A persistent myth surrounds this year’s Kansas City squad; many people think the offense makes this team. Those same people believe the Chiefs won’t match up to upcoming Super Bowl foes, the San Francisco 49ers, unless superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes carries the team on his back.
After all, aren’t these mostly the same guys from last season’s dismal defense? The ones who earned the Chiefs’ reputation as a team that controls the game on only one side of the ball? Entering Super Bowl LIV, this is simply not true.
How the Chiefs’ defense earned its poor reputation
This myth of the Chiefs’ weak defense didn’t materialize out of thin air. They earned it during the 2018-19 season. As any sports fan knows, nothing gets a team stuck with a reputation like bungling things on a big stage.
Their 2019 AFC championship game against the New England Patriots was that moment. The game spun out of control immediately, leaving Mahomes‘ offense with a quick 14-0 deficit to overcome. He did so with aplomb.
By the final minute of the game, KC was up 28-24. An incredible pass to Rob Gronkowski suddenly changed the narrative, opening up the Patriots for a four-yard touchdown. Again, Mahomes was put in an awkward position.
The Chiefs ran the ball to the 39-yard mark, made the kick, and forced overtime. The Patriots won the toss. They quickly drove in the final touchdown for a win. For the Chiefs, a functional defense would’ve let them run roughshod over New England. KC resolved to never let this kind of opportunity slip through their fingers again.
What the Chiefs look like without Mahomes
Yes, it’s true that these Chiefs aren’t particularly different from last year’s weak defense. But both the plan and mentality have changed. With these, the physical performances have developed, too.
When Mahomes went down with a knee injury in Week 7, few talked about replacement Matt Moore like he was the next big thing in the NFL. But by the time Mahomes fell and the defense had to either step up or lose, they chose the former.
Mahomes returned from his dislocated knee in top form. The Chiefs emerged as a well-rounded team, with a defense ranked 12th in points allowed per drive. The key stat as far as Super Bowl LIV is concerned, though? The Chiefs allowed fewer points per game during the regular season than the 49ers.
The changes behind the Chiefs’ defense
The biggest change for the new Chiefs: switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. At first, the move was rocky. But they trusted the process, and it paid off. The Chiefs went from allowing 24 points per game at the start of the season to just 16.4 by the midpoint. What changed? In part, it’s about who changed.
This seasons’ new defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, drove the new narrative. Talented but mistake-prone players like edge rusher Dee Ford were sent packing in favor of the more sure-handed Frank Clark. Veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs put a bow on the defense.
After that, it was a matter of grinding under the new defensive plan with a special eye toward functioning as a cohesive unit. Less spur-of-the-moment decision making, more planned action playing to the strengths of each defensive player.
It took some weeks to catch on fully. Spagnuolo stayed firm and ultimately steadied the ship. The 2018-19 Chiefs, noted for seeming downright confused on who to cover, became a defense with a purpose.
Now, this defense will definitively prove their status one way or the other: Can they can shut down Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense?
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