Defense wins championships.
The great Bear Bryant’s words have stood the test of time year in and year out in the sport of football. While the offense is an equally important aspect of the game, ultimately, the defense is what makes or breaks a team’s season.
Last season, the NFL was an offensive spectacle, with teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams lighting up the scoreboard and shattering records. However, it was ultimately a strong defensive performance that won the Super Bowl, with the aforementioned Rams’ offense being silenced by the New England Patriots.
So while the offensive juggernauts were in full force during the regular season, yet again, it was the defense that won the championship.
The importance of a good defense brings us to the Chiefs, the NFL’s most polarizing team last season. Kansas City boasted the league’s highest-scoring offense but also had one of the worst defenses. A defense that has gotten progressively worse over the past four seasons.
It was this abysmal defense that led to the Chiefs’ downfall at the hands of the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, where they repeatedly failed to make one big stop with the game on the line. Just like that, the Chiefs’ magical season was over.
— Billy Krumb (@ClubhouseCancer) January 21, 2019
In the days following Kansas City’s heartbreaking defeat, it was evident that something needed to change. The defense needed a complete overhaul and someone needed to be held accountable for the repeated poor performances.
Head coach Andy Reid agreed, and finally made the move that Chief fans had been clamoring for with the firing of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Sutton, who was known for his lack of in-game adjustments and questionable schemes, was done in Kansas City.
And thus began a mission for Reid and general manager Brett Veach to completely rebuild the defense and bring it back to a respectable level. Reid did his part by assembling a promising new defensive staff led by the veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a two-time Super Bowl winning coach.
Spagnuolo alone is an immediate upgrade for the Chiefs’ defense. While he’s had some mixed results during his coaching career, he is not as prone to the same glaring mistakes that Sutton made. He will make in-game adjustments, utilize different schemes to combat opposing offenses, and most importantly, blitz.
Once the coaching staff was in place, it was time to focus on the players. This was the starting defense from Week 1 of last season that Brett Veach was tasked with fixing:
- DE – Chris Jones
- NT – Xavier Williams
- DE – Allen Bailey
- OLB – Justin Houston
- ILB – Anthony Hitchens
- ILB – Reggie Ragland
- OLB – Dee Ford
- CB – Steven Nelson
- CB – Kendall Fuller
- S – Eric Murray
- S – Ron Parker
Over the next three months, Veach essentially gutted and completely overhauled the referenced defense, which began with the releases of Justin Houston and Eric Berry, and the trade of Dee Ford to the San Francisco 49ers.
On the surface, losing these three players may seem like a heavy blow. However, Berry has barely played over the past two seasons, while Houston and Ford were not seen as ideal fits in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme. The moves also gave Kansas City $35 million in much-needed salary cap space.
From there, Veach made a big splash in free agency by signing the dynamic safety Tyrann Mathieu to become one of the defense’s new leaders. Also brought in via free agency were linebacker Damien Wilson and defensive end Alex Okafor, who are both penciled in as starters heading into training camp.
Veach also made splashes in the trade market, headlined by the star defensive end, Frank Clark, who was acquired from the Seattle Seahawks for a package of draft picks which included the Chiefs’ 2019 1st rounder. Veach also acquired defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah from the Cleveland Browns and linebacker Darron Lee from the New York Jets.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, Veach selected safety Juan Thornhill in the second round. Thornhill, who received a first-round grade from some scouts, figures to be a Day 1 starter alongside Mathieu. Veach also selected Khalen Saunders, a defensive lineman out of the FCS with a high motor and freakish athleticism. He can even do a backflip!
Western Illinois DT Khalen Saunders is 320-pounds and can backflip 🤯 pic.twitter.com/IsAmfHX5Ux
— Footballism™ (@FootbaIIism) May 23, 2019
Barring a last-minute signing or trade before training camp, Veach appears to be done making moves this offseason. With that being said, let’s take a look at the Kansas City Chiefs new starting defense:
- DE – Alex Okafor
- DT – Derrick Nnadi
- DT – Chris Jones
- DE – Frank Clark
- OLB – Darron Lee
- MLB – Anthony Hitchens
- OLB – Damien Wilson
- CB – Bashaud Breeland
- CB – Kendall Fuller
- S – Juan Thornhill
- S – Tyrann Mathieu
When the Chiefs open the season in Jacksonville, this defense could feature eight new starters compared to last year’s lineup. Brett Veach successfully overhauled his team’s defense, but will it be enough to make them Super Bowl contenders?
At first glance, this defense looks better on paper than the one listed earlier in this article. The defensive line and safety positions, which were once glaring weaknesses, now figure to be strengths with the additions of Okafor, Clark, Mathieu, and Thornhill.
Clark and Chris Jones should form one of the leagues an elite run-stopping, pass-rushing tandems, while Nnadi and Okafor will also help in strengthening a run defense that was ranked 31st in the league last season by Pro Football Focus.
Clark's combination of athleticism and power make him really, really tough to deal with in the run game. Relentless as well. pic.twitter.com/9Hir1AOoHp
— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) April 23, 2019
However, where there are strengths, there are also weaknesses, and the Chiefs defense still has question marks, particularly at the linebacker and cornerback positions. Both groups are not without optimism though, as the team is hopeful that Anthony Hitchens will play better this season in a 4-3 scheme that he was more accustomed to during his time with the Dallas Cowboys.
Another player to watch at linebacker is the speedy Darron Lee, who looked much better in his third season with the Jets. The Chiefs are hoping for lightning in a bottle with Lee as he enters the walk-year of his contract. Could he become this year’s Dee Ford?
As for the cornerback position, there is much uncertainty behind the starters Fuller and Breeland. Charvarius Ward showed tremendous promise in the later stages of last season and the hope is that he’ll continue to develop into a starter. Outside of Ward, the depth at this position includes AAF sensation Keith Reaser, rookie 6th round draft pick Rashad Fenton, second-year pro Tremon Smith, and a hand full of undrafted free agents.
While this cornerback group is far from perfect, the upgrades at the safety position should help to overshadow some of their shortcomings. Terrible play from the safeties last season is what ultimately led to a surprisingly solid cornerback group receiving a ton of heat at times when it wasn’t deserved.
There’s no doubt that this group could certainly use another bonafide cornerback. Patrick Peterson was the subject of trade rumors that had him landing in Kansas City, but his recent suspension quickly quelled those rumors. However, there is zero doubt that Veach will pull the trigger on a deal at any time if it means making his team better.
It’s certainly fair to say that the Chiefs’ defense looks like it will be improved this season; however, it’s also fair to question how much better given the amount of turnover and new personnel. It really can’t get much worse than last year, can it?
Overall, I believe that this defense will be middle-of-the-pack capable of making big plays when needed, but don’t be surprised if they’re even better. Even if they are ranked in the middle, that would’ve been good enough to put them in the Super Bowl last season. Will it be enough this season?
For the first time in NFL history, the MVP is a Chief.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) February 2, 2019
Regardless of what happens with the defense, as long as the Chiefs have this guy, you can never count them out.
Photo: John Munson | NJ Advance Media