It wasn’t that long ago, you know. These guys used to be NFL royalty. Just last February, they rolled into the Super Bowl in Tampa riding the high of a 16-2 record (counting two playoff victories) and boasting an offense that seemed like it could score at will against anybody.
How the mighty have fallen.
Beginning with that Super Bowl loss, and running through last Sunday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee, the Kansas City Chiefs are 3-5 and have been outscored 234-197. Most recently, they were rolled over by the Titans in a 27-3 rout (gamebook) (summary).
Theories, of course, abound. For the benefit of my readers, I will sort through the theories that I have heard to assess how much fact – if any – is contained in them.
Theory – Super Bowl Hangover
Last year as the San Francisco 49ers were floundering early, I looked into the whole Super Bowl hangover thing. There certainly were some Super Bowl participants who suddenly fell back to the pack, but I didn’t find any kind of consistent pattern. Truthfully, the vagaries that govern football (injuries, draft fortunes, the presence of new coaches in your division, etc.) seem to jostle all participants at about the same rate. The real surprise is when a team manages to skirt all of that chaos and remain on top for any sustained period. I don’t think there’s much of a “hangover” factor here.
Theory – Mahomes and Other Principals Partying Too Much During the Off-Season
If that was going to happen, it would have happened after the previous Super Bowl (which they won). Frankly, Super Bowl losers aren’t generally in as much demand as the winners. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has done a couple of State Farm commercials, but so has Aaron Rodgers, and his production hasn’t fallen. I doubt that there’s anything here.
Theory – The Chiefs are Solved and the Buccaneers Gave the World the Blueprint
A lot of what Tampa Bay did to Kansas City has popped up in several of their games this year. I don’t tend to give too much credit to the scheme, though. It was mostly a simple “Tampa 2” concept (not named, of course, for the current Buccaneer team but for the split-safety zone concept established more than twenty years ago by then-coach Tony Dungy when he coached the Bucs). This coverage isn’t new, and the Chiefs (and everyone else) knows the routes that will beat it.
What Tampa Bay did to Kansas City in the Super Bowl was more a function of pass rush. The Chiefs had lost a tackle in the Championship Game, and resolved the problem by shifting starters around the line. The newly-constructed line played with disastrous results last February. From first snap to last, Mahomes was literally running for his life. The Bucs could have employed any coverage scheme and it would have worked out just fine. In fact, they played a high percentage of man coverage against the Chiefs in that game – also to great effect.
In the aftermath of that loss, Kansas City has completely re-invented its offensive line – to the point that no remaining starter from last year is in this year’s starting lineup. This has had some effect. As offensive lines need some time to develop, Patrick’s protection hasn’t been as stable as he’s used to, and a fair amount of their recent offensive struggles can be tied to uncomfortable amounts of pressure.
Theory – It’s Mostly Patrick’s Fault
In the wake of the Tennessee loss, quarterback Mahomes is being targeted for the largest slice of the blame. This, of course, is part of playing quarterback. You always get too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose. There are numbers that the critics can grasp on to. His 62.3 passer rating (Patrick was 20-35 for 206 yards, no touchdowns and 1 interception) was the lowest of his career. He also lost a fumble in that game. For the season so far, Patrick’s numbers have slid noticeably. His 97.9 passer rating (while still above the NFL average) would be the worst of his career and currently sits about ten points below his career rating (107.2). The 9 interceptions he’s thrown are already more than his totals from the previous two entire seasons, and only three shy of the career high of 12 he threw in his rookie season. In both of his previous seasons, his interception percentage was 1.0. This year, 3.2% of his throws are ending up in the arms of the other team.
There is also film that supports some of this. Against the Titans, his interception came on an ill-advised throw. His fumble came after a scramble in which – rather than sliding and avoiding further contact – Patrick continued the run in an attempt to gain a few more yards (and was subsequently stripped of the ball). To cite just one example, Steve Young on Monday Night Countdown laid 80% of the responsibility on Mahomes. Eighty percent? Really?
