Now, we know what you’re thinking right now. How can there be a problem that Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid can’t team up and solve together? Well, unless the 2018 NFL MVP intends on throwing for 400 yards and five touchdowns per game, he’s in need of some serious help from his defense.
Opponents carved up the Chiefs’ red zone defense throughout the 2020 season
Some teams, simply put, are never going to be the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the early 2010s Seattle Seahawks on defense. Indianapolis Colts fans remember how many times Peyton Manning kept their Super Bowl hopes alive even if the team had an average defense.
Mahomes and the Chiefs find themselves in a similar situation at this stage in his career. Although defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit often provides some fine performances, they’re also responsible for outings that force the team’s star quarterback to pull off his signature magic and rally for a victory.
There’s only so much Mahomes can do to help his defense, though. Despite making it all the way to Super Bowl 55 and only allowing 22.6 points per game, the Chiefs allowed touchdowns on 73% of the team’s red zone drives last year. How could a team that finished 10th in points allowed have been so ineffective within the 20-yard line?
Only one another team, the miserable Detroit Lions, allowed touchdowns on over 70% of its red zone trips. According to TeamRankings, the Chiefs’ 72.88% ranked slightly below the Lions’ 72.31%, for the record.
Those red zone issues returned in a Week 1 victory over the Cleveland Browns
Normally, the idea of “new year, same old Chiefs” would be a terrifying thought for the rest of the NFL. Mahomes is back for his fourth season as a starting quarterback, and he still has the likes of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill at his disposal.
However, the concept applies to the negatives, too. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns’ potent offense took advantage of the Chiefs’ red zone woes early and often. Running back Nick Chubb capped off a seven-minute drive with a 4-yard rushing touchdown early in the first quarter. Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs’ former Pro Bowl running back, scored a two-point conversion to put the Browns up 8-0.
A few plays after rookie receiver Anthony Schwartz’s 44-yard catch brought the Browns into Chiefs territory, veteran wideout Jarvis Landry scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown to put Cleveland up 15-0. Cleveland took a 22-10 lead before the half when Chubb scored an 18-yard touchdown with 2:55 left in the second quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Browns made it back to the Chiefs’ red zone and took a 29-20 lead on Hunt’s 2-yard rushing touchdown. Although the Chiefs rallied and won 33-29, the team allowed the Browns to turn all four of their red zone chances into touchdowns.
Tyrann Mathieu’s upcoming return could greatly benefit the Chiefs’ defense
Not every problem has an easy solution. It doesn’t help that the Chiefs play against Lamar Jackson, arguably the league’s most dangerous rushing quarterback, and the Ravens in Week 2.
For now, the Chiefs will need to work with what they have. All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu missed Week 1 after spending time on the COVID-19 list, and he is expected to play against the Ravens. It is not yet known if the two-time Pro Bowler will operate on a snap count in his first game back.
If the Ravens operate with the red zone precision that Mayfield’s Browns did, then Sunday Night Football fans might be in for a barnburner. Something tells us that the Chiefs might just need another MVP-caliber performance from the quarterback widely considered to be the league’s best if they’re to avoid a 1-1 start.