Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ defense is improving, and here’s one way it can and should get even better

The line change came too late, a handful of Chiefs defenders sprinting onto the field while others scurried off of it. As the Vikings prepared to hike the ball on a fourth-quarter play Sunday, the Chiefs had only 10 men lined up on defense. And they didn’t have adequate time to decipher assignment and coverage plans.

Wouldn’t you know it, Minnesota pounced on the late substitutions with a go-ahead touchdown pass. Same as the Vikings had done earlier in the half, when the Chiefs left a running back completely unguarded on a score.

Two blunders. Two touchdowns.

But these are the types of plays that have the Chiefs more optimistic about their defense than they were a month ago. Or even a year ago.

Confused? Bear with them here.

The mistakes don’t derive from ongoing issues with scheme. They’re not indicative of inability in personnel. They’re not problems that prompt you to throw your hands in the air wondering what can be done.

More simply, they are correctable.

“Exactly,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said when presented with that hypothesis. “That’s the communication part — playing together, knowing a kind of funky-looking offensive formation or motion. Sometimes it’s just slight adjustments on those. You don’t have enough time to communicate everything verbally. So it might be a point, but whatever it is, it has to get done quickly.”

Although they have largely been better in that area than they were early in the season, the Chiefs were bitten twice on communication errors Sunday.

Outside of that? Quite good. They held the league’s leading rusher to 71 yards. Held the Vikings to 33 percent on third downs. Held them to 308 net yards. They’re growing closer to it showing on the scoreboard in a more drastic way.

The Vikings scored both of their second-half touchdowns on third-down plays. If the Chiefs fix their errors and force field goal attempts instead, that’s a difference of eight points.

Instead, communication problems have nagged them. In a zone defense, the Chiefs left the entire right side of the field undefended, and Ameer Abdullah could’ve walked into the end zone after a reception at the 11-yard line. Without seeing the playsheet, it’s impossible to know exactly who blew the assignment.

But it’s clear someone ran to the wrong spot — or thought a teammate would account for the other side of the field.

“Everything that we did wrong within the game is correctable,” Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “We just gotta go out there and communicate — that’s the biggest thing.”

“That’s been our biggest downfall this year — not communicating. As the weeks go on, we’ve been getting better at it. So I’m excited. I know this week we’re going to harp on it.”

Perhaps this is to be expected with a new scheme and drastic turnover in personnel. In the back end alone, five of the Chiefs’ top six defensive backs Sunday did not play in Kansas City a year ago. None of the six, obviously, played for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

That helps explain the lack of panic after this unit’s overall performance had jetted south through six weeks. More than halfway through the season, the Chiefs rank 11th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, a statistic that adjusts based on teams’ strength of schedule. (They’ve had the second-hardest schedule in the league, per the same website.)

In 2018, as scheme and personnel grew exposed, the Chiefs ranked 26th in this statistic. In 2017, they were 30th.

So therein lies the optimism. The Chiefs are unquestionably improved in the metrics this year — with more room to grow, if they can solve their communication mishaps.

“In those situations, that’s playing together,” Reid said. “The more that you do it, the better you’ll get at it.”

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