned mainly on the offense to bail them out when things turn south. Mahomes and Co. have been able to do that repeatedly in the last couple of seasons, which is more excusable when you’re winning. However, fans want accountability when you start the year 1-2.
They need to address certain issues on the offensive and elsewhere on defense. But the Chiefs’ numbers up front have dipped so low compared to last year or even 2019 that it’s an easy place to start with the critiques. The domino effect that getting pressure on the quarterback can have in the NFL is huge for the second and third tiers of a defense. That’s where the Chiefs need to focus as they try to turn things around.