On the game’s signature running play, no one blocked Chris Jones.
The play – a zone run to the offensive left – began with the ball marked on the right hashmark. By the time Tennessee power back Derrick Henry cut the run back upfield, nine of the eleven tiring Kansas City defenders had flowed past the left hashmark. When Henry cut back, there were only two Chiefs on that half of the field; cornerback Bashaud Breeland – who was downfield in coverage – and Jones – the only KC defender who was playing the possible cut back.
Breeland couldn’t make his way around Tennessee receiver A.J. Brown, and was never a factor. Playing the potential for a deeper cutback, Jones was too far away from Henry to do anything other make a futile dive at his feet. Although running to his right, safety Juan Thornhill was able to stop and position himself directly in front of the hard-charging Titan hammerback. Thornhill – who lists at just 205 pounds – make a desperation dive at Henry’s feet, but Derrick easily hopped over the attempt and sprinted the rest of the way untouched – a 68-yard touchdown run.
In his first game back after missing a couple of weeks with a knee injury, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed a little rust. He threw several balls high. But nonetheless led a very productive offensive attack. He ended up throwing for 446 yards and three touchdowns, while leading the Chiefs to 530 yards of total offense and 32 points. The points could have been more, were it not for two botched field goal attempts on back to back fourth-quarter drives.
But for all of this, Kansas City lost for the fourth time in ten games this season, 35-32 (gamebook) (summary). As they head into their Monday Night game against the Chargers, they Chiefs rank twenty-second in the league in total defense. They have now allowed 12 rushing touchdowns – the fifth highest total in the league – and 288 rushing attempts against them – the fourth highest total in the league. The 5.1 yards they average per rushing attempt against is the thirtieth best average in the league, and – allowing 148.1 rushing yards per game – Kansas City is only the thirty-first ranked rushing defense in the NFL.
The glaring weakness suggested by these numbers was fully and completely exploited by Tennessee last week. Take away the long touchdown run, and Tennessee still piled up 109 rushing yards on 16 carries (6.8 yards per carry). And that was just the second half. Tennessee finished the contest with 225 yards on the ground, and 2 rushing touchdowns. This is now the second time this season Kansas City has served up more than 200 rushing yards, and the fifth time in ten games that they have been shredded for at least 180 rushing yards.
When you watch them on film, there is no mystery behind this. The Chiefs are a small defense, built for quickness and rushing the passer. Safeties Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu are among the least physical safeties in the NFL, and the defensive line features pass-rush specialists like Frank Clark who are decided liabilities against the run.
Kansas City does have a few big defenders on its roster – Khalen Saunders is listed at 324 and Derrick Nnadi is reported at 312. Both are quite young – Nnadi drafted in the third round last year, and Saunders was this year’s third rounder – and neither is as effective against the run as the Chiefs may have hoped.
In a more representative run, with 9:27 left in the game, Titans guards Nate Davis and Rodger Saffold drove Nandi and Saunders (respectively) straight up the field, while tackle Jack Conklin popped unobstructed into the second level where he deleted linebacker Reggie Ragland from the equation – just another 12-yard run from Henry.
I can’t really think what KC can do at this point to shore up this weakness, so it will become imperative as the season winds its way down that the offense protect the run defense. There are two ways this can be done.
The first is with a grinding, ball control offense – one that will run the clock and keep the smallish defense resting on the sidelines. The Super Bowl winning Dallas teams of the early 1990’s won with a small, quick defense. But they protected them with Emmitt Smith and a clock-eating offense. This, however, would require an almost complete overhaul of who the Chiefs are on offense.
The other way an offense can protect a small defense is with early leads. Teams that fall behind early 21-3 or 28-7 generally retire their running games for the evening and lean almost exclusively on their passing attacks – a course that will play right into the hands of the Chief defense as currently constructed.
Going forward, Kansas City will have to embrace one of these philosophies. Offensively, I believe they are still potent enough to make the playoffs, but unless they protect their defense more, they will be one and done when the second season arrives.