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‘No one’s in panic mode’: Chiefs vow to improve run defense

Week 13
Posted at 4:04 PM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 17:04:23-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No team in the NFL has been worse against the run through two games in 2021 than the Kansas City Chiefs, and it’s not particularly close.

The numbers are concerning — an NFL-worst 202 yards rushing allowed per game, an NFL-worst 6.0 yards per carry, an NFL-worst seven rushing touchdowns allowed, which is four more than any other team.

The Chiefs recognize it’s a problem but also recognize there’s time to get better.

“No one’s in panic mode,” linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “It’s week 2 of a very long season, so we’re just trusting and continuing working. We can’t just throw the season away after two weeks. There’s a lot of games to be played and a lot of plays to be made.”

Advanced metrics also judge the Chiefs’ run defense exceptionally harshly, including a -21.2 expected points contributed, according to Pro Football Reference. That’s 13 points worse than the next closest team.

But those aren’t the numbers upon which Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is focused on after Kansas City opened 2021 with a comeback win over the Cleveland Browns and a Sunday night loss at Baltimore, a game in which the Chiefs blew a 35-24 lead.

“It’s never good, and we know this as a defense, to give up 36 points,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s hard to win games when you give up (that many points). And our focus is always on points allowed. To us, that’s always the most important thing.”

Still, to reverse the trend — Kansas City ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 32.5 points through two games — stopping the run is paramount.

“We played the two best run teams in the league back-to-back,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We need to do better, and that is the bottom line. The way that I see it, we need to make sure that we tackle when given the opportunity and then get off blocks. Those are the two primary things.”

It’s true, the Ravens and Browns ranked first and third, respectively, in rushing offense last season. They rank first and third again through two games this season.

But an inability to tackle can tank any defense.

“We need to do better,” Reid said. “That’s the bottom line. ... These are things we can control. We’ve just got to get in the right mindset to do so.”

It also comes down to execution.

“This is assignment football,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said Sunday after the loss to the Ravens. “It really doesn’t matter what defense you play on. It all comes down to assignments and from there it’s execution. It really just wasn’t our best effort defensively tonight.”

Some of the struggles center on fundamentals.

That includes “not being so cautious, rallying to the ball, narrowing space for runners,” Reid said. ”When you’re being blocked, shedding and then wrapping up. All of those are important things, but some of it’s a mindset that you just have to take care of.”

Other aspects come down to the players’ comfort with the scheme.

Several key defensive players are new to the team or have switched positions — defensive end Chris Jones is in a new position, while defensive tackle Jarran Reed, cornerback Mike Hughes and linebacker Nick Bolton are in their first season with Kansas City.

Second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr., who turned heads in training camp, also remains sidelined with a toe injury, while veterans Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark missed the opener against Cleveland.

Still, the Chiefs’ defense isn’t making excuses and vows to improve.

“Every now and then you need a (butt)-whooping,” Mathieu said. “I think our team responds best when we get punched in the mouth and we’re not able to recover from it. So, we’ve got some great coaches, we’ve got great leadership and I just looking forward to seeing us turn the page.”

Spagnuolo said the defense responded well in meetings Tuesday and at practice Wednesday. He hopes that those meetings will translate in the noon kickoff Sunday against the AFC West rival Los Angeles Chargers on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

“Our guys have been down this road before,” Spagnuolo said. “We were here in 2019. Then, somewhere along the way, we went 16 points, three points, three points. I don’t know what the other stats were, but I know what the points were. That’s what we want to do.”

The defense that season gave up 180 rushing yards or more five times in the first 10 games, but didn’t give up more than 122 yards in the next games before Super Bowl LIV.

San Francisco rushed for 141 yards, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Chiefs that Sunday in Miami.

“Obviously, we haven’t been playing our best in run defense, but we haven’t in past years and we’ve flipped it around” Hitchens said. “...We’re just chasing improvement, trying to get better in every aspect as a player and as a group.”

The “4th & 1” podcast is the twice-weekly, Chiefs-centric podcast from KSHB 41, the official broadcast “Home of the Chiefs.” Co-hosts Nick Jacobs and Tod Palmer analyze and breakdown the Chiefs’ opponent and performance for pre- and post-game episodes — available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or your preferred podcast platform — each week during the season.