For the first time in a while, the Kansas City Chiefs have a lot of explaining to do after a September game.
Sure, in the Patrick Mahomes era of Chiefs football, there have been less than stellar wins in the month of September. However, the 35-36 loss to the Baltimore Ravens was the first time the Chiefs have lost in that month with Mahomes at quarterback.
It makes sense that after such a game, there are things worthy of questioning. What are those burning questions that came out of the loss to the Ravens?
1. Where is CEH in the passing game?
In the run-up to the 2020 draft, general manager Brett Veach told head coach Andy Reid to watch Clyde Edwards-Helaire's film. Veach told Reid that Edwards-Helaire would remind Reid of a former running back of his, Brian Westbrook.
After watching Edwards-Helaire’s tape, Reid said he was better than Westbrook.
A year-and-change into Edwards-Helaire’s tenure with the Chiefs, he has certainly not been better than Westbrook. The most disappointing disparity between the two is that Edwards-Helaire has been all but invisible as a receiver.
Edwards-Helaire’s most promising trait coming out of college was his excellent work out of the backfield at LSU. In 15 games in Edwards-Helaire’s final year with the program, he had 55 receptions and was running a diverse route tree out of the backfield and even lined up at various receiver positions.
After Sunday night’s game against the Ravens, Edwards-Helaire has played 15 regular season games for the Chiefs and only has 39 receptions. In Baltimore, he had zero targets.
The main issue with the struggles of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the little impact he has provided so far in his career with the Chiefs resides with the expectation of any first-round running back: they should contribute almost immediately. If a first-round running back takes until their third or fourth year to produce results, then the team loses all the value that drafting a running back early provides (and there is not much value there to begin with).
It remains a mystery as to why Edwards-Helaire is not being utilized in the passing game much so far in his Chiefs career. It could be numerous things, such as not picking up NFL passing concepts as easily or the team realizing his skill set doesn't translate to the professional level and their scheme as well as originally anticipated. Whatever the reason is, it is not a great look for the Chiefs — who heavily praised Edwards-Helaire’s ability to catch the ball immediately after drafting him.
If the issue is fixable, then a return to using a pass-catching running back around the goal line and in screens could unlock a much-needed dynamic in the Chiefs' offense. As a result, this can improve their play in the red zone, where they currently rank 14th in touchdown scoring percentage (they ranked 16th in the same statistic last year).
Hopefully, the Edwards-Helaire that played well at LSU shows up in Kansas City this season.
2. Should the Chris Jones experiment at defensive end continue?
There's no dancing around this fact: Chris Jones had a rough game against the Ravens. The All-Pro caliber defensive tackle-turned-defensive-end was left flat-footed and confused against the Ravens' offense on Sunday, as the Ravens ran for over 250 yards on the Chiefs.
It was not just in the run game where Jones did not look great: The Chiefs also failed to generate any pressure on the broken and battered Ravens offensive line that did not have their left tackle, Ronnie Staley. Jones himself only generated one pressure, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
So, considering this performance, should the Chris Jones defensive end experiment end? Personally, I am willing to wait.
Jones is still new to the position and even veteran defensive ends look silly when playing against Lamar Jackson. Defensive ends are put in a very tough position when defending against the Ravens' offense due to their unique looks and scheme that isolates the defensive end, thus making their life very difficult.
It was a nightmare matchup for Jones. With more traditional offenses coming up on the Chiefs' schedule, those games will be more indicative of if Jones is able to play defensive end at a high level. One thing that should be happening more is Jones sliding back inside to his three-technique alignment because as of now, that isn't happening nearly enough.
When the Chiefs first talked about Jones moving to defensive end, it sounded more like he would play there a small majority of the time but still play on the inside a good amount — especially on obvious passing downs. So far this year, he's played inside on 11 of his 103 snaps, according to PFF. Those are full-time defensive end numbers and it feels questionable to do this with a player who has proven himself to be an elite interior pass-rusher.
It is possible for these numbers to change as the Chiefs play defenses that play more three wide receiver sets? The Ravens and Browns play a ton of tight end-heavy formations that force the opposing defense to play in its base package. Considering all of the confounding variables so far in the Chiefs’ first few games, the Chris Jones experiment should continue. With that said, it should be monitored.
3. Why is Daniel Sorensen playing at free safety over Juan Thornhill?
One of the biggest takeaways from the loss to the Ravens on defense was that Juan Thornhill played only 11 snaps to Daniel Sorensen's 76 snaps.
As to why this happened? It is honestly still a mystery.
Steve Spagnuolo did provide some crumbs on Thursday during a press conference, but it still spawned more questions than it answered.
Any way this situation is sliced, the Sorensen and Thornhill situation does not make sense from an outsider's perspective.
Sorensen’s play so far this year has not earned him the full playing time he is getting. Sorensen’s nine missed tackles, via PFF, are three more than any other player in the NFL. He was not an impeccable athlete coming out of college and has almost surely lost a step as he has aged past 30 years old. A player of his skill set and limited athletic ability is a very poor fit as a deep safety in the modern NFL, where there are athletes bursting at the seam on every roster at wide receiver and tight end.
Thornhill, however, was a 99th percentile athlete out of college — posting blazing speed scores and jumping ridiculously far and high. His 4.42-second 40-yard dash and 40" vertical were among the tops at the combine for safeties. Even if his ACL tear from a little under two years ago sapped some of that athleticism, it stands to reason he is still a superb athlete. Veach even talked about Thornhill as a true free safety after drafting him over two years ago.
After Thornhill’s Week 1 performance, which did have issues but saw him make two incredible plays late in the game to help propel the comeback against the Browns, one would assume his snap counts would be secure heading forward. They are anything but that, apparently.
If the Chiefs wanted to use Sorensen, then an ideal role for him would be as the third safety in the team's three-safety formations they love to use, with Sorensen playing as a box safety. If he manages to fix the tackling issues, playing that box role does seem to be where his strengths still lie and he would be a quality role player. However, it seems like he is the current starting free safety and nothing about that makes sense.
This situation will be one to monitor going forward to see if Thornhill can earn back the playing time he seemingly has lost. It stands to reason that the Chiefs' defense is better when he is playing his best football and is on the field. The hope is that reality will happen this year.
Losses really do bring to light some issues that winning might cover up. Hopefully, all three of the questions above are answered and those answers are satisfying in a way that helps the Chiefs win going forward.
If the situations around these perplexing issues resolve in a positive outcome, the Chiefs will once again be a Super Bowl favorite. Edwards-Helaire finally becoming a receiving threat, Thornhill getting playing time and excelling at free safety like his rookie year and Jones settling into the defensive end position are all key storylines to monitor this year. It's unknown just how — or when — these questions will be answered.