Kansas City Chiefs

The new Chiefs defense passes first test with room to improve: ‘It felt dope, man’

Frank Clark: ‘You pay the cost to be the boss’

Chiefs' defensive end Frank Clark was the subject of attention by the Jaguars on Sunday in Jacksonville.
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Chiefs' defensive end Frank Clark was the subject of attention by the Jaguars on Sunday in Jacksonville.

The short man walked tall in a gold blazer and red tie appropriate for his first game day in this new job. Steve Spagnuolo wore a quick strut and a toothy smile.

The Chiefs defensive coordinator covered the path through the locker room in 10 seconds, maybe 15, all of it through the corner of the space where his players sat. They smiled back. The job had been done.

Not perfectly done and, depending on how critical you want to be for a season opener, maybe not even particularly well done in a 40-26 win over the Jaguars here on Sunday.

But the group that a year ago proved the only one in the league capable of stopping Patrick Mahomes showed the seeds of something else entirely: one with the foundation to grow from hindrance to asset.

“Felt dope, man,” defensive end Frank Clark said. “Great vibes.”

This is a work in progress. The men involved know that. They admit that. Their first game together showed that.

The Chiefs’ biggest problem came with miscommunications, and their biggest exposure came against the pass. Jaguars starting quarterback Nick Foles missed most of the game with a shoulder injury, but backup Gardner Minshew — a sixth-round pick out of Washington State — completed 22 of 25 passes for 275 yards.

Kansas City Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder describes the injury wide receiver Tyreek Hill sustained in the team's 40-26 defeat over the Jaguars Sunday in Jacksonville.

Together, Foles and Minshew threw for 350 yards — an unacceptable total, even if 127 of it came on the last two drives with the outcome out of reach.

Much of the damage carried a common theme: a defender lining up in the wrong spot, or losing track on where a teammate would be.

You could see that most clearly with big plays — 201 of the Jaguars’ 350 passing yards came on six of their 27 completions.

This play is a good example. Chiefs cornerback Bashaud Breeland is in zone coverage, letting D.J. Chark slip by to jump on the underneath route. Assignments are impossible to know, and analysis is better done with the All-22 video that will be available later in the week. But Minshew sees that’s Chark being covered without safety help. The pass is a relatively easy 35 yards.

This has been said before but is worth repeating here quickly. The Chiefs overhauled their defense. A completely new coaching staff. Many new starters, with stars like Justin Houston and Dee Ford and Eric Berry replaced by Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu and Emmanuel Ogbah. Those newcomers played a total of three snaps together in the preseason.

The games count now, obviously, but with everyone needing to learn from each other it makes sense that improvement will come.

“The more those guys play together and with the system,” coach Andy Reid said. “I just think the sky is the limit.”

Particularly for the first game, this group showed enough to earn cautious optimism. Jacksonville scored two touchdowns late, neither pulling the score closer than 14 points, and the Chiefs made the most important defensive play by either team.

It came midway through the third quarter, with the Jags approaching the red zone and poised to pull within a touchdown or field goal. Jacksonville ran tailback Leonard Fournette on a route out of the backfield on third down — a direct attack on one of the Chiefs’ greatest weaknesses last year — but Damien Wilson closed quickly and found his tackle with a good grip on the ball.

He ripped it loose, and when Breeland recovered it was the first lost fumble of Fournette’s career. The offense turned that into a touchdown, pushing the margin to 17 points.

“That took the juice out of them,” Clark said.

The tackling, too. The difference showed itself in the preseason, but then, that’s the preseason. The Jaguars possess enough explosive weapons to test a group that a year ago amplified all of its problems with unreliable tackling.

This sounds like a small thing, and maybe it is, but when you’ve seen the bad it’s worth pointing out the good. The Chiefs had some misses, sure. But for the most part they set their feet, attacked the ball carrier and brought him down. Over and over, Chiefs defenders credited Spagnuolo with the emphasis on tackling.

Spagnuolo’s voice is among the loudest at any Chiefs practice, and he screams more about tackling than anything else.

“Every day,” Wilson said. “Every day.”

Kansas City Chief's coach Andy Reid discusses Patrick Mahomes' ankle injury and the performance of Sammy Watkins who scored three touchdowns in the team's 40-26 victory over the Jaguars Sunday in Jacksonville.

Spagnuolo presses his guys to get as close to the ball carrier as possible, and then “thud.” If you can’t get as close as you’d like, then target the hips and drive. Many of his players came here from other places. But no matter where a Chiefs defender played last year, the answer is unanimous: Spagnuolo prioritized tackling more than his predecessor.

Some of this is scheme, though, too. Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens described the difference as one of positioning. Spagnuolo’s preferred 4-3 makes it easier to cover each of an offensive front’s gaps, even with a tight end.

The defenders call it “building a wall.” When the offense sets, the defenders know their assignment. Derrick Nnadi might take the guard, Clark the tackle and Wilson the tight end. If an offensive lineman pulls, Hitchens finds this system often has two defenders on the spot. One takes outside, the other inside.

“Everybody has a gap,” Hitchens said. “Therefore it’s easier to make tackles. Every gap is taken. You’re not making arm tackles, side tackles. You’re squared up.”

Again, there is much to improve. Perfection is impossible in the NFL, particularly with those tasked with running against the wind of offense right now, but even by those standards the Chiefs will find mistakes to correct.

This feels manageable, however, in a way that just hasn’t the last few years. Maybe that’s a false sense of security after the repeated and predictable failures in recent seasons.

But there are fundamental differences here. A better energy. A more stable foundation. Much improved tackling. A fresh start.

The consensus is this group will start to closer resemble a finished product by the fourth or fifth game, and should continue to improve through the rest of the regular season. The burden of proof is on them. But this was a palatable opening argument.

Kansas City Chiefs' quarterback Patrick Mahomes talked about wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill and his sprained ankle during a post-game press conference after the team defeated the Jaguars 40-26 Sunday in Jacksonville.

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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.