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The Mystery of the Kansas City Chiefs

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 15: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs reacts before a game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Last updated on November 12, 2021

Just nine weeks ago, it seemed like every NFL analyst on the planet was predicting the Kansas City Chiefs to make their 3rd Super Bowl appearance in as many seasons. Now, at 4-4, the Chiefs sit at the bottom of the AFC West, outside of the playoff picture, and tied for the worst turnover differential in the league. Many of the wins they’ve managed to pull away with weren’t particularly impressive either, and questions have surfaced about whether or not the Chiefs are the team we all thought they were. So what went wrong? What happened to the team that has dominated the AFC for the past five years? Where is the team that seemed so invincible up until they were beaten down by Brady and the Bucs last Super Bowl?

The Offense

There is no denying that Andy Reid and co. have assembled an elite unit across the board on the offensive side of the ball. One of the best receiving corps in the league led by Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and of course Patrick Mahomes’ development into arguably the best quarterback in all of football has made this Chiefs offense nearly unstoppable in recent years. After Mahomes’ nightmare in the backfield during Super Bowl 55, they went out and revamped the offensive line, and with Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s progression into his sophomore season, the Chiefs seemed primed for their best season yet. So far, that hasn’t played out to our expectations. They remain top ten in overall yards per game and points per game. Their biggest weapons have stayed healthy and productive.

So what’s going wrong? As anyone who watches football knows, it’s never just about how many yards you can get or even points you can score. Turnovers make or break your night no matter who you are. Currently, the Chiefs lead the league in turnovers with 19 giveaways, and it is not a close margin either. They are tied for the worst turnover differential in the NFL at -11, and Mahomes has the second-highest number of interceptions with 10 in just eight games. They also lead the league in penalties with 62, although some of those are on the defense. But the biggest problem I’ve seen with this offense that, on paper, could be putting up 40 points every week, has to do with the play of superstar quarterback and face-of-the-franchise Patrick Mahomes.

The new and improved offensive line has not played like a top 10 unit in the league, but they’re not particularly bad either; they sit well outside the top 10 in hurries, pressures, and sacks allowed per dropback. They’re being blitzed at the lowest rate in the league right now (only 46 total times this entire season), yet Mahomes has scrambled at the 3rd highest rate in the league. Watching him play, it seems like he thinks he’s still back in Raymond James Stadium running for his life from Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David. His pocket is clean for the first two seconds after the snap at a very acceptable rate, but he continues to play fast and loose with the football.

Forcing tight throws on the move, refusing to set his feet outside the numbers, and ultimately playing a little too much hero-ball. Surprisingly, he is distributing the RPO fairly evenly between the ground game and his arm (only choosing to keep 55% of them for himself), but he is still fourth in the league in bad throws with 55. No one who pays attention to the NFL denies Mahomes’ talent on the football field; he has earned that respect and more in the last several years. But his play has been uncharacteristic this season. And it shows; their offensive stats are not that of a playoff team right now. Kansas City’s disappointing start to the season is not simply his fault, but change has to start with him if they are to make it back into the playoff picture.

The Defense

The Chiefs offense has overshadowed its lackluster defense for years, able to win most games purely because of their unrelenting offensive firepower. But like the offense, last year’s championship game exposed some fatal flaws with this unit. And, like the offense, those flaws have been taken advantage of this season.

Steve Spagnuolo’s squad boasts some big playmaking names, including all-pro players Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu, but they have not been able to make up for the team’s faltering offense this season. Let’s begin with the passing defense. Right now, the Chiefs rank 4th in passing yards allowed, 6th in passing touchdowns allowed, second to last in sacks, and certainly below average in total pressures and pressure rate.

They are giving up the 9th highest completion percentage at 68%, the 7th highest touchdown per pass attempt percentage, and the 4th highest yards per attempt allowed at 8.4. They also have the 4th lowest number of pass deflections and allow the 6th highest quarterback rating at 103.3. A lot left to be desired. And it doesn’t get much better with the run defense. 8th in rushing yards allowed, 3rd in rushing touchdowns allowed, and 5th in rushing yards per attempt allowed at 4.6.

With the defense, it’s harder to watch the film and pinpoint what’s going wrong as you can with the offense. I just think they’re getting out-coached. The defensive line is easily the strongest point of this team, yet they’re still allowing insane rushing numbers to backups and 3rd string offenses.

The linebackers are the weakest link, and outside of the Honey Badger and L’Jarius Sneed, there isn’t much to brag about in the secondary either. I still don’t think star power is the problem here; this unit keeps getting burnt on the same concepts every week and can’t seem to address it in practice. Basic power run schemes have had great success against this front seven and most of the blown coverages I’ve seen have been on play-action passes.

Overall, their base defense seems organized, but once the opposing quarterback starts to extend the play and go off-script, the coverage breaks down on the back end. Their performance has to improve, more so than the offense, if this team is going to have a shot at competing for another title.

This team’s statistics are not reflective of the team we all know they are. But it’s not all bad, and there’s still time. The AFC playoff race remains tight, and if the Chiefs can get back into their rhythm there’s still a very good chance that they pull away with another division title in the AFC West. It may sound contradictory considering the league is supposed to be slowly figuring out how to beat this team, but they just need to simplify things and get back to what they’re best at.

Go back to the zone runs, the RPOs out of the shotgun, the 3-man scheme between Hill, Kelce, and Mahomes. Stick to the four-man rush, the cover 3 clouds, don’t put your defense in a position to be exposed. Run damage control on defense and let your playmakers make plays and this team could be back in their seat atop the league in no time.

(All statistics from Pro Football Reference)

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