Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ new defense played a game at Arrowhead Saturday (sort of). Let’s discuss!

Andy Reid happy with Chiefs’ preseason performance against Cincinnati

Andy Reid speaks after the Chiefs' first preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Andy Reid speaks after the Chiefs' first preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, at Arrowhead Stadium.

Quick, the Chiefs just played a preseason game, so let’s overreact!

The plan for this space is to focus on a remade defense, and for obvious reasons. A year ago, the Chiefs’ defense performed so poorly it proved to be the only defense that could stop Patrick Mahomes.

This offseason, the organization selected an entirely new defensive coaching staff, new scheme and lots of new players with hopes of a better outcome.

The first viewing in game-like conditions made, well, it made whatever impression you wanted it to make. That’s not a joke. That’s the truth.

The offense showed itself as expected. Mahomes and the starters zoomed down the field for a touchdown in their only possession together. Highlights included a perfectly placed pass to Travis Kelce on an out-and-up route for a 36-yard gain, Mecole Hardman showing his speed on a jet-sweep shovel pass, and the time Mahomes could have gone out of bounds but juked back inside before sliding close to the goal line.

Let’s state the obvious: A front office that freaked on Mahomes playing pickup basketball could not be thrilled with him declining safety to run back toward linebackers IN A PRESEASON GAME.

One more point before we get back to the defense: The panic move to make pass interference reviewable is even worse in practice than it sounded at the time. Technology should be a tool, not the master, and long reviews over every contested pass is going to rip momentum and fun from Sunday afternoons.

The league needs a solution to a problem it created. Make the reviews rarer and quicker, or go back to a system that worked better with the notable exception of one awful call in an awful spot.

But, moving on ...

If you are inclined to see the worst, you saw all you needed when the Chiefs’ starters could not stop the Bengals’ first-team offense on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.

You might recall the last time we saw men in red helmets play defense on this field they gave up a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in overtime to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

The Chiefs’ defense Saturday on the Bengals’ opening drive stunk, too. Bashaud Breeland was beat badly by Bengals receiver Josh Malone. He may have been expecting safety help — assignments are hard to guess — but Andy Dalton’s pass was so badly underthrown that Breeland had time to recover.

Charvarius Ward gave up a 26-yard pass in one-on-one coverage down the right sideline (the coverage was actually OK but Dalton’s pass was perfect). The Chiefs’ pass rushers generated next-to-zero pressure.

It looked a whole lot like last year, is the point.

But, if you are inclined to see the best, you will point out that the defense came within a whisker of a turnover on that possession that was — we’d say surprisingly, but who the heck knows anymore? — overturned on a review.

You’d also point out that Frank Clark watched from the sideline in a T-shirt, and that Tyrann Mathieu and Chris Jones played just a few snaps.

There were good moments, too. Genuine good moments. Derrick Nnadi moved men at the line of scrimmage, Armani Watts knocked down a pass as a blitzer and another one in coverage, and Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon got sacks on consecutive snaps. They even stopped a screen on third down!

All preseason games are hard to judge, and the first ranks below only the last in The Meaningless Power Rankings. Game plans are plain, personnel groups mixed past the optimal point and the competition uneven. Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ new defensive coordinator, was particularly liberal with his substitutions.

But we’ve waited — yes, I looked it up — 202 days to see literally anything other than what we saw from the Chiefs’ defense the last time. So, impressions will be made, even if they’ll be washed away by the waves to come.

Here’s mine: The personnel is several levels better than a year ago. That is beyond debate, but somehow it isn’t talked about enough.

Clark is better than Dee Ford or Justin Houston, the defensive line is even deeper and the safeties have gone from one of the worst position groups in football to a potential strength.

Logically, the determining factor of whether the defense’s improvement is marginal or significant will be how thoroughly Spagnuolo’s scheme and coaching take traction.

This is an attempt at a culture change as much as anything else. The switch in scheme — from a passive 3-4 to an aggressive 4-3 — will take time to click and teams will never show much of that in the preseason.

What’s real (to borrow one of Andy Reid’s favorite phrases) is that the players are better and a coaching approach that had long gone stale has been entirely flipped.

We didn’t see enough in this game to know what the defense will be, but that was never a possibility. We did see enough to keep an open mind, which at this point is all that can be asked.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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