The Kansas City Chiefs defense has been hearing the noise from the outside for a long time. It grew to a crescendo in January 2019 after the defense couldn’t get a third-down stop against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in an overtime loss in the AFC Championship Game.
Changes were made. Steve Spagnuolo was brought in as defensive coordinator. Defensive end Frank Clark signed a huge contract to bring more physicality to the pass rush. Tyrann Mathieu was brought in as a veteran leader for the secondary. The defense flipped a switch.
Well, not exactly. It took a while for the players to all get comfortable in Spags’ system. It wasn’t until down the stretch of the 2019 season and into the playoffs that the defense really became a reason the Chiefs were winning games rather than just skating by behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the offense.
There were still a lot of doubters heading into the 2019 postseason run. The defense stepped up and silenced a lot of critics. First it was Deshaun Watson and the Texans. The Texans scored 31 points against the Chiefs but 14 of those points were set up by special teams errors, a blocked punt and a muffed punt. Essentially, the defense held the Texans offense to 17 points that day.
Then came all of the noise about Derrick Henry. To be fair, "King Henry" has been the best running back in the NFL the past few seasons. He had been averaging close to 200 yards rushing in each playoff game to that point. The Chiefs defense banded together and decided they weren’t going to let Henry beat them. Henry was held to 69 yards on 19 carries.
In Super Bowl LIV, the Chiefs’ defense was hearing about how the dynamic San Francisco rushing attack would shred them. The leading rusher for the 49ers that day finished the game with 53 yards on 12 carries. Their second-leading rusher was a wide receiver. The Chiefs forced Jimmy Garoppolo into two interceptions. Game over. Super Bowl Champs. Maybe respect was earned? Not quite.
Even though the defense improved and showed they could win at a high level to close out the season, they were still being picked apart as the 2020 “Run It Back” campaign began. As the season started with four victories, the defense held their first three opponents to 20 points and their fourth opponent to just 10.
In Week 5, the Las Vegas Raiders beat the Chiefs in what was their only true loss of the season. The team was without rookie sensation L’Jarius Sneed due to a broken collarbone suffered the previous week. The secondary struggled and the defensive front didn't create much get pressure on the quarterback. From that point on, the narrative of the defense was their secondary without Sneed could be burned and the pass-rush couldn't get to the quarterback.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they were paying attention to all of the critics, not just nationally, but locally as well. There were some tweets that should have possibly been left in the draft folder.
In a press conference Thursday, Chris Jones added to the ongoing conversation regarding noise from the outside.
"I get a lot of motivation from Twitter," Jones said. "I read everything. I might not always speak on it, but I see everything. I take it personally. I take it very, very personally. No matter if it’s good or bad, I take it to heart."
Jones added, "I’m not a very opinionated person, but when people have an opinion on me or how I play, I tend to take it personally… it kinda motivates me also."
Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu have been known to take fuel from social media as well. There’s no doubt there are others who feel the same way.
The Chiefs defense needs to continue playing up to their level of expectation of themselves, which is at a higher standard than any fan or media member could hold them to. They held the Browns offense to under 20 points. If you take away the special teams errors (the muffed punt and dropped onside kick), the defense held the Bills to 15 points. Any effort similar to the divisional round or conference championship will end with back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
The secondary has been shutting teams down this season. From Mathieu to Sneed to Bashaud Breeland to "Dirty" Dan Sorensen to Charvarius Ward to Juan Thornhill, everyone is stepping up their game.
Thornhill's season had some rocky spots as he recovered from his ACL injury suffered at the end of the 2019 regular season, but he was exceptional against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game.
The defense is getting more quarterback pressures now than at any other time in the season. Jones and Clark are doing their dirty work, but Spagnuolo is dialing up pressure via the blitz at a tremendous rate. The result? The most pressures on a quarterback in a playoff game since at least 2009 when ESPN began tracking quarterback pressures.
Speaking of Spags, let’s not forget he is 1-0 vs. Tom Brady-led teams in the Super Bowl as a defensive coordinator. He knows Brady’s weaknesses and plans to exploit them again when these teams clash at Super Bowl LV. Sneed could be a player Spags utilizes in blitzing from the outside or by placing him in position to get an interception at a key moment.
And let's not sleep on what Anthony Hitchens has done this season. Leading a linebacking crew that had been one of the weaker spots on the defense this season, Hitchens stepped up all throughout the year, but especially in the AFC Championship Game.
Yes, the Chiefs offense typically gets all of the headlines and they have done a lot to deserve the spotlight, but don’t sleep on this defense any longer. With a majority of their defense returning next season alongside an offense set to be loaded again, the Chiefs could quickly turn their focus to be the first team in NFL history to earn a three-peat after the season. However, they must go back-to-back first.
Jones said the team relies on each other and they always have each other’s back in the locker room and on the field.
"Team first, team second, and team last is the way we look at it," Jones said. "Not one individual exceeds the team and we all have that mindset… we all set personal goals aside for the main goal."
If the defense continues to play at a high level in the same way they have been playing during this current playoff run, the main goal will be met with the Chiefs hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for a second-consecutive season on Super Bowl Sunday.