NFL

Chiefs defense under pressure to deliver in divisional clash with Chargers

By Sports Desk September 24, 2021

The Kansas City Chiefs aren't ones for panic, certainly not in the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes era. Even in the most trying of situations, facing third and long and trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowl LIV triumph in the 2019 season, Reid and Mahomes kept their cool, the latter unfurling a 44-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill that turned the contest on its head.

While their high-powered offense has no reason to be anything other than coolness personified, with 61 points scored through the first two weeks, there might be some cause for desperation on the defensive side of the ball.

Steve Spagnuolo's defense is the eighth-worst in the league in terms of offensive points allowed (58). No defense is allowing more yards per play (7.56) than that of Kansas City, the Chiefs conceding 9.37 yards per pass (31st) and 6.03 yards per rush (last) after being gashed on the ground in their thrilling Week 2 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens.

In other words, through two weeks, the Chiefs are not stopping anybody, whether that be a ball-carrier or a passer, and that is a significant issue heading into a matchup with a signal-caller who has only furthered his case for a place among the elite so far this season.

Los Angeles Chargers star Justin Herbert, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, is fourth in the NFL with 337.5 passing yards per game, producing a pair of hugely impressive performances to start the season.

Missed opportunities, including a pair of Herbert interceptions, doomed the Chargers to a last-gasp defeat to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2. Save for those picks, though, it was a display in which the former sixth overall selection continued to demonstrate his ability to make deadly accurate throws on passes of the highest difficulty.

And the numbers suggest the Chiefs will not have many avenues through which to disrupt him.

The Chiefs pass rush has endured an unproductive start to the season, registering only 20 pressures, third-lowest in the NFL, so far this term.

Star defensive lineman Chris Jones has played the majority of his snaps on the edge this season, having spent most of his career on the interior, and the switch has not yielded the desired results.

He has won just six of his 21 pass rushes this season, while Frank Clark has got the better of his pass protector only once in 17 attempts.

Jones and Clark have the talent to drastically improve those numbers. However, even if they manage to pressure Herbert, it may not lead to opportunities to create negative plays.

When pressured, Herbert, according to Stats Perform data, delivers an accurate well-thrown ball 88.2 per cent of the time, first among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts under duress.

One area where the Chiefs defense has excelled is in creating turnovers. Kansas City have four to their name already, including three interceptions.

But those takeaways have not helped Kansas City keep opposing offenses in check, Baltimore prevailing in primetime despite a pair of picks for Lamar Jackson.

Their vulnerability against the run makes the Chiefs defense an enticing opponent for Chargers running back Austin Ekeler. His average of 2.83 yards after contact per attempt is second among backs with at least 10 carries, and all the signs point to another long day for Kansas City on that side of the ball.

There are, of course, changes that can be made to aid their cause. Shifting Jones back inside could up his production, while giving both him and Clark opportunities to rush against Storm Norton, who has allowed a pressure rate of 14.2 per cent in relief of the injured Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, may be a route towards Kansas City disrupting Herbert more often than they have opposing quarterbacks so far this year.

Yet the Chiefs need to not only disrupt Herbert but to affect his throws. Mahomes' ability to put up points can keep the Chiefs in any game; however, if they cannot find a way to impact Herbert or take away the run, Kansas City risk a shootout with a team that can go blow for blow with them and a potential 1-2 start that seemed unthinkable when they led the Ravens by 11 points last week.

It's only Week 3 but, for a Super Bowl favourite, the pressure is on a team that has struggled to generate it.

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