Sam Mellinger

Judging the Chiefs’ defense with film, stats and insight from the men involved

The subplot is among the most interesting in the NFL this year, even as it’s overshadowed by the league’s funnest and most spectacular show. It will ultimately be one of the most consequential storylines in recent Kansas City sports history and we’re only beginning to see it form.

This is about the Chiefs’ attempt to field a defense good enough to be dragged to the Super Bowl by Patrick Mahomes’ generational gifts, and we’ll get to that soon, but first a series of facts to set the scene.

1. The Chiefs could use a cornerback, even with Morris Claiborne set to come off his suspension next week.

2. The Chiefs will be calling on any cornerback made available through trade, whether it’s Jalen Ramsey or Patrick Peterson or anyone else.

3. In the last month the Chiefs have traded a cornerback (Mark Fields), cut a cornerback (Tremon Smith, who is now with the Packers) and lost a cornerback off their practice squad (Torry McTyer, picked up by the Dolphins).

The point: Everything is relative. The Chiefs need cornerbacks, but so does virtually everyone else. Some need them even worse.

This is important to keep in mind. The standard is not perfection, or even to be among the league’s best. Mahomes and the offense are so effective that even a league-average defense would probably be good enough for a parade.

Some encouraging notes: Pro Football Focus rates Kendall Fuller and Charvarius Ward among the best 31 cornerbacks in both coverage and tackling. The Chiefs rank ninth overall in coverage, and only two interior linemen have pressured the quarterback more often than Chris Jones. The Chiefs are league average or better in points allowed, turnovers forced, yards per pass attempt against and Football Outsiders’ pass defense metric.

Some discouraging notes: The Chiefs are simply awful against the run. Their 6.2 yards per carry allowed is 15 percent worse than anyone else’s. Only five teams have committed more penalties, and only seven have allowed more first downs. After leading the league in sacks last year, the Chiefs are currently tied for 16th and rank 25th in hits.

The Chiefs appear improved from a year ago both in terms of statistics (14th and 24th in points and yards, respectively, after ranking 24th and 31st last year) and the eye test (their coverage against the Ravens was as good as any game in recent memory).

So the group remains something of a Rorschach test, but as we approach the season’s quarter pole the picture should begin to come into focus.

“There’s growth there, there’s progress,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “We’re still trying to figure out what it is we do best, and who fits where. There’s still a little bit of that going on.”

A trip through the locker room revealed a common theme.

From Tyrann Mathieu: “We do some great things within the game. We just have to start faster and finish way better.”

Anthony Hitchens: “We’ve shown good quarters, or good halves, but we haven’t put a full game together.

Alex Okafor: “We’ve definitely started the evolution. It shows in glimpses on film. We have really good halves or really good quarters, and then those spots where we took off the gas a little bit.”

Told that was strikingly similar to the diagnosis from his teammates, Okafor responded simply: “That’s what the film shows. Everybody can see it, man. That’s what the film shows.”

Roll the tape

OK, the film. A general narrative does develop through study of all three of the Chiefs’ games this season.

The clearest place of improvement is with communication. The Chiefs gave up some big gains (and some smaller ones) against Jacksonville through simple miscommunication. Those were all but eliminated against the Ravens, whose big gains came mostly from missed tackles and two key passes when cornerbacks in position did not make the play.

The tackling must improve — and, to be fair, it had been better the first two weeks.

The hope is that those missed opportunities with balls in the air will be converted. Particularly with the dynamism of the Chiefs’ offense, creating more turnovers and capitalizing on opposing teams’ desperation to keep up is the defense’s clearest path to shedding its reputation for underperformance.

The 1999 Rams and 2009 Saints might be the best precedents for Super Bowl winners powered by dominant offenses, and both finished in the top six in turnovers forced.

Here, two plays from the win over the Ravens are instructive. The first came after the two-minute warning in the first half, on a first-and-10.

The Chiefs showed Cover 2 pre-snap, with Mathieu and Juan Thornhill deep. Mathieu was on the offense’s left, with just one receiver on that side. He read Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s eyes, which stayed in the middle of the field. Mathieu jumped the underneath throw to the tight end, breaking the pass up and missing what would’ve been a pick-six by a blink.

“I just knew they were coming,” Mathieu said. “I’m just mad at myself for not coming through with it.”

