After a Week 10 loss to the Titans in which the Chiefs gave up 225 rushing yards, it looked like Kansas City’s porous run defense would get in the way of their Super Bowl aspirations for the 2nd straight year. The Chiefs were allowing 148.1 rushing yards per game and 5.14 yards per carry at that point. Since then, Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has gotten things turned around, as K.C.’s defense has allowed just 93.6 rushing yards per game and 4.35 yards per carry.
To show you the improvement, first look at this 68-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry against the Chiefs in Week 10.
That run had it all. The defensive line was cleared out like it didn’t even exist. Linebackers over-pursued. Gap integrity was non-existent. The tackling was terrible.
Good run defense isn’t rocket science. It’s about winning at the line of scrimmage. It’s about penetrating to create negative plays and getting the offense off schedule. It’s about good tackling, defenders staying in their gaps, and everyone doing their job. The Chiefs have been much better in this area over their last 8 games.
The below run, against the Titans and Derrick Henry once again, was a good example. Here, Henry was forced back inside due to linebacker Reggie Ragland (#59) quickly reading the play and attacking the line of scrimmage. Chris Jones (#95) used his strength and athleticism to win his 1-on-1. Good pursuit by the rest of the defense gave Henry no daylight.
Below is another example, with the Chiefs winning at the line of scrimmage on the play side (#95-Chris Jones, #92-Tanoh Kpassagnon), enabling Terrell Suggs (#94) to make the tackle pursuing from the backside.
Chris Jones is so important to this this D-Line. While he might be known more for his ability to rush the passer, Jones is more than able to use his strength and athleticism to make plays against the run, as you saw above. Those negative plays or runs gaining minimal yards get offenses off schedule and force them to turn to their passing game, which is what K.C. wants.
Despite the improvement in the Chiefs’ run defense over the last 8 games, they still are a far cry from the ‘85 Bears. They do have vulnerabilities in the run game because the defensive line can be moved.
Defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi (#91) still struggles at times and is often displaced on big running plays. This run from the AFC Championship Game was a good example, with Nnadi getting driven off the ball on the play side.
This is something we have seen throughout K.C.’s defensive tackle rotation. Watch Khalen Saunders (#99) get blown off the ball here.
The Chiefs were able to get penetration into the backfield on this run and it didn’t make a difference because their play-side defensive tackle lost so badly.
Looking ahead to Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers not only have a great zone running game (similar to the Titans), but Kyle Shanahan also does a great job of mixing in counter and power runs. These plays go if the O-line can get a good double-team on the play-side defensive tackle. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 49ers target K.C.’s interior line with these types of runs.
This is why a healthy Chris Jones is so important for the Chiefs. The fewer snaps with their 2nd and 3rd-string defensive linemen rotating in, the better.
You know what else is so important to the Chiefs’ run defense? Patrick Mahomes. During this 8-game winning streak, there has been one constant – the Chiefs have taken a 2-possession lead in the 3rd quarter in 7 of those 8 games. The one exception was the AFC Championship, where Kansas City held the ball for most of the 3rd quarter and took an 11-point lead ten seconds into the 4th.
Teams have had to become one-dimensional for much of the 2nd half against the Chiefs after falling behind. The numbers bear this out too. During their last 8 games, opponents have averaged 13.6 runs for 58.9 yards in the first half and 7.9 runs for 34.8 yards in the 2nd half. Becoming one-dimensional against a Steve Spagnuolo defense is not where offenses or quarterbacks want to be. But it’s a place Mahomes has put them with his stellar play since returning from injury.
The Chiefs will face their toughest test of the season in Super Bowl LIV, as the 49ers boast one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. If San Francisco can keep this game close and continue to run their full offense late in the game, the outcome could be far different for K.C.’s run defense.
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