Vahe Gregorian

Once their Achilles’ heel, Chiefs defense emerges as an asset

Chiefs LB Justin Houston talks about key fumble recovery

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston talks about the key fumble recovery in the team's 31-13 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.
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Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston talks about the key fumble recovery in the team's 31-13 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.

In Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have a quarterback with such superhuman gifts he could look as comfortable in a cape as he did in that jorts and sleeveless T-Bones jersey combo he wore to the Kansas Speedway last summer.

Like any self-respecting otherworldly sort, though, his vast gifts came with a lurking dose of Kryptonite, perceived or otherwise. In this case, the Chiefs’ vulnerable defense has loomed all season as a threat to undermine the promise presented by Mahomes and extend a wretched era of playoff disasters.

But a crucial reason the Chiefs smothered Indianapolis 31-13 on Saturday to end a 25-year postseason victory drought at Arrowhead Stadium, was, in fact, a redemptive performance by the defense. And, dare we say, with it came some vindication of much-maligned defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.

Sutton “did a phenomenal job; he had a game plan and guys were all-in,” said coach Andy Reid, adding, “You could feel the energy all week.”

Who could argue otherwise Saturday? The Chiefs surrendered just one defensive touchdown, didn’t allow so much as a first down until the Colts’ last series of the first half, stymied the Colts nine out of nine times on third down and made perhaps the most pivotal play of the game by generating a turnover with Indy threatening from the Chiefs’ 20 after a Sammy Watkins fumble.

Two plays later, before fans could even go fetal, Dee Ford strip-sacked Andrew Luck and Justin Houston recovered.

An “attitude play,” Reid called it. “You look for that at as coaches and as a team. It rallies everyone.”

And it spoke to another sort of rally in itself.

When Houston said “don’t let the past poison your future” after the Chiefs beat Oakland 35-3 to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC, he was speaking about putting behind the brutal modern postseason history of the team.

But the point suddenly is applicable to both that and the emergence of a defense that had appeared relegated to the role of Achilles’ heel, particularly as Eric Berry’s heel has left him with almost no role at all this season.

Maybe nothing spoke to the flipped script like Reid’s opening assessment of the game. He was so ready to gush over the defense that his view of the other side of the ball sounded a bit like a polite afterthought: “The offense, I thought, did some good things too.”

While Mahomes didn’t throw a touchdown pass, the offense he led, of course, did many good things, including scoring 24 points in the first half to stake the Chiefs to a lead and adding a late touchdown to finally drive a stake through the team that had rallied from 28 down to beat the Chiefs in their last playoff meeting five years ago.

Maybe in the process that purged some of the fan angst that the Colts had helped cultivate with a 4-0 postseason record against Kansas City.

Now, some new realities are taking hold. Including the win over the Raiders and accounting for the special-teams touchdown Indianapolis scored by blocking a Dustin Colquitt punt, the Chiefs have given up nine points defensively in the last two games combined.

Even allowing for the fact the Raiders are woeful, it’s worth considering that they’d scored 33 points on the Chiefs in Oakland a few weeks before and that holding them to 30 points fewer said something about an improving defense. One that, in fact, had come through in key situations a number of times this season and finished the regular season tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 52.

Moreover, maybe there is something to this season-long trend to like going into the AFC title game next week: During the regular season, the Chiefs gave up 34.6 points a game on the road but only 18 a game at Arrowhead, where on Saturday their offense had 18 first downs before the Colts managed one.

Whether this holds up from here, of course, is a matter of conjecture, particularly considering the two potential opponents next week: The Patriots beat the Chiefs 43-40 early in the season, and the Chargers avenged their loss in the season opener by beating the Chiefs 29-28 at Arrowhead last month.

Part of trying to speculate about what might be ahead, though, hinges on how you see what’s happening now and why this unit appears to be peaking at the right time.

With Houston frequently dominant again and Ford and Chris Jones (three tipped passes) emerging as stars, with cornerback Kendall Fuller a stabilizing influence and Allen Bailey steadying things in the middle of the line, with rookie cornerback Charvarius Ward upgrading the position since replacing Orlando Scandrick, the group clearly is more in harmony than ever.

You could see it in the constant pressure it brought on Luck, who was sacked three times after only going down 18 times all season before Saturday. And you could see it in the defensive backs draped over his targets virtually all game.

“I think some of the young guys are maturing right in front of our eyes,” said Reid, also suggesting Anthony Hitchens and Daniel Sorensen have been factors. “I mean, I could go right through the list.”

Not on the list, at least publicly, is any fuel that might have come from being oft-scorned by media and fans. Reid reminded that the defense previously had been “uncanny” in coming through in a number of situations all season, whether with turnovers or sacks or a trend of third-down stops early on.

“The offense and defense, there has never been any division there, no finger pointing,” Reid said. “There’s none of that stuff on this team.”

Even when the defense has been perceived as the weak link.

“You now there’s going to be talking and whispering outside of the locker room; it doesn’t change who we are as a whole,” Houston said. “We’re a family.”

On Saturday, that meant a defense that that offense could be proud of and what might have seemed the most emotional win Houston had experienced as a Chief.

“No,” he said, smiling. “When we accomplish our goal, that will be the most emotional.”

With Mahomes, it’s a goal the defense now seems capable of helping the team reach instead of sabotaging.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.