The Kansas City Chiefs are 2-0 after a thrilling win over the Los Angeles Chargers last Thursday night. While you can rightfully point out some places where the Chiefs were far from perfect in the game, the win is all that ultimately matters. There were a number of mind-blowing plays in this game (Patrick Mahomes’s two touchdown passes and Jaylen Watson’s pick-six to name a few) that got a lot of media attention both locally and nationally. The Chiefs taking an early lead in the division was another popular topic after the game. Lost in all that buzz is just how good this young Chiefs defense could prove to be.
It’s understandable that people would want to talk about Patrick Mahomes. Both of his touchdown passes were absolutely jaw-dropping plays. It’s also understandable that Jaylen Watson would be the focus of the talk when it comes to the defense after this last game. His pick-six was as big of a play as I can remember in a regular season game (it was also the loudest I can remember Arrowhead being in the dozen or so games that I’ve been to). Chris Jones also has deservedly received a lot of praise for his performance through two games this season. He has definitely made his case for still being one of the best defensive tackles in all of football.
The Chiefs had a thrilling win over a divisional rival last Thursday, but the biggest story of this young season may be KC’s revamped defense.
That’s all true, but what I’d like to take a moment to do today is look at the big picture when it comes to this defense. During Steve Spagnuolo’s tenure as Chiefs defensive coordinator, the Chiefs have developed a habit of starting slow on that side of the ball and then tightening things up as the season goes by. There may be no better example of this than last season where the Chiefs started 2-3 in large part because of how bad the defense was early on.
In those first five games last season, the Chiefs allowed 32.6 points per game. They allowed between 29-38 points in all five of those games. The yardage allowed wasn’t much better. They gave up 437.4 yards per game in those games. In simple terms, the defense was awful. However, after those first five games, they got significantly better on the defensive side of the ball. In the remaining 12 games, they only allowed 16.75 points per game and 340.4 yards per game. So after their poor start, they cut their points allowed in half and allowed almost 100 fewer yards per game.
While last season was probably the most extreme example, it certainly wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Spagnuolo’s defense start slow and then progress as the season goes by. Another great example was the Chiefs’ Super Bowl-winning 2019 season where the defense was mediocre early in the year, but down the stretch, the defense only allowed 11.5 points per game in their final six regular season games before heading into the playoffs.
That’s what makes the solid start by this year’s defense so encouraging. Through two games they are only allowing 22.5 points per game and 341.5 yards. That’s not elite, but when you combine those solid numbers to start with some flashes from their young players there is reason to be optimistic about just how good this defense can be. If this defense was full of veterans that had played in Spagnuolo’s system for years then maybe you could make an argument that they just hit the ground running and we may not see that much growth and improvement as the year goes on, but that couldn’t be further from the case.
The Chiefs actually have one of the youngest and least experienced defenses of Spagnuolo’s time in KC (both in NFL experience and experience in his system). There are 20 defensive players that have played multiple snaps on defense through two games. The average age of those players is just 24.95 years old. Half of those players are 24 years old or younger, including multiple key players on the defense like George Karlaftis, Mike Danna, Tershawn Wharton, all three of their starting linebackers, and all three of their promising rookie cornerbacks.
If you count the rookies and free agents who are new to K.C., nine of the 20 players that have played on defense are new to Kansas City (and therefore K.C.’s defensive scheme) this season. This is an incredibly young group that is still learning the system and how to play together—a recipe for a defense that is only going to grow and improve as the season goes on. That is why their good play early in the season should be getting more Chiefs fans excited.
You can make a strong argument that this defense has the highest ceiling of any defensive unit in the Mahomes era. The pass rush potential with Chris Jones and George Karlaftis, the sideline-to-sideline speed of the linebackers, and the secondary where 26-year-old Juan Thornhill is the oldest starting player give this team the potential to truly play complimentary football.
During the Mahomes era, the goal of the defense has been to be “good enough”. Now with this promising start and so many promising young players the goal is no longer to be just “good enough”, but to be flat-out good. That’s an exciting possibility for a team with the league’s most dynamic quarterback and the league’s most respected offensive mind as head coach.
So what do you think Chiefs fans? Are you equally excited about this promising start for KC’s young revamped defense or do you worry that it’s too early to make any kind of assessment at this point? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.