The second example came midway through the fourth quarter, on a second-and-10 from Kansas City’s 16. The Chiefs set in zone coverage, and at the snap Mathieu had Ravens receiver Seth Roberts. Again, he appeared to read Jackson’s eyes and slipped off Roberts for tight end Hayden Hurst on a slant toward the goal line.

Mathieu’s read was perfect. He dove for the interception in the end zone, but the ball bounced off his hands. It would’ve been a terrific catch, but after the game he texted Spagnuolo to essentially apologize — he expects to make that play, and knows his teammates do, too.

“Instinctively, that’s what you were talking about,” Spagnuolo said. “I did think that was an instinctive play. And normally, he just plucks that thing and catches it.”

These two plays are worth highlighting for at least three reasons.

  • Mathieu was given a lot of freedom against the Ravens. Most of that came from Spagnuolo wanting to limit Jackson’s scrambling, but it was also an indication of Mathieu’s potential to create big plays for the Chiefs and limit big plays for the opposition.
  • If Mathieu makes either of those plays, the structure of the game changes dramatically. A pick-six would’ve likely put the Chiefs up 30-6 at halftime. An interception on the second play would’ve given the Chiefs the ball with an 11-point lead and about 7:30 left.
  • There is every reason to believe those plays will be made more often as the scheme and personnel grow a mutual comfort.

That’s an important point, too. Spagnuolo’s priorities and scheme are a big departure from previous coordinator Bob Sutton. That’s often shorthanded into the switch from a 3-4 base front to a 4-3, but there’s a lot more to it — more stunts, different assignments for the linebackers, different rushing lanes for the linemen, etc. And that’s just for the front.

“In the past, it’s just been a lot of off coverage,” defensive backs coach Sam Madison said. “That’s not the way coach Spagnuolo plays. He likes to be in your face, knocking off the timing of the route, and that allows us to get pressure onto the quarterback.”

About Frank Clark ...

That pressure is an important part of this, too, which is when we mention Frank Clark’s name. His contract is worth $62 million guaranteed in exchange for consistent harassment of quarterbacks.

The defensive end had a terrific sack on a key third down in the fourth quarter to force a field goal against the Ravens (more on that in a minute) but has pressured the quarterback just five times in three games, according to Pro Football Focus.

Coaches and players believe he’s among those who will benefit from more comfort in the scheme, and while the company line about Clark being doubled every snap is exaggerated, it is a point worth mentioning.

The Ravens doubled, chipped or rolled away from Clark on more than half of their dropbacks.

To illustrate the difference, compare Clark’s sack with one from Emmanuel Ogbah. Clark rushes hard upfield, but maintains the awareness to avoid the running back’s chip. He then plants and uses his hands to spin off the right tackle and into Jackson, who appeared to begin a scramble.

On his sack, Ogbah is left unblocked as the Ravens sent their linemen, teased a play-action to the other side, and the tight end picked up Mathieu’s blitz.

Ogbah deserves full credit, because it’s still a difficult play: He has to read the action and then corral the NFL’s most elusive quarterback. But, still. It’s a different play than those Clark is asked to make, a workload that in theory will open more opportunities for teammates.

Similarly, Jones is showing himself to be the defense’s alpha so far, at least up front. He’s drawing doubles and chips and still pressuring the quarterback.

This is a good time to pay particular attention to the defense, and not just because the Chiefs will complete the first quarter of their regular season this weekend.

The feeling within the organization has always been that this retooled defense would need a month or so to take traction — for the players to better understand the scheme, and for Spagnuolo to better understand the particular strengths and tendencies of his players.

That process is likely lengthened by a training camp in which the defense is practicing against a unique offense, and on some levels it will be ongoing throughout the season. In the NFL, like many businesses, you’re either getting better or falling behind.

One trend is beginning to materialize, and it’s one that people often miss with this defense. Yes, the front office will be aggressive in adding a cornerback.

But the model they’ve always used is the one best illustrated by the Eagles’ Super Bowl winner two years ago. That team had shaky corners, solid safeties and relentless aggression and endless depth up front.

Again, the Chiefs will continue to look for opportunities with cornerbacks. But the group they have now can work.

The goals mentioned around the locker room are somewhat generic: They want to eliminate mental errors, close games better, be tougher against the run, build a reputation for being physical and make big plays.

Those are, basically, priorities for every defense. And maybe that’s sort of the point, because if the Chiefs can perform like a typical NFL defense they will play deep into the playoffs.

Three games in, you can see the moments that make them believe. Those moments need to happen more often, but the pieces are in place to be at least an average defense — with or without another cornerback.

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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.