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The Chiefs Defense Is a Problem—for Real This Time

The Mahomes-era Chiefs have always had a better offense than defense, but this season Kansas City has fielded the worst defense in the league by a significant margin. It could have a big impact on their championship aspirations.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If I told you that the Chiefs offense is good, and that the Chiefs defense is bad, you’d just tell me it was 2019. Or 2020. You know—the years the Chiefs went to the Super Bowl. That’s just sportswriters hunting the next wave in a yearly cycle of overreaction and correction.

So I’m here to tell you that the Chiefs offense is good, and the Chiefs defense is really bad. Bad enough that it could derail the team’s Super Bowl aspirations.

Let’s start by establishing the scale. The Chiefs defense is allowing a first down on 41.6 percent of their plays, which is markedly above the next worst (Philadelphia, 37.6 percent). Last year’s worst defense, Detroit, was at 38.9 percent. Kansas City has allowed 3.34 points per drive—in other words, the moment a team successfully fields a kickoff against the Chiefs, they’re scoring more than a field goal. Next worst this season is the Washington Football Team at 2.95 points per drive; last season, it was again the Lions, at 2.98 points per drive. The last punt Kansas City forced was around 2 p.m. Central Time two Sundays ago.

We could do this for a while. The Chiefs are allowing the most yards per drive in the league, the highest third-down conversion percentage (by almost 10 percentage points!), and the second-most points per game, behind only the debacle underway in Atlanta. Suffice to say that the Chiefs are on pace to be the league’s worst defense this season.

They’re also on pace to be one of the best offenses this season. Despite having fewer drives than any other team in the league, the Chiefs are still tied for second in points per game, at 33.5. It’s taking impossible efficiency to pull that off. Their 6.9 yards per play is up half a yard from last season’s number; their absurd 3.56 points per drive outpaces last year’s figure (2.74) by almost a full point. And all of this with seven turnovers this season—only the Jaguars have turned the ball over on a greater percentage of their offensive drives. The Chiefs’ scoring ability is not just unparalleled. It’s unsustainable.

Something’s gotta give—and in this case, it’ll likely be both things. The Chiefs offense is on a stratospheric trajectory, and regression to the mean will be impossible to fend off; but the Chiefs defense, which has faced some really solid offenses, will likely get a little better as well.

Head coach Andy Reid is hoping for help with the return of defensive end Frank Clark. He missed the first game of the season with a hamstring injury, played 70 percent of the snaps in Week 2, and missed the next two games with a new hamstring injury in the other leg. But it’s not clear how important Clark is to the Kansas City defense. He led the team in sacks in 2020, but was a league-average pass rusher by win rate and pass rush productivity, as measured by PFF. The player tagged as his replacement, Mike Danna, has been one of the bright spots on the Chiefs defense to this point.

Perhaps the more critical injury is the one to linebacker Willie Gay Jr., the Chiefs’ second-round draft pick in 2020, who is currently on injured reserve after suffering a toe injury in preseason. Gay was thrust into key snaps by the absence of Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson late in the season. Wilson is no longer with the team; Hitchens has been playing all three downs, with a rotation of veteran Ben Niemann and rookie Nick Bolton behind him. It has been really, really rough.

Bolton, the team’s second-round pick, was a fun and physical player with the Missouri Tigers, but his testing revealed below-average quickness and explosiveness for his (also below-average) size—not a model for succeeding in the NFL. Through the first few weeks of the season, Bolton’s been challenged by even average NFL running backs in space and has struggled mightily to get off of blocks.

Niemann has been just as rough. While he’s bigger, he’s not that better of an athlete, and he struggles to identify where offenses want to go and how they want to get there. Even when he arrives on time, he does not like contact and doesn’t bring down runners with consistency.

Gay isn’t clearly much better than Bolton or Niemann—there’s a reason Niemann out-snapped him for much of last season—but he at least offers something different. Linebacker is an underappreciated area of defensive structure, as macroanalyses of defensive success usually focus on pass rush and downfield coverage. But for a defense living in the bargain bin at those positions, linebacker play suddenly becomes really important.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has never invested heavily in good pass rushers. The Chiefs were top-10 in blitz rate in 2020, and look to generate disruption by sending rushers from depth. In the defensive backfield, the Chiefs largely line up and play man coverage—and with a deficiency at corner, they’re suffering for it. Kansas City is giving up the third-most receiving yards per game to WR1s on the outside, but they’re also surrendering the most to tight ends and the fifth most to running backs—the positions covered by linebackers.

All of this puts the Chiefs defense in a mighty tricky spot for their upcoming game against the Buffalo Bills—a game that suddenly matters a ton for the cellar-dwelling Chiefs in a competitive AFC West. The Bills are tremendously pass-happy, and they’ve been diversifying their portfolio in recent weeks. Tight end Dawson Knox matched his career high in targets with eight last week, and has caught four touchdowns in the last three games; wide receiver Stefon Diggs is tied for sixth in the league in total targets with 42, and the Chiefs’ best hope of matching him on the outside is currently Mike Hughes, Diggs’s old teammate in Minnesota, who has started just eight games across four seasons.

Buffalo’s offense has been on a tear in recent weeks, righting the ship after a worrisome 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. That was a game in which the Steelers barely blitzed the Bills, yet still generated oodles of pressure; the Chiefs are blitzing (30.3 percent) more often than they’re getting pressure (26.5 percent), so the same game plan won’t work for them.

There’s no schematic answer here, no button to push. Spagnuolo is a legit defensive coordinator, but there’s only so much chicken salad you can make out of a depleted roster. We’d like to pretend there’s a selection of magic wands, dragon heartstring, and phoenix feathers in Ollivander’s shop that can be selected and waved to solve the various problems of NFL defenses—but there isn’t. Not when talent is so sorely lacking.

There’s an argument to be made that the Chiefs offense is so good that none of this will matter—and I won’t stand in the way of that. Despite their defense, they’re 2-2, and had win percentage likelihoods over 50 percent (per ESPN) in the final three minutes of both of their losses. But those games were tight, just as their win over the Browns was—just as their first three quarters against the Eagles were!—because the defense simply cannot buy a stop. They haven’t against an average offense or against playoff offenses; against their primary AFC contender, the Bills, it’s hard to imagine they’ll do any better. This will be a high-scoring affair, and while the Chiefs have won plenty of those, it’s tough to win enough, all in a row, to get through the playoffs. Kansas City sure will be a dangerous draw come January, but if it doesn’t solve its defensive problems quickly, the losses could pile up. The precious first-round bye and homefield advantage will be lost. That playoff run will get ever trickier, and those small margins for a legendary offense will get ever smaller.