It is hard not to compare the current iteration of the Kansas City Chiefs to those of the past, especially the 2018 team.
Patrick Mahomes’ (full) debut season was a year of offensive explosion for the Chiefs. Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt (for half the year), and Travis Kelce were dynamic and lit the NFL ablaze. Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns.
The 2021 Chiefs offense, so far, has been better.
In that fateful 2018 Chiefs season, however, the defense was a weak point. The Bob Sutton-led unit could only hang its hat on ranking above the league average in sacks and takeaways. If the Chiefs' defense did not force a negative play, it was not stopping anyone. This was never more apparent than against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, when the Chiefs' defense couldn't stop the Patriots near the end of regulation and in overtime.
The 2021 Chiefs defense, so far, has been worse.
The good news is the Chiefs' offense is currently outpacing the best offense Mahomes has helmed. The Chiefs scored an NFL best 3.25 points per drive in 2018, which is a ton over the course of a long season. On average, when the Chiefs got the ball, they scored at least a field goal's worth of points on every drive. So far this year, they have bested that mark — and by a lot. The Chiefs’ 3.74 points per drive mark is not only 0.49 higher than that of the 2018 Chiefs, it is 0.55 higher than the next best team in the league.
Looking even further back, stacked up to the 2007 Patriots — an offense considered one of the best of all time — the 2007 Patriots still fall behind the 2021 Chiefs’ mark. Those Patriots finished the season at 3.37 points per drive.
This is not to say the Chiefs will continue this efficiency they have shown over the first quarter of the season. It will probably come down to around 2018 Chiefs levels. However, the reasons the offense has looked good seem to be sustainable.
I wrote about one of the evolutions of the Chiefs offense last week: a much-improved run game.
In nearly every conceivable metric, the Chiefs' rush offense has drastically improved. This will manifest itself in many ways over the course of the year but the Chiefs being more efficient in a part of the game that is played on 40% of offensive snaps will, of course, pay dividends. Add in the potential of Josh Gordon to that, and there are many reasons to think this year’s Chiefs offense will finish with similar or better efficiency than the 2018 offense.
That makes the defensive performance all the more frustrating.
For the last two years, all it took for Mahomes and the Chiefs to make the Super Bowl was a league-average defense. By DVOA, the defense ranked 14th and 22nd in 2019 and 2020, respectively. 2018? 27th. You can read about DVOA and what it means here.
Right now, the Chiefs' defense is dead last in the NFL and is historically bad.
While it is not the best to use DVOA to compare across seasons due to the opponent adjustment, it is still a stark reality seeing how bad the 2021 Chiefs defense has been compared to other years.
Much like the Chiefs' offense, however, this is probably set to regress back to somewhat of a normal as well. That is because this level of bad is hard to maintain and, hopefully, Steve Spagnuolo and the defensive side of the ball will figure some issues out. But the question remains, how much better does the defense need to be so the Chiefs can make the Super Bowl for a third straight year? That, honestly, is hard to say.
One thing to compare this season to is 2019, when the Chiefs' defense was bad for the first half of the year and turned it on in the second half of the year. While yes, the defense did improve, it was not a complete disaster at the beginning of the year either.
Heading into week eight of last season, the Chiefs defense was ranked 17th in the league in defensive DVOA — a far cry from last in the league. By the end of the campaign, the defense had improved to 14th in the league.
All this means is that the Chiefs are in the most precarious early-season position they ever have been with Mahomes at quarterback (if that was not obvious by their 2-2 record). The offense is historically great right now but is being weighed down by a historically bad defense.
It will be up to Spagnuolo and players such as Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones, and Anthony Hitchens to make sure a 2018-like scenario does not happen again and ruin a fantastic season being played by the offense. That starts Sunday night against the Buffalo Bills, as a better defensive performance is needed to beat a team as good as them.