KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There are times when coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can see the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense coming together.
The Chiefs then allowed 22 points and almost 300 yards to the Ravens in the final two quarters of Week 3 and watched a once-sizable lead shrink to four points by game’s end.
A turbulent Chiefs defense — a unit that struggled all of last season, prompting a major overhaul — has been all over the place heading into Sunday’s game at the Detroit Lions (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
“It felt like [the defense was making progress] at the end of the first half last week,” Spagnuolo said. “The second half was a little different.
“As a staff, as a group of players and coaches, we’re still trying to figure out what it is we do best, who fits where. There is still a little bit of that going on and throughout the season we’ll be doing that.”
So by words and results, the Chiefs aren’t where they hoped to be on defense, at least not all of the time. They rank 24th in yardage allowed (395.7 per game) and tied for 14th in scoring defense (21.3 points). Last season, they finished 31st (405.5 ypg) and 24th (26.3 ppg), respectively.
Yardage figures are generally going to be inflated against the Chiefs, who have held leads of at least 17 points in each of their three games. But their inability to finish defensively in the season opener against the Jaguars — the Chiefs allowed 13 points in the final quarter — and against the Ravens have them frustrated.
“We went into halftime with [the Ravens] having less than 10 points and the game ended with 28 points,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said. “The rushing yards tripled after halftime. As a defense, you don’t like that. You kind of have to be consistent with it, especially on defense when you have the lead coming out of halftime. You want to put your foot on their throat and just dominate the game right there. I feel like we kind of let them back into the game.”
The Chiefs braced for a difficult defensive transition early in the season. They came close to a complete rebuild during the offseason, changing the defensive coaching staff, the base defensive systems and acquiring eight players with significant roles.
“It’s a new defense,” end Frank Clark said. “That’s the biggest challenge. I’ve been saying it all year. When you’ve got a new defense, there are a lot of challenges. It’s not going to be perfect … you’re going to fail wishing for that every time. There are still guys grasping the concept of where they need to be, where they need to fill and exactly what job they exactly need to do.”
Clark had an important third-down sack in the fourth quarter against the Ravens but otherwise has produced little a season after recording 14 sacks with the Seattle Seahawks. The Chiefs invested heavily in Clark this offseason, trading a first-round pick in 2019, a second-round pick in 2020 and also swapping third-round picks with Seattle in 2019 before giving him a five-year deal with more than $62 million guaranteed.
“One thing I told myself I need to do a better job of is managing my reps,” Clark said. “I see myself out there sometimes for 15 straight plays and by the time I get to those opportunities where I need to go rush and I need some legs, I don’t [have] it. That’s just being honest.”
Clark has also faced a large share of double-team blocks. That has created some opportunities for others, including backup end Emmanuel Ogbah. He leads the Chiefs with 2.5 sacks.
“[Opponents] are concentrating on him,” said Spagnuolo of Clark. “We knew that was going to happen. We’re always looking for ways to put him in different spots to avoid that. … Hopefully it will open something for somebody else.”
Safety Tyrann Mathieu, another priority acquisition for the Chiefs this offseason, started slowly but played his best game of the season against Baltimore. He broke up three passes and could have intercepted two of them. One came in the end zone on a play where he left the receiver he was covering to deflect a pass to another receiver.
“Normally he just plucks that thing and catches it,” Spagnuolo said. “It would have been a completely different outcome had he caught a couple of those. … The encouraging thing is we’re there and able to possibly make the play. I’ve got complete confidence in Tyrann that he’ll make those going forward. He typically does. Nobody is beating himself up more than him.”
Turnovers are an area where the Chiefs can improve. They have three interceptions and a fumble recovery, putting them tied for 14th in the league.
But Spagnuolo’s system puts a premium on pressure and takeaways, so the Chiefs are expecting more.
“We’re so close,” coach Andy Reid said. “You see it. We’re right there. We’re getting our hands on the ball or we’re hesitant in some areas to go get the ball. They’re small things but I look at that and I go, ‘You give that a little time and those things change.’ Some of the guys have been in the league and I’ve seen it before so you know that’s going to come. You saw Tyrann in position to make a couple interceptions. Those things happen. The more familiar you become with the defense, then you’re not off by just that tick. Then you’re even in better position. Then you just have to play. You have to keep going with it and you’ve got to keep attacking or it doesn’t happen.
“We’re headed in the right direction. [The Ravens had] the No. 1 offense in the NFL. They have a lot of different variables to go along with that offense. To cover all those, I thought we did a good job there.”