Clearly, Mahomes has played better in the past than he is playing this season. But to target him as the primary problem is to fall into the trap of crediting or blaming the quarterback for nearly everything that happens on the team. Patrick has been pressing, but there are reasons for that not of his making (I will be getting to that in a minute). Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes. He isn’t even close to being Kansas City’s biggest problem. (Sorry, Steve. I have great respect for you, but on this I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.)
Theory – Body Snatchers
OK, I haven’t actually heard anyone claim that aliens have captured the real Kansas City Chiefs and replaced them with pods, but I’m sure someone out there has floated that theory. Without the medical examinations that could confirm or deny this, I can’t, of course, say with any certainty that this hasn’t happened. I will, though, err on the side of common sense and call this very unlikely.
So What Is It?
Two weeks ago, after their loss to Buffalo, I looked at the issues in Kansas City and proclaimed, with much certainty, that the biggest problem with the Kansas City offense is the Kansas City defense. Nothing that’s happened in the last two weeks – even this game in Tennessee when they scored only 3 points, managed just 334 yards of offense, and turned the ball over 3 times – has at all changed that assessment. Ninety percent – that’s my number, and I’m sticking with it. Ninety percent of the KC problem is the defense. If that ever gets fixed, the rest of the world will be amazed at how quickly the offense will regain its footing.
Taking Another Look
To support this, let’s take another look at the Tennessee game. For now, forget the statistics and just look at what happened.
The Chiefs won the toss and deferred. The Titans started with the ball, and drove the field – 75 yards in 8 plays, draining 4:10 off the clock. The Chief offense takes the field already down 7 with still 10:50 left in the quarter.
They pick up a couple of first downs, gaining the fifty-yard line. On third down, though, a sack brings the drive to an end and KC punts. This isn’t evidence of a dysfunctional offense. No offense scores every time it possesses the ball. For his part Mahomes was 3-for-3 passing for 21 yards (remember, the deep safeties were taking away the deep pass). When the KC special team unit downed the ensuing punt on the Tennessee 3-yard line, things were looking pretty good.
Five minutes and 34 seconds of football time later, Tennessee had driven the entire 97 yards, taking 9 plays to do so. Now there are 42 second left in the first quarter, the Chiefs have run 7 offensive plays and they trail 14-0.
The Chiefs pick up another first down on their ensuing drive, but end up punting again. Now the members of the Chief offensive unit are standing on the sidelines watching again as the Titans start rolling through the defense again. Twelve plays, 60 yards, and six minutes and 39 seconds of football time later, the Kansas City defense finally holds on third down. Tennessee, however, has moved into field goal range again, and tacks on another 3 points.
There is a reason why defenses love it when their offense goes on long, clock draining drives. That is because no offense, however talented and experienced, prospers from standing on the sidelines for 20-30 minutes at a time. It’s impossible for any offense to maintain any semblance of rhythm or energy when they are wandering aimlessly along the sideline hoping that someone on the defensive side can please make a play.
There is now 8:07 left in the half, and the Chiefs are down 17-0. The offense’s great crime is that they failed to score on their first two possessions. At this point, they’ve run exactly 11 plays and held the ball for 5:30. In contrast, the Titans have already run 28 plays for 232 yards (8.3 yards per play). Their time of possession so far is 16:23.
The problem now compounds, because this is not a one-off kind of situation. The Chiefs have seen this before. All season, the offense has had the challenge of keeping up with the points the defense is yielding. Beginning from game one, Cleveland scored 29, Baltimore put up 36, the Chargers rung them up for 30 – and so did Philadelphia. Buffalo scored 38. Except for their Week Six win in Washington when they held the Football Team to just 13 points, every single opponent had put up 29 points or more. Kansas City came into the afternoon ranked twenty-eighth in total defense and twenty-eighth in points allowed. The struggles include a pass rush that had accounted for just 7 sacks (last in the league) which influenced a secondary that was allowing 12.7 yards per completion (thirtieth in the league).
