Tipping Point: Will New Faces on Defense Propel Chiefs to go all the way in 2019?

scott-asner-kansas-city

With the September 8 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars just weeks away, I’m excited about the Kansas City Chiefs’ prospects for 2019.  Like every other Chiefs fan, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time – ever since our heart-breaking overtime loss to the New England Patriots in last year’s AFC Championship game.

Unless you were living in a cave last season, it would have been impossible not to notice that second year-quarterback Patrick Mahomes lit up the scoreboard all season long, becoming just the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a single season. Mahomes led the chiefs to an impressive 12-4 regular season record, a performance that was good enough to earn Kansas City the AFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs – the first time the Chiefs reached the top seed in the conference since 1997. It was also good enough to earn Patrick Mahomes the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Despite having the NFL’s best offense and home-field advantage, I was still concerned the Chiefs might somehow find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when they faced the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round.  After all, the Chiefs had lost the last six of their previous home playoff games and 4 of their last playoff games against Indianapolis.

My fears proved to be unfounded.  Mahomes picked apart the Colts secondary and Kansas City’s unstoppable offense rolled up an impressive 31-13 victory to end 25 years of playoff drought. 

Although the Chiefs fielded the best offense in the league, the defense – which ranked second to last among NFL teams in total defense – played inconsistently throughout the season.  Despite performing well against Indianapolis in the divisional round, the defense collapsed in the second half of the AFC Conference Championship against New England, allowing the Patriots to run the ball into the end zone during the overtime period (and ending our dreams of Superbowl glory). 

Following the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Chiefs fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and brought in Steve Spagnuolo, a veteran defensive guru who is known for running aggressive defenses and favoring unconventional blitzing schemes.  Spagnuolo has a lot of experience coaching defense for winning teams, most notably the 2007 New York Giants Super Bowl team.  He also worked previously as part of Andy Reid’s coaching staff with the Philadelphia Eagles and spent two years as a head coach with the St. Louis Rams.

In addition to changing the defensive coaching staff and going from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3, the Chiefs let some marquee players go. Gone are defensive lineman Allen Bailey, linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford, cornerback Steven Nelson and safety Eric Berry.  Given the disaster that was the Chiefs’ secondary last year – not to mention Berry’s chronic injury issues – those moves should have come as no surprise.  Losing veterans Dee Ford and Justin Houston DID surprise a lot of people, yet considering the move to a 4-3 defense, it may prove to be justified.

Their likely replacements include defensive linemen Frank Clark, a free agent acquisition formerly with the Seattle Seahawks and Alex Okafor, acquired from the New Orleans Saints.  Along with linebacker Damien Wilson (Dallas Cowboys), all three of these players have significant experience playing in the 4-3 scheme.  Adding to the mix are free agent defensive backs Bashard Breeland (Green Bay Packers) and Tyrann Mathieu (Houston Texans).  Bashard, a cornerback who played with the Washington Redskins for three seasons, signed with the Packers last September.  Despite playing in only 7 games last season, he amassed 20 tackles, four passes defended, two interceptions and a tackle for loss.  Tyrann Mathieu is a veteran safety who will provide leadership and depth.

The new free agents will be joined by veteran stalwarts Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland at linebacker, defensive tackle Chris Jones (who just reported to training camp after a long holdout) and defensive backs Daniel Sorenson (safety) and Kendall Fuller (cornerback).  Juan Thornhill, a second- round pick in the 2019 draft, has impressed in training camp and will likely compete with Sorenson for the starting free safety slot.

Will this makeover of the Chiefs defense be enough to take them over the threshold?  No one can say for certain, but we will all know soon enough.  One thing I do expect: a vastly improved Kansas City Chiefs defense.

~ Scott Asner Kansas City, Missouri