KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs’ run defense apparently took the outside world by surprise in the AFC Championship Game.
Kansas City was supposed to struggle to stop Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, who had rushed for more than 180 yards in an NFL record three consecutive games.
The last two games before managing on 69 yards on 19 carries Sunday against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium came in upset road victories against the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and top-seeded Baltimore Ravens.
More of the same was expected against Kansas City, whose defense got gashed by Henry for 188 yards in a loss at Tennessee in November.
But the Chiefs’ defense found its legs, a stiffer spine against the run in the next seven — now eight games.
Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens said KC actually played well in the 35-32 loss in Nashville aside from a few plays.
Breakdowns in alignment and assignment allowed a few big plays, but the Chiefs’ defense never doubted it could be effective against the run.
“Stopping the run is stopping the run,” Hitchens said.
But the challenge against San Francisco on Feb. 2 in Super Bowl LIV in Miami may prove every bit as daunting as stopping Henry last week.
49ers running back Raheem Mostert carved up Green Bay’s defense for 220 yards and four touchdowns in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
“He ran like crazy,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We’ll have to get down and study him, get the blocking schemes down and all that. Our guys will do that. They’ll bear down on it.”
Hitchens said the way Kyle Shanahan’s offense moves players around and utilizes pre-snap motion, especially incorporating the fullback and tight ends, is different than most.
“We’ve got a lot of tape … and they’ve got a lot of tape on us too, but you can’t really compare [to other teams],” Hitchens said. “Every team is different.”
One thing that won’t be different in the defense’s mentality, fueled by defensive end Frank Clark’s emotion and tenacity, against the run.
“All we did different was line up and play with a different mindset …” Hitchens said of the improved performance given a second matchup with Henry. “As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be fine.”
The Chiefs won’t ignore a dangerous 49ers passing game.
Tight end George Kittle is among the NFL’s top tight ends and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has talented weapons at wide receiver in Emmanuel Sanders, who was acquired via midseason trade with Denver, and rookie Deebo Samuel.
“They also have a good quarterback who can throw the ball and good receivers and an All-Pro tight end,” Reid said. “There are a lot of variables to that offense that they can use as different weapons. Our guys will spend the time going over it and all that, studying it.”
If the defense can change one thing, though, it would be to eliminate the slow starts.
“For the third week in a row, we’ll try to get off to a better start,” Hitchens said said with a laugh. “We’re trying different things.”
Kansas City spotted the Houston Texans a 24-0 lead in the AFC Divisional Round and fell behind by 10 points in the first half against the Titans before quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the offense back — incredibly, by halftime, on both occasions.
But the defense would prefer not to put Mahomes and company in that position for Super Bowl LIV.
“We don’t want to be dependent,” Hitchens said. "We want to be a part of something, not dependent on it. Our job is to stop the run and get three-and-outs.”