Chiefs vs. Titans: Ryan Tannehill’s quiet productivity and other storylines

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 03: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans drops back to pass during their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 03, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 03: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans drops back to pass during their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 03, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /
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KANSAS CITY, MO – OCTOBER 27: Quarterbacks Matt Moore (L), Patrick Mahomes (R) and Kyle Shurmur (C) of the Kansas City Chiefs look on during pre-game workouts prior to a game against the Green Bay Packers at Arrowhead Stadium on October 27, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images) /

The Return of Patrick Mahomes

There was always this sentiment in the back of Chiefs fan’s minds, and more than likely the coaches and players, that if this Chiefs team could just stay healthy they would be one of if not the most likely team to raise the Lombardi trophy at the end of the 2019 season.

The Chiefs were absolutely stacked at every position on offense boasting the best receiving corp in recent memory with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and a new addition in speedy rookie Mecole Hardman. They had the reigning MVP in Patrick Mahomes who could matriculate the ball down the field in his sleep.

Sure, they had some holes on defense, but those could be schemed over by the new all-star defensive coaching staff led by the man arguably responsible for defeating the 18-0 2007 New England Patriots. This was the Chiefs year, and Chiefs Kingdom was ecstatic.

Fast forward to halfway through the season and the Chiefs have piled up the most injuries that I can remember as a fan. I don’t have a stat to back that up, but I can’t remember any seasons where the Chiefs were even remotely considered contenders in which they had this many injuries. Game in and game out, sometimes up to five and six starters have been sidelined.

What’s worse, in what seemed like a moment only experienced by a cursed franchise, the team’s best player and ultimately its best hope for a Super Bowl went down with a scary injury in week seven against the Denver Broncos. As luck would have it, Mahomes and Chiefs Kingdom were saved from much more morbid news when multiple MRIs revealed Mahomes injury was not nearly as serious as previously thought. Mahomes would be able to return sooner than expected.

Which now brings us to the game against the Tennessee Titans, in which it’s being reported Mahomes is expected to start barring any setbacks during the week. For the first time since the first quarter of the first game of the season, the offense will feature Mahomes with his full cast of receivers. All Mahomes did in that quarter, against a very talented defense, was throw for 211 yards and two touchdowns. (He was also close to a third TD to Kelce.)

The Chiefs will possibly still be missing Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher, and the Titans have been able to pressure quarterbacks fairly consistently. That said, they haven’t faced a quarterback and receiving corp anywhere close to what they’ll face on Sunday, and it’s unlikely they can keep up.

The Chiefs defense has improved dramatically

One of the marquee challenges for the Chiefs front office this past season was overhauling an atrocious defense that likely prevented the franchise from claiming it’s first Super Bowl appearance and victory in 49 years. It was a daunting task, especially given most of the defensive unit’s stars were declining as they aged. The front office had some tough decisions to make, with nearly the entire coaching staff and several borderline Chiefs legends walking out the door in the span of a few months.

It would all be worth it though, right? Once the electrifying play of Mahomes and a historically talented offense were backed by even an average NFL defense, nothing would stand in the way of multiple Super Bowl appearances and victories. Glory was just out of the grasp of Chiefs fans, yet so close we could practically taste it.

Unfortunately, the beginning of this season brought with it the same problems that had plagued Bob Sutton’s defenses for years. They couldn’t stop the run to save their lives, and it arguably cost the Chiefs multiple conference games. Their pass defense didn’t look terrible on paper, but there was an argument to be made that it only looked decent because opponents focused solely on running the ball. If the Chiefs somehow stopped the run, most assumed they’d get torched on the back end just like they had in years past.

Take heart, Chiefs Kingdom. Spagnuolo and his all-star coaching staff are finally starting to look like they were the right men for the job. Through the first six games of the season, the Chiefs defense ranked 27th in the league allowing 406.2 yards per game. They were even worse against the run, ranking 30th and allowing 161.8 yards per game. They ranked 21st in yards per play allowed with 5.8, 19th in the league in points allowed with 24, and 25th in sacks with 11.

Over the last three games, two of which were against Super Bowl contenders with great offenses and good-to-great quarterbacks, this defense has improved significantly. The last three games, they are fifth in total yards allowed with 295.7, 10th in rushing yards allowed with 95, second in yards per play with 4.6, 12th in points allowed with 20, and first in sacks with 15. Simply put, the Chiefs are on an absolute tear right now.

If their performance against the Vikings is any indication, they are just getting started. The defense held Cousins, who had been the hottest quarterback in the month of October, to his worst performance in nearly two months. They also held Dalvin Cook, one of the most productive running backs this season, to one of his worst performances of the year. They also held Stefon Diggs, a top-10 receiver, to by far his worst game of the season and likely one of the worst of his career.

Two things seem to differentiate this unit from the one in the first six games. First and foremost, a lot of credit has to go to the coaching staff. After looking altogether unprepared with their scheme and out coached in their play calling, they seem to have settled into a groove. They aren’t perfect, but lately seem to have the right play dialed up more often than not.

The players have also dialed up their intensity. A defensive line that spent the first six games on their heels now seems to be dictating where the offense can and can’t go. A linebacking corp that failed to fill their gaps now fights downhill to clog cutback lanes leaving nowhere for running backs to go. This has taken stress off the back end of the defense, reduced the time they spend in coverage, and allowed them to more effectively support the run game.

It’s been fun to watch the growth of this defense, and I only expect it to get better down the stretch as more players return from injury. It’s finally starting to look like Spagnuolo and company know what they’re doing.