Don't look now, but the Kansas City Chiefs' defense may be improving.
After back-to-back outings of holding their opponents to fewer than 20 points, things seem to be looking up for a unit that began the 2021 campaign as quite literally the worst defense of all time by some standards. Football Outsiders' DVOA now ranks Steve Spagnuolo's group at 28th in the league, which is multiple spots higher than where it was about a month ago. That's a start.
The basic counting stats are also kind(er) to the Chiefs' defense. It's now 26th in total yards allowed per game, 21st in rushing yards allowed per game and 24th in scoring. While those numbers are far from the gospel and are undoubtedly padded by back-to-back games against questionable offensive attacks, that's a start, too.
Context is important, which is why it would be premature to declare Spagnuolo's defense as being "back." With that said, small wins are beginning to add up. Conner Christopherson of Arrowhead Report joined me on today's Roughing the Kicker podcast to discuss why the Chiefs' defensive improvements aren't the result of one sweeping change, but rather a bunch of smaller ones at all three levels.
Up front, simply getting healthy was a huge deal for the Chiefs. Defensive end Frank Clark battled hamstring injuries throughout training camp and into the regular season, rendering him either inactive or largely ineffective until he was in shape and able to exert full effort. Both of those are in play now, and Clark is playing some of his best football as a Chief. The weight he's lost over the years is back, he's motivated and injuries aren't currently an issue. The result? Consistent pressures, the return of his power moves to combine with his speed ones and a seemingly improved Chiefs defensive line.
Let's face it: The Chris Jones-at-defensive-end experiment didn't work out too well. The All-Pro was moved off his normal three-technique alignment due to a few factors, some including him wanting to play outside more and the team needing help at that spot. Now that he's (mostly) recovered from his wrist injury and is back inside for the majority of his snaps, the Chiefs' pass rush is more dangerous. That's a plus for the team and a plus for Jones.
The addition of defensive end Melvin Ingram paid dividends already for the Chiefs, as he recorded multiple pressures in his debut against the Green Bay Packers. With a pass-rushing trio of Clark, Jones and Ingram, the Chiefs now have a bit of depth and also some consistency along the defensive line. The unit that struggled immensely to begin the year now may be passable — or even above-average, for stretches.
The linebacker group has also dealt with injuries this season. Second-year player Willie Gay Jr. began the year on the injured reserve list and took a while to get up to speed once returning. Now that he's back, he's injected athleticism, range and playmaking ability into the position group. Anthony Hitchens' triceps injury also opened the door for rookie Nick Bolton to play the MIKE linebacker spot. He thrived in that role and although he isn't spending much of his time there anymore due to Hitchens being back, his confidence is extremely high. The Chiefs have two developing and attacking linebackers, which is a major boost.
In the secondary, Spagnuolo finally making the switch from Daniel Sorensen to Juan Thornhill at safety is paying off in a big way. The latter's athleticism is evident, helping the defense tremendously. There's more stability amongst the defensive back group elsewhere, too. Cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton getting healthy also helped. 2020 fourth-round steal L'Jarius Sneed played arguably the best game of his life against Green Bay.
The answer for the Chiefs was never going to be one player fixing things, whether it be a single change in the starting lineup, a lone trade or one free agent acquisition. It was going to be a group effort that included a ton of self-reflection, difficult conversations, development, health and maturing. When you combine players getting healthy with some proper decision-making from coaches, natural regression to the mean, progression from young players and a trade deadline get, the end result is bound to be better than what it was to begin with.
Again, games against the New York Giants and Aaron Rodgers-less Packers don't mean the Chiefs' defense is fixed. It could very well get shredded by the Las Vegas Raiders and Dallas Cowboys over the next couple of weeks. On the other hand, the aforementioned small wins are all piling up now. Proceed with caution, but Spagnuolo's unit seems to be figuring some things out.
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