Sam Mellinger

Injured and ineffective: The Chiefs’ defense and the proper level of worry

Andy Reid breaks down Chiefs’ 28-14 preseason win against Falcons

Andy Reid was pleased with his offense after the Chiefs' 28-14 win on Friday night in Atlanta. He breaks down what went right and what went wrong in a postgame interview.
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Andy Reid was pleased with his offense after the Chiefs' 28-14 win on Friday night in Atlanta. He breaks down what went right and what went wrong in a postgame interview.

An incomplete list of what we know about the 2018 Chiefs:

1. Their quarterback can throw it 70 yards off-balance without a tight spiral.

2. They have a receiver fast enough to make that throw more than a cool trick.

3. None of that matters if the defense actually stinks this bad.

The Chiefs are halfway through their preseason after a 28-14 win over the Falcons here on Friday. The primary story is and will be Patrick Mahomes, and that’s probably how it should be, because the Chiefs have never had a quarterback like him. Few teams have, if we’re honest.

But a team that’s won the AFC West two years in a row will be a fantasy football sideshow unless the defense shows significant improvement from what we’ve seen so far this preseason and all of last year.

“We’ve got to get better in some areas,” coach Andy Reid said. “Guys are still working their way through some things. We have a few mistakes in there we have to clean up. Wasn’t necessarily with the veteran players, but we need to clean it up.”

There’s a lot to parse through in that quote, starting with the fact that when Reid says “we’ve got to get better in some areas,” it’s code for OMG THAT WAS AWFUL WOULD IT KILL THESE GUYS TO GET A LITTLE PASS RUSH?

The last part of the quote is important, too, because the expectation is that the group that’s played the role of the starters so far in the preseason is significantly different than the one that will play week one against the Chargers.

This is a Next Man Up league, so talk of injuries is always at least a little bit of an excuse, but here with this team at this point it’s more of an explanation.

Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann on his interception return for a touchdown against Falcons in preseason game.

Eric Berry, Reggie Ragland, Anthony Hitchens and Allen Bailey did not play in Atlanta. That’s the bulk of the middle of the defense. Also, Justin Houston played just one series, and Steven Nelson suffered an early concussion.

So, you can take the optimist’s view if you want.

“Game one, guys are going to be ready to go,” rookie linebacker Breeland Speaks said. “It’s just having faith in those guys, knowing those guys are out right now because they’re trying to get ready for game one.”

The results so far are rather atrocious. A week ago, Houston backup Brandon Weeden led touchdown drives of 36 and 71 yards. One was against the Chiefs’ starters, the other against the twos, and again, this was Brandon Weeden.

The Falcons did not score in their first preseason game but used the Chiefs as props for a highlight package, with touchdown drives of 65 and 74 yards. By the time the half was over, they had 241 yards and 14 first downs.

Those are the numbers. The details are worse — wide-open receivers, linebackers wiped out against the run and not even the faintest hint of a pass rush. What the Falcons wanted, the Falcons took.

The immediate takeaway from the game was a throw that no Chiefs quarterback has ever been able to make (and that no previous Chiefs receiver could’ve been fast enough to catch), but without a little resistance on defense Mahomes’ games are going to look like ... well, they’re going to look his games at Texas Tech.

Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill speaks with reporters after the team's 28-14 preseason win over the Falcons in Atlanta on Aug. 17, 2018. Hill caught a 69-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes with 17 seconds remaining in the first half.

Insane offense with highlights you watch later on your phone.

Inept defense that eventually eats away your football soul.

This is all concerning. But not yet to the point of panic, and not just because panic over anything in the preseason means you’ve lost your mind.

The defense hasn’t been all bad. Kendall Fuller is a star, and the young corners behind him are holding up well enough. Derrick Nnadi is a force, and the preseason has done nothing to squash the notion that Chris Jones might be a star.

Reid is making the point that injuries to starters mean accelerated development for backups, and that’s a little like spilling chili on yourself and deciding you wanted new pants anyway, but still. That could help, eventually.

But only if a) the starters are all healthy and b) that’s enough to drag one of the league’s worst defenses from last year closer to average, at least.

That’s entirely possible. The absence of both Ragland and Hitchens means most of what happens against the run is irrelevant to the team at full strength, and the 2017 season was a convincing case of how badly things can go without Berry.

But the case against being concerned about the defense right now is all hope, and no proof. Hope that everyone’s healthy, and hope that an inept group from a year ago can be turned around by the same coordinator.

The worry around Berry has to be heightened, and with Daniel Sorensen set to miss the first two months or so the Chiefs are already working at diminished capacity. It’s a young roster, so improvement could come quickly, but at the moment the film is full of mistakes — perhaps the most symbolic on Friday was Leon McQuay biting on a play-fake instead of holding his assignment, which allowed Atlanta’s Matt Schaub open space for a 6-yard run.

Berry will likely return to practice this week, and the hope is that he’ll play some in Chicago on Saturday. The inside linebackers are expected to be fine. Same with Allen Bailey. Those are all good indications, but at the moment two things are overshadowing.

Nobody can be sure if this is even an average unit when healthy, and in the meantime, we’re seeing they probably need to be totally healthy to have a chance.

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