The run defense hadn’t been spectacular, either. They were allowing 5.2 yards per rush (thirtieth).
So, perhaps, you can forgive Mahomes and the offense if at this point they start to press a bit. With the defense showing no signs that they can slow the Tennessee offense, Patrick did compound the problem here by trying to force a pass into Josh Gordon. Rashaan Evans came away with the interception, and it started all over again. Tennessee drained another 5:08 off the clock as they ground their way to another touchdown – and a 24-0 lead.
By the time the second quarter came to a merciful end, Kansas City had held the ball for just 1:28 of the entire quarter. Tennessee had gone 6-for-7 on third down during a first half in which they held the ball for a remarkable 23:16. They had scored every time they touched the ball, and went into the locker room with a 27-0 lead.
Kansas City had the ball long enough for Mahomes to throw just 9 passes in the half. But he’s 80% of the problem?
The second half was more even – possession wise. But, of course, once you’re down 27-0 it doesn’t really matter all that much, does it? At that point, you’re game plan is pretty much in the dumpster, you don’t have the luxury of running the ball anymore (at least, you don’t think you do), and all you can do is throw short passes underneath coverages that will allow anything but the deep strike that could get you back in the game. Oh yes, and the pass rush – with no running game to be concerned with – is at liberty to tee off and come after the quarterback. It’s not a conducive work environment for any offense to operate in.
For what it’s worth, Kansas City ran off a mind-numbing 51 plays in the second half. Mahomes and his backup Chad Henne combined to throw 42 passes after intermission. But it wasn’t nearly enough to turn the tide.
Star receiver Tyreek Hill (who didn’t help matters by dropping a couple of passes) finished with 6 catches even though he wasn’t targeted at all in that first half. His 6 catches amounted to just 49 yards.
There are two points that I want to be clear about at this point.
First, I don’t want to dismiss the effort of Tennessee’s defense. Holding the Chiefs to 3 points under any circumstances is laudatory. Even while the offense allowed this defensive unit to play downhill, the Tennessee defense still made the plays necessary to get KC off the field, and when they had the chances to make game-altering takeaways, they came through. They deserve ample credit for the result that I have no intention of denying them.
Second, I don’t intend to give the KC offense a complete pass. They certainly had things they could have done better. After their defense managed their lone turnover against the Titans, Kansas City moved to a first-and-ten at the Tennessee 28-yard line. Back-to-back penalties (holding and then a false start) pushed the ball back to a first-and-25 at the 43. That drive ended three plays later on a missed field goal.
There are certainly things that Mahomes and the offense can clean up. But come on, man. Let me give you a baseball analogy. You’re team goes three-up-and three-down in the top of the first. Your pitching and defense then gives up 11 runs in the bottom of the first. The next morning in the paper, you expect the writers to digest the early pitching difficulties that put the rest of the game out of reach. You don’t expect them to point the finger at the offense for not having the foresight to score 15 runs in the first.
The clear truth of the Kansas City situation is that its defense is hemorrhaging games. If they can fix that before too much of what’s left of the season slips away, this team might have a chance to fight for a playoff spot.
Titans On a Roll
While KC remains stuck in neutral, the Tennessee Titans are rising. In back-to-back weeks, they’ve produced convincing wins over the two team that played for the conference championship last year. I’m still not completely convinced about their defense, but this offense is rising quickly.
Of course, the presence of Derrick Henry in any backfield will alter any team’s defensive approach. In past years, though, the Titan offense faltered in those contests where the defense was able to minimize the impact of the running game.
This, in fact, was such a game. In spite of their season-long struggles against the run, Kansas City fought valiantly to keep Derrick in check. Henry – leading the NFL in rushing yards – finished the game with just 86 yards on 29 carries (3.0 per). In the second half – the part of the game that Derrick usually takes over – he managed just 34 yards on 12 carries (2.8 yards per). For his 29 carries he gained just 28 yards before contact.
