Bulldozed by Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell two games before, confounded by Oakland quarterback Derek Carr in their last outing, the Chiefs’ defense had been eroding into a vulnerability … if not an outright liability.
One emerging as a threat to short-circuit an otherwise promising season.
Instead of opponents having to grit their teeth and pick their poison against a typically thorny and mayhem-making group, they’d been feasting on the path of least resistance against a defense that mustered just one sack and a lone turnover in those two losses.
Outtoughed or outfinessed, not to mention outschemed at times, the decline was collective.
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But it ultimately also was all about the sum of parts that suddenly had gone from dynamic to stagnant, and no one put it more succinctly than linebacker Derrick Johnson after the 31-30 loss to Oakland.
“Just got to make a play. Just make one play. One play,” Johnson said after the Chiefs allowed the Raiders to go 85 yards in the final 2 minutes 25 seconds for the game-winning points. “The game was on the line last drive. Just make one play. One of us. And we couldn’t make it.”
But at least in the moment on Monday at Arrowhead Stadium, the defense largely reversed the trend and rehabilitated its credibility in a 29-19 victory over Denver that gave the Chiefs (6-2) twice as many wins as every other team in the AFC West at the midway point of the season.
The game was defined by a defensive touchdown — as many as the offense scored on a night the Chiefs kicked five field goals — three interceptions, three sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Granted, the performance has a couple of asterisks attached:
Denver’s Trevor Siemian is an inadequate quarterback who made numerous unforced and critical mistakes, enough so that you might say the interceptions were more obtained than forced.
And the defense still gave up 177 rushing yards — including 115 in the second half with Dee Ford out because of a back injury.
So the warning label on this says “fool’s gold a possibility.”
Then again, the defense also was back to its swashbuckling ways, creating trouble for the Broncos and absolutely setting the tone for the game when Marcus Peters stripped the ball from former Chief Jamaal Charles minutes in, picked it up and dashed 45 yards to the end zone.
“We practice that all the time,” Johnson said. “The first guy there holds him up, and while he’s up, somebody strips the ball.”
The difference on Monday, though, was that it actually resulted in a turnover … unlike a number of times recently when Peters tried to execute the same maneuver unsuccessfully and flailed at a tackle.
Peters, who also had an interception, declined to speak to the media after the game, but he didn’t really need to address the meaning of the play.
“It speaks for itself,” said linebacker Justin Houston, who had two of the Chiefs’ three sacks as his balky knee seemed to restrict him less than it had in weeks.
Like Houston, Johnson also appeared to move better with 11 days rest than he had much of the season as he’s worked to regain full strength from his second ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
That showed up most vividly when Johnson zoomed in to break up Siemian’s fourth-and-4 pass for Isaiah McKenzie early in the fourth quarter — one of his best plays of the season, with vintage quickness.
“I wasn’t there (fast) enough to get the ball out,” he said, smiling, “but if you separate the man from the ball it works sometimes.”
Their return to form is the most reassuring element of a game in which two of Siemian’s interceptions were haphazardly lobbed directly to Chiefs defenders (Peters and Kenneth Acker) and the third (on an athletic grab by Ron Parker) was forced downfield when he easily could have run for a first down.
Simply put, the Chiefs defense takes on an entirely different complexion with a healthy Houston and healthier Johnson.
Afterward, Houston also would say the defense had been uptight the last few weeks and “playing separate” from each other.
A breakdown in communication, he said, got fixed in the meeting room.
Fixed, of course, is the operative term here.
It remains to be seen how this will play out in the long haul.
But this at least primed the pump on how the Chiefs defense wants to play and reminded how it’s capable of playing — including both being a catalyst and susceptible to struggling against the run.
That will make for a different challenge against offenses that aren’t like the Broncos, among the lowest-scoring (24th), most turnover-prone (25th) and sack-allowing (25th) in the NFL.
“Tonight was a night when we created moments of momentum,” Johnson said.
And with that, the sense of a fresh start to work from and reason to hope for better ahead — which sure beats the trajectory it had been on.