With Tyreek Hill’s explosion for 268 all-purpose yards and Patrick Mahomes’ steady afternoon, the Chiefs’ defense had a decent margin for error Sunday afternoon.
The unit nearly used all of it in the fourth quarter of the steamy 38-28 win, allowing the Chargers to score on two of their final three possessions and pick up four consecutive first downs in the final series.
But the defense got the stop it needed with a third-down tackle of Melvin Gordon by linebacker Anthony Hitchens with a minute to go, ending the Chargers’ comeback back to secure the ninth consecutive victory over the franchise.
“I thought (the defense) had a lot of snaps in those first couple of series, just too much,” coach Andy Reid said. “We weren’t sustaining drives on offense. We’ve got to do a better job so we don’t get them in cardiac arrest early on a hot day like this. You’ve got to deal with that the first few months of the season. You’ve got to balance that out. I thought it possibly caught up to us a little bit. They were tired, too.”
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With the Chiefs’ arsenal of offensive weapons, it was almost a given that the Chiefs would score a lot of points. It was far from assumed, however, that the defense would prevent the Chargers from doing the same thing.
But for a while, that’s just what the unit did.
On a day when safety Eric Berry’s absence could’ve meant the Chiefs’ defense was dead on arrival, standout performances from Ron Parker, Dee Ford and Hitchens brought the unit to life.
The Chiefs opened up by forcing the Chargers’ offense off the field after three plays, and in two of the next three series, the Chiefs kept the Chargers to two field goals.
Ford, who had a quiet preseason and an injury-shortened 2017 campaign, came up big in the third series, bursting through the offensive line and drilling quarterback Philip Rivers for a six-yard loss as the Chargers faced third-and-long.
“I felt like I hadn’t played in a year,” Ford said. “There were a bunch of little technical things. Footwork, hands, couple missed tackles. Getting in a rhythm. ... Got to get back in game shape. And it was pretty hot out there. Just the little things. I’ve got a long way to go before I get to where I was. I still need to keep climbing.”
Even with the rust, Ford was electric in the first half, recording a sack and four quarterback hits.
While Ford’s sack was impressive, the hit on Rivers midway through the second quarter as the quarterback threw the Chargers’ first touchdown might’ve been even more impactful.
Right as Rivers got the ball out of his hands, Ford crashed into the 15-year veteran, putting him flat on his back before Austin Ekeler grabbed the touchdown over Hitchens.
“I thought Dee Ford did a nice job,” Reid said. “Dee had the one sack, but he was around the quarterback quite a bit.”
Parker, who rejoined the team from a brief stint with the Falcons less than a week ago, came up big in the third quarter.
With the Chargers methodically marching toward the end zone on the back of dynamic running back Melvin Gordon, Parker stepped up and intercepted Rivers’ pass intended for Keenan Allen. He tried to give the Chiefs better field position with a sizable return, but after review, he was ruled down by contact at the Chiefs’ 14-yard-line.
“I’d seen the route all week in practice,” said Parker, who had eight tackles. “I knew Philip wanted to hit 13 on the over route. So I just kept my eyes on him and I just break and made a play.
“I felt like I had the return. I should’ve scored. But good thing I didn’t because I’d get a touchdown and then I would’ve came all the way back.”
Even so, halting the the Chargers’ 60-yard, 5-minute drive in the red zone was a major victory for the Chiefs’ defense. Parker nearly did it again with 3 minutes to go in the game, pulling down Rivers’ pass before dropping it.
Though Parker’s presence helped the defense, the secondary still showed cracks at times.
Rivers hit wide receiver Travis Benjamin for a would-be touchdown strike in the end zone, but Benjamin dropped the ball. Cornerback Steven Nelson was supposed to cover him, but he got lost and was far away from Benjamin when he tried to haul in Rivers’ pass.
Early in the fourth quarter, Rivers hit a wide open Keenan Allen for a touchdown as Orlando Scandrick got faked out on a jab step early in Allen’s route.
Scandrick also gave up another late touchdown with five minutes left in the fourth quarter when he lost Tyrell Williams and Rivers hit him in the corner of the end zone to pull the game within two scores.
But when the defense faltered late, Hitchens, who led the team with 15 tackles, was there to seal the win. Having whittled a three-score lead down to just 10 points, Chargers were driving in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
On third-and-10, Gordon tried to break free after a short pass from Rivers. But Hitchens stopped him immediately for a loss of two yards, and the Chargers missed a 48-yard field goal attempt on the next play.
“Hitch is something special,” Parker said. “When I first came in, the guys told me from the first day I walked in the locker room they was like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna like him.’ I seen that today. I’ve been seeing that all week since we’ve been in practice. I think he did a good job, just being himself and playing football.”
Though it was far from perfect, the defense did enough to complement the solid performances from the offense and special teams and give the unit good momentum going into Pittsburgh next week.
“Any time it’s a new season and we come in, we start off like this, it’s a good feeling,” Parker said. “So you want to take the same energy and same vibe into game two and see where we can get.”