KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The good news is that the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense finally kept an opposing offense out of the end zone during a drive into the red zone.
The bad news is that Cleveland, Baltimore and the Los Angeles Chargers have combined to score touchdowns on 12 of 13 red-zone trips against the Chiefs’ D so far in 2021.
Kansas City ranked dead last in red-zone defense last season and made improving in that area an offseason priority.
“That was our goal this year was to get better, so that’s a little frustrating,” said linebacker Anthony Hitchens. “We’ve been focusing on that all offseason, OTAs and camp. Three straight games, teams are scoring seven down there.”
Hitchens described each time the defense fails to force a field-goal try as a four-point swing for the opponent. He understands the momentum gained or lost when a team finds the end zone or doesn’t.
Hitchens said the Chargers hustled in some late substitutions on two of the red-zone touchdowns allowed Sunday during a 30-24 loss on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
“The rule is we should be able to sub, right?” Hitchens said. “Obviously, they didn’t see that part. They subbed real quick and didn’t give us a chance to sub, so by the time we did a lot of guys weren’t on the same page.”
Hitchens took responsibility, noting that he makes the calls for Kansas City’s defense on the field.
“I’ll be the first one to say I’ll be better in the future, getting my guys ready in the red zone quicker and anticipating. Once teams see this, they’re going to just copy cat. That’s what most teams do, so I’ll be ready next week if the Eagles come out fast.”
Still, it’s alarming that, after focusing on the red-zone struggles all offseason, the Chiefs have somehow gotten worse in those situations.
Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan got a lot of credit for the blocking schemes he cooked up in the season opener, while the Chiefs coaching staff blamed tackling and missed assignments for the issues against the Ravens.
The self-scouting and scouring of film for answers will continue, but it’s possible Kansas City just doesn’t have the personnel to succeed in the red zone — or, more generally, on defense.
That reduces the margin for error for an offense that has been highly error-prone during the first few weeks of the season. The Chiefs are now minus-2 on the season in turnovers, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ first three interceptions of his career in the month of September.
“You can’t just point at one [issue],” Hitchens said. “I can’t talk for other position groups. I’m not going to sit up here and say, ‘It’s DBs or D-line.’ As linebackers, we’ve got to continue to be down hill in the red zone and match our coverage a little tighter.”
But as long as the Chiefs are involved in close games — and Mahomes’ last 10 regular-season starts have all been decided by one score — every issue, including the offense’s turnovers and the defense’s red-zone struggles, will continue to be magnified.
“It is a little frustrating when it comes down to one possession every week and we don’t capitalize as a team,” Hitchens said. “We’ve just got to keep grinding away. The years before when we won the Super Bowl and went to the Super Bowl, we won those close games. That just shows you how small the margin is in the NFL.”
Three of Kansas City’s next four games — at Philadelphia (Oct. 3), vs. Buffalo (Oct. 10), at Washington (Oct. 17) and at Tennessee (Oct. 24) — are on the road, making the road back to the AFC West summit potentially rocky in the month ahead.
“We’ll be all right,” Hitchens said. “We’ll just go back and start grinding, get on this win streak and then all this stuff will be behind us.”