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A defence of the defence

The Kansas City Chiefs defence has struggled mightily this season. So, in the name of all that is positive and somewhat foolish, here is a defence of the defence.

Yes, Patrick Mahomes is wonderful. Yes, Andy Reid and this beautifully schemed offence is truly breathtaking to behold. And yes, the plethora of downfield weapons with which Kansas City can pierce gaping holes in opponent’s hull is staggering. But the Kansas City Chiefs have a problem that could derail all of that.

Through two games, the Chiefs have allowed an average of 32.5 points per game, more than 400 yards passing, and are ranked dead last via Football Outsiders metrics, which include factors like the quality of the opposition, the way in which the points are scored and other contributing but supplementary elements. Without question, this defence is bad. Very bad. I am not trying to rewrite history here. But there are some accentuating circumstances that should be taken into account when it comes to accurately evaluating the efficacy and efficiency of Bob Sutton’s unit.

The first is where the games are being played. Both games have been on the road. As we all know, NFL games can swing quite considerably by the home-road split. But more than just the travel, the lack of a fervent fanbase ferociously raining down fire on every third down, and the absence of the normal rhythms and routines of preparation that come when playing in the comfort of your own stadium, the weather has made it extremely dificult for the Chiefs defenders.

In Pittsburgh, last Sunday, the average temperature was 28 degrees. The week before, in Los Angeles, it was as high as 31 degrees. That is stifling heat to play any physical sport. To be rushing the passer snap after snap, it is utterly suffocating. It is not a valid excuse to solely blame the heat for the Chiefs’ defensive struggles. But it does provide a little context to their toils. That is especially true when the number of snaps that they have been playing is taken into consideration.

In both matches, the Chiefs defence was on the field for 82 snaps. Usually, the figure rarely tops 70 — in contrast, the Chiefs played 58 snaps on offence against the Steelers, 34 fewer. That is significant. It’s also significant that the Chiefs offence is capable of scoring extremely quickly. They ran 58 offensive plays and scored six touchdowns, that’s a touchdown every 9.66 plays. If the defence is getting fewer than 10 plays to rest between possessions, plus two for the kickoffs and one for the extra-point, then they will only be getting more tired quicker.

The explosiveness of the Chiefs offence is frightening for the opposition. But it is also frightening for their own defence. The Chiefs have an average time of possession of 26:41. Only three teams are worse — Buffalo, Seattle and Arizona. The Bills and the Cardinals are the bottom two offences in the league based on points scored per game. Seattle are 21st. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are first in points per game, and yet have a time of possession comparable to the worst in the league. That is not good for the defence. To sum all this up, the Chiefs defence is on pace to play 1,312 snaps this season. That is staggering. And very concerning indeed.

So yes, the Chiefs defence is bad. Very bad. But there are some accentuating circumstances that do need to be taken into account.

And this is all without Eric Berry, the centrepiece of the team, the beating heart and soul of the whole unit, the figurehead upon which everything else rests. I do not want to overplay the importance of one player. On any team, other than the quarterback, the absence of one player should not be un-overcomeable. But it cannot be denied that Berry is integral to this defensive set-up, especially in the way that Sutton likes to use him.

Berry is unique for an elite safety in the sense that he’s not actually elite at any aspect of the game — you could make an argument that he is an elite run-stuffing tackler, which is a very important aspect of the position, but in the increasingly pass-happy NFL, is not essential to top-quality safety play. But he is very good at everything. He can play single-high. He can play ‘robber’. He can drop down into the box. He can blitz. He can cover tight-ends one-on-one. He can shift into the slot and shadow slot receivers. He can do every part of a safety’s job at a good-to-great standard. It is his versatility that makes him such a unique and invaluable chess piece for Sutton to move around. The absence of that type of cornerstone player is obviously going to hit home hard. Very hard.

Is it a valid reason for the insipid defensive displays that the Chiefs have put in this season? No, of course not. But it does provide some hope for the future, assuming that Berry is, at some point, able to return this season.

I am not trying to make excuses for this defence. It isn’t very good. In fact, it’s probably the worst in the NFL. But there are some factors that need to be included in our assessment of the unit’s performance, factors that do provide at least a semblance of a defence. It is not a justification, merely a glimpse of hope. But given the disparaging results thus far, that’s all we have to hang onto.

 

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