Why the Kansas City Chiefs' defense is putting so much focus on this one adjustment

Stopping the run also a major concern

By Sam McDowell
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) tackles Tampa Bay during Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7. The Chiefs were last in the NFL in red zone defense and 24th against the run last year.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At the onset of the Chiefs' offseason, as coaches began to look onward from a Super Bowl defeat, their first step was to look backward. To self-scout. To push aside roster construction for a moment and search for alternative avenues to improve.

When it came to the defense, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had a quick answer.

Red zone.

On a team that fell one win shy of becoming the NFL's first repeat champion in nearly two decades, the red zone defense finished 32nd in the league. Dead last. The Chiefs allowed touchdowns on 72.9% of opposing teams' trips inside the 20-yard line. Only three teams were worse than 65%.

When they bent, in other words, they too often broke.

"Teams are going to be able to put drives together on us (but) I think it's up to us, the players, to go out there and try out best to keep guys out of the end zone," Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "I think that's going to give our team a greater chance to win if we're able to make teams throw the ball in the end zone instead of running the football in.

"We've been harping on it. Coach Spags has really been harping on the details of it, but that's something I would love to see us really get better at going forward."

Harping on it early.

It's June, three months before the Chiefs play a football game that counts, and it's the primary point of conversation in defensive meetings. In the initial days of on-field workouts during organized team activities (OTA), the defense opened with red zone work.

On Day 1.

And then again on Day 2.

"I think that's in the forefront of our minds right now," linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. "A lot of teams get down there and run similar plays. We just need to be smarter. We've seen the same plays from Week 1 through the Super Bowl. We did our offseason homework. We know we got some different things now we're going to improve. That's our main goal. If they get down there — hopefully they don't, but if they do — give up three, not seven."

So, how?

As the Chiefs gathered for OTAs, before even taking the field, Spagnuolo wrote down three items that would promote better ouput. The first solution is simple in saying, more difficult in execution. They'll have to be better against the run. As the Chiefs offense experienced last season, the red zone becomes a greater challenge when you can't rely on running the football in goal line packages.

The Chiefs allowed 4.6 yards per carry in 2020. Only eight teams were worse.

"The first thing to me is we always say we don't want to allow teams to run the ball. We really do want to force them to throw it and then have tight coverage," Spagnuolo said. "Down there the throwing lanes get tight — we all know that — so you try to force them into throwing it in those tight windows."

That's the first priority. The second? Better communication and connectivity from the 11 guys on the field. There were missed assignments that popped on film. In a game against Carolina, Mathieu could be seen turning toward a teammate, confused after running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers' top weapon, had been uncovered and walked in for an easy touchdown.

For the third and final item, Spagnuolo raised his own hand: scheme.

Across the league, offenses have changed how they approach short yardage situations. They've added more movement, more "option football" as Spagnuolo referred to it. As he studied back through 19 games of film, Spagnuolo identified that trend. And he felt he had not always made the right call — whether it be a decision on zone versus man-to-man defense, blitzes or how many players to place on the line of scrimmage.

"There's a lot of challenging football nowadays, and you've got to make decisions," Spagnuolo said. "We're working through all of that and hopeful that we can get better."

Because even a slight improvement inside the 20-yard-line can make a world of difference. Even finishing last with their backs against their own end zone, the Chiefs were still tied for 10th in points allowed per game at 22.6.

One year earlier, despite allowing similar yardage per game, the Chiefs gave up only 19.3 points per week. The difference? They finished 10th in the league in red zone defense in 2019.

"If we had just played 50 percent better in the red zone last year, it would've made a huge difference, certainly in points allowed," Spagnuolo said. "I didn't think we were terrible in points allowed, but certainly when people got in the red zone, it was a challenge for us."