Why the Chiefs’ third preseason game matters most to the defense

Tyrann Mathieu jumped the route on the practice field in the shadow of the Chiefs’ indoor facility.

The safety snagged Chase Litton’s pass with one hand, hauling it in even as the ball briefly bounced in his grasp. It was his second one-handed practice interception in as many days. But as he comes back from a minor shoulder injury suffered against Pittsburgh, Mathieu may not be taking those plays to Arrowhead Stadium for Saturday’s third preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers.

“I’m being a little bit cautious with that,” Reid said. “Getting him ready for the season, we’ll see about Saturday night. He might be a guy that we end up sitting down on Saturday night.”

And that might be a slight problem.

The third preseason game, often considered the most important because it’s when most of the starters play, is the last chance for the starters in Steve Spagnuolo’s overhauled defense to get on the same page before the games really matter.

The defense showed improvement in the preseason loss to the Steelers, but the entire starting corps only played together for a handful of snaps before Mathieu exited early.

“The group that we envision to be out there for a lot of snaps against Jacksonville, haven’t had a lot of snaps in a game situation,” Spagnuolo said. “So, there’s a little concern there, but if we can get all of those guys out there Saturday night, it’ll be about chemistry, it’ll be about communication. How they react with each other.”

For Spagnuolo, the best thing his group can experience is a little adversity. It may not come against the 49ers, though, as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo arrives in KC looking for a rebound performance after a dismal showing against Denver that saw him complete one of six attempts for no yards with an interception and another pass dropped by a defender.

Against Pittsburgh, the Chiefs’ starting defensive unit forced a three-and-out on the Steelers’ first drive. A week earlier, they looked to have forced a fumble on the second play of the Cincinnati Bengals’ opening drive, but it was overturned on review. When the defense came back on the field, many of the starters had already been rotated out, and Cincinnati responded with a long march to a touchdown.

“This may sound strange, but I’m always looking for an adverse situation in these games so we can see how guys will react on the sidelines to some adversity,” Spagnuolo said. “We’ve had a little bit of it but not nearly what it will be like in the season. Hopefully we get a little bit of that and the guys can show they’re willing to stick together, be accountable and move forward.”

Spagnuolo wants his guys to fight through more adversity, and defensive end Frank Clark has an idea of how he wants to do it.

“I say we want to have more fun out there,” Clark said. “Last week was a start, that first or second drive, we gave a glimpse of our first defense and how we want to play, but we want everybody else to come along too. Our second team, our thirds, people who you want to look at down the road who you want to use in games. Those guys got to step it up too.

“You want to see some more exciting plays. We’re going to play a little bit longer, so y’all are going to see us on the field a little bit more.”

Against Pittsburgh, Mathieu played only two snaps before his injury. A week before, he also played two snaps. Clark didn’t play at all against the Bengals and played eight snaps a week ago. Fellow starting defensive end Alex Okafor and defensive tackle Chris Jones also played eight snaps against the Steelers.

Most of the starters, including Clark, Okafor and Jones are all expected to play against the 49ers. But the defense will likely be without some depth guys like defensive lineman Breeland Speaks, who hasn’t practiced with a knee injury sustained in Pittsburgh.

Cornerback Mo Claiborne, who hasn’t played in a preseason game, may get his first action Saturday. Getting on the field is paramount for Claiborne, who will miss the first four games of the season with a suspension.

While the defensive players have made strides in implementing and getting comfortable in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 system, they’re still not where they want to be for the season opener in Jacksonville. And for that reason, Clark is grateful for the final two preseason games.

“We’ve got to fine-tune a few more things, throw some plays out, add some new plays, you know how it goes,” he said. “We’ve got two more weeks. We’re still in training camp. We went home, but we still in training camp. So we still fine-tuning everything. These next three weeks are pivotal.”

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.