Sam Mellinger

The next time we see the Chiefs, it’s the season opener. Here’s a preseason assessment

Andy Reid praises young players after final preseason game

Chiefs coach Andy Reid discusses the performance of his young players following the preseason finale in Green Bay. Reid was pleased with his quarterbacks, Kyle Shurmur and Chase Litton.
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Chiefs coach Andy Reid discusses the performance of his young players following the preseason finale in Green Bay. Reid was pleased with his quarterbacks, Kyle Shurmur and Chase Litton.

The temptation is to make fun of the absurdity of regular-season pomp for preseason slop. This was the Chiefs’ fourth preseason game, and if there is any common sense in the world, this will be the last time anyone plays a fourth preseason game.

The most notable news from this one, as it is for every preseason game, is that Patrick Mahomes remains healthy. The second most notable moment might’ve been his fairly impressive punt in pre-game warm-ups. After that, would you be interested in knowing that Harrison Butker was good from 62 yards in warm-ups without much wind?

The game was choppy, and some of the starters on the bench joined in with the crowd doing the wave in the first quarter. But let’s resist the temptation. Men who are the best players in their hometown’s history played the last game of their lives on Thursday, here and around the league.

This particular game was telling in other ways, too.

Running backs Darwin Thompson and Darrel Williams did not play, while Carlos Hyde was used heavily. This is as strong an indication as we could have that Thompson and Williams are the Chiefs’ Nos. 2 and 3 running backs while Hyde’s place on the team is uncertain.

Reggie Ragland, who finished second on the team in tackles last year, also played. He showed out well (which he should) and was playing the SAM spot in a bit of a roster crunch, but it was still an odd sight. He’s listed as a starter on the team’s official depth chart.

Morris Claiborne also showed well. That’s to be expected, but nothing’s guaranteed, and the Chiefs had to be encouraged with his most extensive action before he serves his suspension and rejoins the team for week five.

But the thing that stuck out the most is a thing that’s often easy to miss, or take for granted. The Chiefs tackled reliably and consistently, same as they’ve tackled reliably and consistently all preseason.

Maybe that sounds like a small thing, but do you remember last season? The Chiefs had plenty of problems defensively, so tackling was sometimes overlooked, but the Chiefs gave away too many yards, particularly within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

The Chiefs missed eight tackles in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, according to Pro Football Focus, and even with all the roster turnover seven of those misses were by players who are back.

Overall, PFF graded the Chiefs 17th in tackling last year.

In this preseason, PFF graded the Chiefs as first overall entering Thursday’s games.

Preseason disclaimers apply, but logically it would make sense that tackling might translate to the regular season. Game plans and scheme shouldn’t matter for something so basic.

The improvement with tackling is a reminder of the complications in judging the Chiefs’ defense. That group has been so bad the last two years that a full makeover was required. The burden of proof is theirs, and more than a good showing at Jacksonville next Sunday will be required to convince.

But if the tackling improvement carries over, it will be a different reminder. Football people often talk of tackling being about effort, focus and technique.

While never tied directly to tackling, each of those traits was criticized inside and outside of the organization at times last year.

Steve Spagnuolo’s hiring as defensive coordinator came with many reasons, but toward the top of the list was his energy and insistence that everyone be held accountable. That goes for players, but also coaches, and to each other.

Look, this may prove to be off-base. The preseason can lie, if you let it.

But the preseason is now officially over with Thursday’s game, and the most pressing questions were always about the defense. We know the offense will score, and score a lot. We saw what happens last year when the opposing offense scores, and scores a lot.

This Chiefs team isn’t perfect. The defense has holes, and some injuries have likely put its cohesion at least a little behind schedule. But the little stuff matters, too.

And especially in the context of a fourth preseason game, the Chiefs’ improvement in tackling is among the more encouraging signs that we haven’t talked much about yet.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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