By Matt Derrick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Four days after a disappointing loss at Arrowhead Stadium to Houston, the Chiefs get right back into action with a visit to Denver to take on the Broncos. If safety Tyrann Mathieu had his way, he would have played a doubleheader on Sunday to erase the bad memories from the 31-24 setback to the Texans.
“If we lose another game, that won’t be pretty for us,” Mathieu said. “To go out Thursday against a division opponent, a good football team, primetime, that’s like the perfect opportunity to get a bad taste out of your mouth.”
The Chiefs bolted out of the gate with a quick 4-0 start behind a high-powered offense and suspect, yet good enough, defense.
But the last two losses followed a similar pattern – the Chiefs surrendered an early lead and entered halftime facing a deficit, unable to chip away in the second half as teams controlled the clock to keep the Chiefs’ sports car offense in the garage.
The Chiefs hoped this season to ditch the bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy of the past. Statistically thus far under Steve Spagnuolo the defense looks different, but that hasn’t translated into better.
A year ago the club ranked 31st in the league in allowing 405.5 yards per game. This year’s team allowed 406.2 yards per game through the first six weeks, ranking 28th.
The defense took divergent paths in arriving at those numbers. Last year’s edition of the Chiefs ranked No. 31 against the pass, yielding 273.4 yards per game. This season’s squad yields 244.3 yards per game, good for 19th in the league.
But it’s on the ground where the 2019 Chiefs struggle to find answers. Teams are rushing for 161.8 yards per game on the Chiefs, ranking 30th in the league.
“There’s just one area that we don’t feel great about, and it’s in stopping the run obviously,” Spagnuolo said.
The Chiefs tried to reverse course by turning up the intensity early in downs against the Texans, he said. The Chiefs built a 17-3 lead in the first quarter while forcing a turnover and holding the Texans to just 65 yards of offense.
“The opening calls in (that) game, they were running plays, so they don’t look like blitzes to you, but they actually were,” Spagnuolo said. “So there were more aggressive, downhill calls in there.”
Their third-down defense remains a concern, with the Chiefs ranking 17th in allowing first downs at 40.8 percent clip, down slightly from 41.5 percent last season. But there are two other metrics key for the Chiefs defense.
Their red zone defense has been stout, ranking seventh in the league with a touchdown percentage of 50 percent. Last year the Chiefs allowed red zone touchdowns at a rate of 72.4 percent.
But the Chiefs are allowing 25.8 first downs per game, dead last in the league. They allowed an average of 29.7 first downs in their last three games. They were dead last in 2018 as well, allowing 26.1 per game.
Explosive run plays on early downs and have led to the Chiefs giving up too many conversions on first and second down and giving teams easy conversions on third down.
“That’s what’s frustrating,” Spagnuolo said. “We take a lot of pride as a group in our third-down package that we’ll put together every week because you need to get stops. But you got to get them into those third downs, and you want to get them into unmanageable third downs from their perspective. But we haven’t done that quite as good as we want to.”
But how do the Chiefs fix the run defense woes? There’s not much an NFL team can do to change a team’s physical nature during the season, but attitude and mindset can, Spagnuolo believes.
“You can’t live tackle (in practice), we’re not in pads, the whole thing,” Spagnuolo said. “But for what it is we can do, they’re doing it and more. They care about it. I can work with guys like that. They care, they’re passionate, they hurt as much as anybody, the want to get it fixed. Sometimes it takes a little while.”
Mathieu said he sees a mindset in his teammates necessary to right the ship.
“I think everybody still believes the kind of team that we are,” Mathieu said. “A lot of guys are going to be embrace this moment of just having that adversity, be able to hear what people are saying and then rewrite the story.”
Rewriting the story means focusing on what the players can control, he argues – “technique, fundamentals, things that you can easily forget from play to play,” he says.
“I think the scheme works. I think we play in a scheme were all 11 guys have to believe in the play call. We can continue to get better with that. I think things will take care of themselves.”
Spagnuolo expects the Broncos to emulate the game plan the Colts and Texans used to great success the past two weeks. The Broncos have averaged 120 yards rushing their past three games behind Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman.
“It’s a short week, I’m sure Denver will look at the film and try to do the same thing,” Spagnuolo said. “So until we stop it, we’re going to see it.”
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.