On the heels of a stretch that removed the Chiefs from the Super Bowl conversation and settled them into a proverbial fight for their playoff lives, the search for a solution returned them to the basics.
Stop the run.
It sounds simple — too simple — but a defense’s self-reflection into a complex problem resulted in a simply stated fix.
The execution followed. The Chiefs finished 2017 on a four-game winning streak, and at least on the defensive side of the football, their improvement came in the run game.
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Four times this season, the Chiefs have held a team under 100 rushing yards. Three of those four came in the final month. They just happened to be the three games in which the starters played.
“I think we’ve been doing a better job stopping the run, but you can never get complacent,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “You can never think you’ve arrived. It’s always making a conscious effort (that) we need to stop the run, stay in your gaps, play great — tough team defense.”
In the hours before the Chiefs play host to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Wild Card round of the postseason, Johnson settled on that talking point. The running game is the most dangerous element of the Titans’ offense.
So after a question centered on another component — the Titans’ screen game — Johnson reverted back to his preferred topic.
“It all starts with stopping the run,” he said. “Of course they have screen things that they possess that will hurt you. But stopping the run is the main goal. We’re working on everything else, but stopping the run is the main one.”
The Titans are an unquestioned run-first team, even if they don’t have a 1,000-yard rusher on the roster. Running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined for more than 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns, and quarterback Marcus Mariota is well-equipped to take off with the football in his hands.
Murray won’t play on Saturday because of a knee injury. But that doesn’t change the way the Chiefs’ will approach the Titans. Henry actually led Tennessee in rushing with 744 yards, and he also ran for five touchdowns.
At this stage in each of their careers, Henry might be the more dangerous weapon against the Chiefs anyway.
“Their offensive line is very physical and tough, and they’re smart,” Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “So we gotta do a good job of just staying in our gaps and being physical. You gotta want to stop the run with it being cold and with all the elements.”
That echoed a chorus within the Chiefs’ locker room this week. The Titans’ front was described as physical, tough, aggressive. And to counter a physical offensive line, Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones put it rather succinctly.
“We give it to them,” he said. “Hit them in the mouth.”
It’s as much attitude as technique, he explained, and if that’s the case, the Chiefs have adapted their mindset over the final stretch of the season.
The defense allowed 100-plus rushing yards in 11 of their first 12 games. They were gashing yards during a four-game losing streak, a large chunk of them on the ground, setting opponents up for success in the passing game.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was reluctant to identify how he defines a successful game against the run — statistics can be misleading because of down and distance — but by any formula you use, there’s been a marked improvement. After losing six of seven games, the Chiefs followed with four straight victories. In the initial three games of the four-game winning streak, they allowed an average of 75.7 rushing yards per game to the Raiders, Chargers and Dolphins.
“You just kind of have to really dig through those numbers, (but) I think honestly without looking at the numbers, you have a pretty good idea of, ‘Did you play the run good today?’” Sutton said. “That’s what I do with it.”