The Kansas City Chiefs defense has been a real problem for the team for some time now. While the defense struggled against the likes of Tom Brady, and Carson Wentz for the first couple of weeks during the season, when they continued to struggle against Phillip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger, it should have been a sign that there were worse things to come.
The team’s defensive struggles culminated in their loss to the Oakland Raiders on Thursday night on an 85-yard drive with only 2:25 left in the game. The main objective the of the Chiefs defense over the last several years has been to apply pressure to the other team’s quarterback, in order to create potential turnover opportunities for the team’s secondary while in coverage. The defense has lived by the mantra “bend don’t break,” as they have typically allowed large chunks of yards, but have been very stingy in allowing points in the redzone.
As magnified by the team’s performance on Thursday night, this season, the defensive front seven have had a difficult time applying pressure to the quarterback. Over the last two games, the team has mustered only one sack, and two quarterback pressures. While a lack of pressure would be understandable if the defense was facing incredibly mobile quarterbacks, both Derek Carr and Ben Roethlisberger aren’t known for being the most mobile.
There are several contributing factors to the team’s almost non-existent pass rush. The team has struggled to find a replacement for nose tackle Dontari Poe, who left for the Atlanta Falcons in free agency. In addition, they have also played without outside linebacker Tamba Hali for all seven games this season, and have dealt with a very limited Dee Ford. While relatively successful in getting sacks and quarterback hits in the team’s first several games, rushing the passer has been an all-or-nothing affair. When the team has made a concerted effort to rush the passer, their linebackers and defensive ends have been very susceptible to missing tackles and opening the field up for big rushing plays. The Chiefs have allowed the seventh most rushing yards per game this season, after allowing the 25th most rushing yards per game in 2015.
The effect of the Chiefs’ struggling pass rush, is that it has given other teams time to pick apart the Chiefs’ mediocre secondary. Since losing all-pro safety Eric Berry in week one against the Patriots, the defensive backs have struggled to force turnovers in coverage. After ranking first in the NFL in interceptions last season, the defense now has the 13th most interceptions in the league this season. The main objective of opposing teams has been to target cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Phillip Gaines, who have both graded as below-average players according to Pro Football Focus.
Physicality has been the key in the past for the Chiefs defensive backs to lock down top receivers from week-to-week. However, this season they have struggled to be physical even against smaller receivers. Despite facing double coverage for most of the game last week, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown was able to create separation consistently, and turned a dropped interception into a game-clinching touchdown. This week, Amari Cooper was able to open up the passing game for the Raiders, and was able to find consistent success after the catch.
The struggles of the Chiefs defensive backs have resulted in a passing defense that has allowed the fifth most yards this season, after allowing only the 15th most yards last season. While historically a heavily penalized unit, this season the team ranks first in defensive holding, and second in pass interference. With an upcoming game next Monday against the Denver Broncos and their beaten-up receiving core, the team’s defensive struggles may be masked for yet another week. However, as the team faces more elite quarterbacks and receivers over the course of the season, its inability to force pressure on the front-end, and make plays on the back-end could prove to be crippling.
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