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The Chiefs’ Issues Are Too Big for Even Patrick Mahomes to Cover

After a nightmare outing against the Titans on Sunday, Kansas City is continuing to trend downward—and the competition is only going to get tougher from here

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“We have a Hall of Fame head coach and the best player in the game in place. Basically, the two most important factors are in place. I view it as the ultimate stability. The beauty of this game is that that alone isn’t enough. … The pressure is always on to fill out depth on both sides of the football.”

That’s what Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark back in February, right before Kansas City lost to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV. At the time, most people would have said the 43-year-old executive was doing a pretty good job of that last part. Sure, the roster had its holes, but none had been big enough to slow down the offensive machine powered by Andy Reid’s play-calling genius and Patrick Mahomes’s quarterbacking wizardry. Veach was seemingly doing his part, and was just one win away from earning a second ring in his third season leading the front office.

Since that interview, though, the Chiefs have dropped five of eight (including that Super Bowl) and those minor holes now look like gaping wounds. Kansas City was first exposed against Tampa Bay—Mahomes famously spent the night running for his life behind a patchwork offensive line. And after an eye-opening 27-3 loss to the Titans on Sunday, things seem only to be getting worse.

The blame for Sunday’s loss can’t be put solely on the roster’s weak spots. Tennessee’s previously porous defense held Mahomes to 5.9 yards per attempt and a QBR of 6.0—easily the worst outing of Mahomes’s career—and it came just two weeks after the Bills held him to a similar stat line. Over the past three games, including a 31-point outing against Washington, the Chiefs have ranked 24th in offensive DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. The takeaway here isn’t that Reid and Mahomes have been figured out, though; it’s that the two can no longer mask the growing issues elsewhere on the roster.

The Chiefs didn’t decay overnight. The issues that were so abundantly clear against Buffalo and Tennessee have been festering under the surface for a while now. The defense is an obvious place to start. The Chiefs came into this week ranked 31st in defensive DVOA. Even more worrying: There isn’t one obvious point of weakness that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can try to coach around. Kansas City’s been equally bad against the pass and the run, ranking 31st in DVOA against both. In their Week 5 matchup with the Bills, the secondary blew enough coverages to put Tyrann Mathieu in a permanent state of confusion. And the front seven was pushed around by a mediocre Buffalo run game. Surprisingly enough, Derrick Henry had a bit more trouble finding room to run on Sunday—he averaged just 3 yards per carry—but the Chiefs had to load up the box to slow him, which opened up the play-action game for Ryan Tannehill. He completed 81.8 percent of his play-action passes and averaged 15.7 yards per attempt on those plays, according to Pro Football Focus.

The common theme in the two games: A lack of pressure on the quarterback. Kansas City pressured Tannehill and Josh Allen on only a combined 16 of 60 dropbacks, which is an easy way to lose football games. And it’s even more concerning considering the resources the Chiefs’ front office has poured into rebuilding the defensive line over the past four years. In his first draft as general manager in 2018, Veach used his first two picks on defensive linemen Breeland Speaks and Derrick Nnadi. Then, after sending first- and second-round picks to Seattle for Frank Clark the following spring, he used a Day 2 pick on defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. The cost of that Clark trade was even bigger than the package of picks, as Kansas City immediately gave him a new deal worth $104 million.

That acquisition finished off a complete reboot of the pass rush, which included the release of veteran star Justin Houston. That move made sense on paper: The Chiefs were swapping out the aging Houston for a younger player just entering his prime. But things haven’t worked out. Not only has Clark struggled when he’s been on the field this season, but also Houston has been the better pass rusher since the move.

Frank Clark vs. Justin Houston, Since 2019

Player Pass rush snaps Sacks Sack rate Pressures Pressure rate Total cap hit
Player Pass rush snaps Sacks Sack rate Pressures Pressure rate Total cap hit
Frank Clark 1,142 22 1.9% 125 10.9% $51.6 million
Justin Houston 1,053 24 2.3% 111 10.5% $26.1 million
Data via Pro Football Focus

Kansas City was so thin on the edge coming into this past offseason that it converted All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones to defensive end, thinking there was enough talent on the interior to make up for his loss there. It’s still too early to judge the move, as Jones has been in and out of the lineup, but the early returns are not promising. Jones hasn’t been the difference-maker he was as a penetrating 3-technique, and his replacements haven’t done much in his absence. The Chiefs rank in the bottom five in both pass rush win rate and run stop win rate, according to ESPN—the only other team in the bottom five in both categories is the Lions.

