What's Behind Chiefs' Defense Turnaround?

Photo: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs’ defense seems to have turned a corner over the last few weeks and it could not have come at a better time.

For one thing, quarterback Patrick Mahomes seems to have returned to looking like his former self after struggling with interceptions and hero ball over the first half of the season. For another, divisional rivals like the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders have begun to regress after the two teams had red-hot starts to the season. The Chiefs are back in familiar territory—first place in the AFC West—and don’t look like they’ll be giving that up for the rest of the season.

The Achilles heel for this Kansas City team for much of the season’s first nine weeks was its defense. The unit had allowed opponents to score over 30 points in each of their first five games, and they’d only held one team (Washington) to under 14 points in their first eight games. In the last three weeks, no team has scored more than 14 against the Chiefs’ defense. They held the Green Bay Packers to seven, though that didn’t feel as shocking with Aaron Rodgers out, but then the next week, the Raiders only scored 14. And then this Sunday, against a Cowboys team that boasted the NFL’s best scoring offense, the Chiefs allowed just nine points. It was the first time this season that the Cowboys were without a touchdown.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a late-season lockdown from Kansas City’s defense under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. In 2019, the Chiefs were off to a similarly shaky start defensively, allowing an average of just over 23 points per game in the first three months. Then in December and January, they allowed more than 16 points just once: the final game of the season against the Chargers.

A large part of Kansas City’s success on defense recently has been their ability to generate turnovers. After an opening five weeks of the season that included just four defensive takeaways, the Chiefs have produced almost three times as many, with 11 in the six weeks since.

A lot of that has to do with improved coverage in the secondary, and L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward showed off that great pass defense against Dallas. Each of them recorded three passes defended and an interception, with Ward’s pick happening in the end zone in one-on-one coverage against CeeDee Lamb.

Another huge factor has been the solid play from the defensive front, especially in the pass-rushing department. Head coach Andy Reid has cited the addition of Melvin Ingram a few weeks ago as a spark for the pass rush—and though he doesn’t yet have a sack, it’s not hard to see why. The three wins before Sunday’s game featured three of the Chiefs’ four best pass rush win rates of the season to that point. Against Dallas, that success began to show up on the stats sheet in some important categories.

The Kansas City pass rush wreaked havoc in their matchup with the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. The defense recorded 17 pressures on Dak Prescott, and it included a season-high five sacks allowed by Dallas’ offensive line.

Much of the credit for that success up front on Sunday belongs to defensive end Chris Jones. He recorded a career-best 3.5 sacks—more than half of the Chiefs’ total on the night—as well as eight pressures, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble, and a pass defended. Frank Clark was a monster as well, extending his streak to four games with at least four pressures, including a strip-sack and three QB hits.

The Kansas City defense seems to have turned a corner this year—similar to how they did in 2019—and it’s allowed the Chiefs to ride a four-game winning streak into their bye week. The defensive unit’s improvements have, in turn, taken pressure off the offense, which has struggled to find its footing consistency-wise so far this year. 

Already in first place entering the bye with four of their final six games against divisional opponents, Kansas City’s defense looks to be in prime position to help secure their sixth straight AFC West title.

Written By:

Jack McKessy

Staff Writer

Jack McKessy is a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism who grew up in Washington, D.C. As a student, he covered Northwestern’s football, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, and baseball teams. Previously, he was in charge of social media and contributed to both written and multimedia content creation for La Vida Baseball in Chicago. He has also assisted in the production of promotional content for the Big Ten Network. Jack initially joined the TDN team as an intern during the 2020 season. Now, he writes columns—primarily analysis of the New York Giants—and helps run TDN's YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.