The prevailing approach to Derrick Henry is penetration. Commonly, for example, a team intending to run their back up the middle will have the middle of the offensive line initially engage the defensive linemen with a couple of double-team blocks. After the initial block, one of the offensive linemen will then disengage and move to the second level of the defense to block a linebacker – who would traditionally be hovering in the area to deny the back this particular opening.
This isn’t happening anymore when teams try to defend Henry. The linebackers don’t hang back and wait. As soon as the running threat develops, they are headed into the backfield, so any attempt at a double-team block will only open a lane for the penetrating linebacker.
The necessary thing is to get to Derrick before he can get his feet going. Henry is a terrifying combination of a lineman’s size with a scat-back’s speed. His momentum is the game-changer. Once he gets up a head of steam, he’s a nightmare. But if you can get him to stop his feet, or get to him before he gets started, you’re odds of making that tackle go up dramatically.
Kansas City did this all night, firing linebackers and hustling safeties from the secondary to the line. Their success included dropping Henry in the backfield for losses four times. On each of those plays, the impact tackle came from Nick Bolton – the rookie linebacker from Missouri.
In the midst of a sagging defense, Bolton has been one of the few standouts. Nick is already playing with a veteran’s awareness. Against Tennessee, he was decisive and explosive as he poured into the backfield. Statistically, this was his best game of the season. His 4 tackles for a loss were part of his 9 primary tackles to go along with 6 assists – giving him 15 combined tackles. If the Chief defense does manage to turn things around, expect Bolton to be in the middle of it.
Bolton was helped considerably by large defensive lineman Khalen Saunders. Khalen is currently at the bottom of the defensive line pecking order. His 23 snaps were the fewest of any of the KC defensive linemen. But even in his limited opportunities, Saunders notably impacted the run defense. Khalen is one of those old-school linemen. He’s the kind that absorbs multiple blockers to allow the linebackers (like Bolton) behind him to roam unfettered up and down the line. Khalen may not be much of a pass-rush factor, but for his presence against the run, the Chiefs should really consider giving him more playing time.
Henry, by the way, had similar difficulties against the Bills – who also played penetration against him. The struggle is less obvious, because Derrick did manage to break off the one long run – a 76-yard touchdown sprint. In his other 21 carries, Derrick accounted for just 70 more yards (3.3 per carry), with no other run going for more than 19 yards.
This is an approach that I expect more teams to employ, and Tennessee will have to make some adjustments if they are to remain one of the league’s top running teams. You might see them running more trap plays, to take advantage of linebackers who are shooting across the line. They might also try more quick pitches to get Henry on the edges without giving opposing linemen the opportunity to get him in the backfield.
The Flourishing Passing Game
Or they could continue to allow defenses to do that, and just take advantage of them with the passing game. This has been their historic weakness. In the past, if they couldn’t run, they couldn’t score. Increasingly, that is no longer the case.
Against KC, quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 21 of 27 passes for 270 yards. According to the SportsRadar group that provides advanced stats to the football reference page I linked to above, Ryan was on target with 24 of the 26 passes he actually threw to a receiver – an impressive 92.3% accuracy rate. Throwing against a defense that was overly focused on the running game, Ryan connected with his top receiver A.J. Brown 8 times for 133 yards and a touchdown.
The thing about this passing attack, though, is its potential to get better. Offseason acquisition Julio Jones – coming from a storied career in Atlanta – has yet to be truly involved in the attack. Bothered all season by a hamstring issue, Julio has only 17 catches so far this year. On Sunday, Josh Reynolds had more snaps (30) than Jones did (29).
If this offense develops the way they hope it will, once Julio is fully healthy and completely integrated into the passing attack, defenses will be presented with a truly awful dilemma.
The more you watch this Tennessee team, the easier it is to believe that they will be right there at the end.