With the line struggling to do much of anything, the Chiefs’ long-standing issues at linebacker have been magnified. The position had been a problem before Veach took control of the front office, and he’s made some not insignificant investments to try to fix it. In his first full offseason in charge, Veach gave Anthony Hitchens a five-year deal worth $45 million. He’s also used three top-100 picks on Dorian O’Daniel, Willie Gay Jr., and Nick Bolton in the past four drafts. Against the Titans, Bolton seemed to be the only one who was interested in trying to tackle Henry, and while he was mostly good against the run, he got picked on in the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, the rookie out of Missouri was targeted in coverage eight times and surrendered seven receptions for 78 yards. It’s not hard to figure out where the Titans wanted to attack the Chiefs based on Tannehill’s passing chart from the game:

Veach’s investments in the front seven have not worked out, but he has found good value in the secondary without having to pay a hefty price. Yes, he splurged on Tyrann Mathieu, who is the star of the show, but he’s managed to fill in the blanks with good, cheap options. Cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton were Day 3 picks who turned into starting-caliber players. But those late-round hits are probably the result of luck rather than shrewd roster building. Draft performance in the later rounds is notoriously volatile year-to-year, so it’s not like the Chiefs can bank on finding these gems consistently.

It would be easier to write off Veach’s misses on defense if he had been better at building up the offense around Mahomes, but that hasn’t really been the case either. And it’s not for a lack of trying. One of Veach’s first big moves was signing Sammy Watkins to a $48 million deal, though he ended up being merely a role player during his time in Kansas City. The following offseason, Veach took Mecole Hardman in the second round and then used a first-round pick on Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2020. Neither player has carved out a consistent role in the offense. Then, this past spring, Veach rebuilt the troublesome offensive line by trading a package led by a first-rounder to Baltimore for Orlando Brown Jr. and a two future picks, and by making Joe Thuney the highest-paid guard in football. The big investments have not paid off. And outside of the Mathieu signing, the same can be said of all of Veach’s big swings.

Which brings us back to Mahomes and the offense. It was clear on Sunday that the Chiefs quarterback was trying a bit too hard to make plays after the Titans jumped out to a big lead. He admitted as much after the game. “I was just pressing a little bit too early in the game,” Mahomes said, via ESPN. “We kind of got down and we were in that kind of mode [of] no-huddle, which you don’t want to be in in the NFL. You can execute a little bit but it’s hard to sustain drives. I’ve just got to be better early in games so we don’t get behind like we did today. I have to be better in order for this offense to score points.”

Overall the offense is still moving the ball well—it’s just having a hard time finishing drives thanks to a league-worst turnover rate. Against the Titans, Mahomes turned the ball over twice and said after the game that his urgency to make a play led to the costly mistakes.

Mahomes isn’t going to publicly admit that he has no faith in the defense, but that’s what he seems to be saying if you read between the lines. It’s not like the Chiefs are uncomfortable playing from behind—spotting teams an early lead and quickly rallying has kind of been their thing over the past two years, going back to the postseason run that ended with a Super Bowl win after the 2019 season. But in the past, Spagnuolo had just enough talent at his disposal that his unit could be trusted to figure things out eventually. Not anymore. The defense is too big of an issue for even a half-billion-dollar quarterback to cover up.

As Mahomes says, he has to do a better job of taking what a defense gives him and not trying for a “14-point play,” as he puts it. But it’s hard to fault him for doing so when it feels like the Chiefs defense is giving up 14 points a drive. And with the way the offense is constructed—with no run game and only one real, reliable possession receiver in Travis Kelce—a dink-and-dunk approach isn’t really viable.

Veach has had four offseasons now to help build a roster capable of turning to a Plan B when defenses sell out to stop the deep ball, and he just hasn’t done it. Now Mahomes and Reid are left searching for answers in what’s starting to look like a lost season. Sitting at 3-4, the Chiefs are tied at the bottom of the AFC West, and their playoff and Super Bowl odds have dropped to 43 percent and 2 percent, respectively, according to FiveThirtyEight. Plus, Kansas City will take on three division leaders over the next month, including games against three of the hottest quarterbacks in the league in Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, and Aaron Rodgers. Not making the playoffs is starting to look like a real possibility in Kansas City. And with Mahomes under center, every season that doesn’t end in a title feels like a missed opportunity.