The Super Bowl is where teams go to have their flaws exposed. That was certainly the case for the Chiefs last season.
On defense, Kansas City’s inability to generate a consistent pass rush unless blitzing out of sub-packages came to the forefront against Tampa’s heavy use of base personnel and play-action. Tom Brady had all day to throw and the result was his easiest of 7 Super Bowl wins.
On the other side of the ball, Kansas City was unable to overcome their protection issues against a ferocious Tampa Bay pass rush after finding ways to work around their decimated offensive line for most of the season. That game plays out a lot differently if Patrick Mahomes had more time to throw throughout the night. It plays out differently if he had more time on just a couple of plays.
Take this 3rd-and-6 before the half with the Chiefs trailing 14-3. This was arguably the biggest play of the game in retrospect. A first down eats up the clock and keeps Tampa from scoring a TD before the half. A touchdown makes it a new game, with KC receiving the 2nd-half kickoff.
Focus on Travis Kelce at the bottom of the screen.
He was wide open for a first down (if not a touchdown). But Mahomes was unable to get him the ball because of instant pressure from Tampa’s pass rush.
This was a constant theme throughout the night.
From a protection standpoint, Kansas City went into the offseason saying there is nothing more important than protecting Patrick Mahomes. They traded for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. They brought in left guard Joe Thuney from the Patriots and center Austin Blythe from the Rams. Then they drafted center Creed Humphrey in the 2nd round. From a personnel standpoint, they addressed one of their glaring holes from a year ago.
Tactically, there are other areas where Kansas City’s offense can get better. Mahomes, for instance, needs to get better on the plays between the highlights. Yes, this is nitpicking, especially for an offense that has been consistently great with Mahomes at quarterback. You’re almost always nitpicking when criticizing a player of Mahomes’ caliber. That said, when the Chiefs struggled to be their dominant selves on offense late last season, one reason was because Mahomes didn’t let the game come to him often enough. He wasn’t taking 5 yards on 1st down or cutting the distance in half on 2nd down.
I’m not saying Mahomes should look to become a game-managing dink-and-dunk passer. But taking a few more of those passes will keep the offense on the field, create more opportunities, and limit those dry stretches on offense when defenses are determined to take away the big play. They’ll also help limit the impact of opposing pass rushes.
Andy Reid involving the running game more often and then sticking with it will also keep pass rushers at bay. The Chiefs completely abandoned the run against the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl, and that only added to the effectiveness of Tampa’s pass rush. A little more balance will also help keep defenses honest, opening up more opportunities for their explosive passing game.
On the other side of the ball, K.C.’s defensive backfield was really good last season – underrated even. The Chiefs wouldn’t have had the success they did in Steve Spagnuolo’s aggressive defensive scheme if not for their ability to cover. Spags loved to call Cover-0 blitzes (even in the middle of the field), which put more pressure on defensive backs to cover 1-on-1.
Just look at what they did to the Josh Allen-led Bills Offense in the AFC Championship Game, or the approach they took against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in Week 3. By and large, the aggressive approach worked in 2020.
That said, I do have concerns of a drop off in defensive talent from a year ago. The Chiefs lost some key starters: Tanoh Kpassagnon (DE), Damien Wilson (LB), and Bashaud Breeland (CB).
Will their offseason acquisitions do enough to fill the void? Do Jarran Reed (DT), rookie Nick Bolton (LB), Mike Hughes (CB), and Will Parks (S) move the needle by making the defense better? Does allowing Chris Jones to get more snaps at defensive end help improve K.C.’s pass rush when they aren’t bringing blitzes?
As you can see from their 2020 stats below, this team is good enough all around to handle a bit of a drop off on defense and still win 12-14 games:
The concern is more about the defense being good enough to win a Super Bowl. And that’s the goal for this team – Super Bowl or bust.
Can they get through the AFC and again handle a balanced offense like Cleveland’s, or a Bills passing game that should be more explosive after adding Emmanuel Sanders? If they get to the Super Bowl, could they handle the combination of Green Bay’s running game and Aaron Rodgers? Could they handle Tampa if they met again and make Tom Brady uncomfortable with their front-4 if the blitz is neutralized?
Patrick Mahomes might be the best quarterback in the NFL, but the Chiefs Defense will be the X-factor for this team.