Opponents over the past month have had their way on the ground against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Since Week 2, opposing teams have amassed 698 yards rushing, a healthy average of 174.5 yards per game, against the Chiefs.
And it doesn’t get easier in Week 6 against the Houston Texans, a team that currently ranks 10th in the league in rushing featuring a backfield of Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson. Dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has 122 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 22 attempts, can also hurt a team with his legs.
Perhaps knowing what awaits them Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs’ defense spent time the past week renewing its emphasis on stopping the run.
“The run is our first priority,” linebacker Damien Wilson said. “I think it will be our first priority through the season.”
Linebacker Ben Niemann, who is line to see extended action if Anthony Hitchens (groin, questionable) can’t play, agreed.
“We haven’t done as well stopping the run as we would’ve liked to so far this year,” Niemann said. “So, that’s definitely a big focus and we’re going to try and limit their ground game, for sure.”
Saying and doing are two entirely different matters, of course, and there’s little doubt the Chiefs have struggled mightily in limiting an opponent’s ground attack over a four-game stretch.
The Texans offer a major challenge as one of the NFL’s top rushing units, averaging 129.4 yards per game. Houston also averages 5.1 yards per attempt, which is tied for the seventh-most in the league.
The Chiefs enter Week 6 ranked 30th in the league against the run, allowing 155.8 yards per game. And on top of Hitchens’ uncertain status for Sunday’s game, the Chiefs are without defensive tackle Chris Jones (groin) and defensive tackle Xavier Williams (ankle); Williams has landed on injured reserve.
Still, the issues that have plagued the Chiefs’ run defense aren’t limited to such things as injuries, players maintaining gap responsibility or making the play at the point of attack.
“It’s everything,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “Usually when that happens like that, it’s not one thing. You can’t put your finger on it. To us, we’ve just go right back to the basics. It’s about defeating blocks, getting off blocks and making tackles.”
Stopping the run also requires a little attitude and a desire to impose your team’s will on an offense, as some of the top defenses in NFL history show.
Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher led some of the fiercest run defenses during their playing days. The Chiefs even boasted the eighth-best run defense in the league just four years ago with a unit anchored by run-stoppers Derrick Johnson, Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito, Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey, among others.
“It is an attitude, and those names you just named right there, those guys had that attitude and everybody around them had that attitude,” linebacker Darron Lee said. “I think we will definitely have to have that attitude by taking the fight to teams and not waiting on them to get up on us for big gains. We made that a huge point of emphasis this week, of jumping out on teams and setting that attitude throughout the whole game.”
Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah said the mentality must start with the front seven, especially knowing teams will look to attack the Chiefs defense based on the past month.
And if recent games have had any effect on Kansas City’s defensive players, anger over the results could be a motivating factor Sunday.
“I feel stopping the run is all about the mindset,” Ogbah said. “It’s mano a mano, man-on-man. You’re not going to kick my (expletive); I’m going to kick your (expletive). That’s how I look at it.”
In the meantime, the past week of practice heightened the Chiefs’ sense of urgency to plug a gaping hole on defense. Spagnuolo mentioned a return to fundamentals, and the message was received loud and clear among his players.
Ogbah said he and his defensive teammates emphasized the importance of defensive ends setting the edge in tandem with interior defensive linemen filling the gaps and taking on blockers to free up the linebackers to make plays.
Whether these points of emphasis are successful against a potent Texans run game remains to be seen, but the Chiefs feel good entering the matchup.
“I like the way we practiced this week,” Lee said. “I’m excited to put it to show on Sunday.”