Kansas City Chiefs are much improved since last game against Houston Texans

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 18: Defensive back Rashad Fenton #27 of the Kansas City Chiefs and teammate Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates Fenton's interception in the fourth quarter over the Los Angeles Chargers at Estadio Azteca on November 18, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 18: Defensive back Rashad Fenton #27 of the Kansas City Chiefs and teammate Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates Fenton's interception in the fourth quarter over the Los Angeles Chargers at Estadio Azteca on November 18, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

After a long, tough season, the Kansas City Chiefs have improved significantly since their Week 6 game against the Houston Texans.

As expected, the Kansas City Chiefs will be hosting a rematch from earlier this season. The surprise is it’s not the New England Patriots. Instead, the Houston Texans will be traveling to Arrowhead this weekend for a Divisional Round matchup.

While the Texans defeated the Chiefs 31-24 back in Week 6 of the regular season, the Chiefs have improved significantly since that matchup. Kansas City was without Sammy Watkins, Eric Fisher, Andrew Wylie, Anthony Hitchens, and Chris Jones. Adding to that, Patrick Mahomes was dealing with an ankle injury, Tyreek Hill was in his first game back playing only half of the offensive snaps, and Kendall Fuller left the game early with a thumb injury.

That’s not to say that Houston was without injuries as well. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph and wide receiver Kenny Stills were both inactive for that game. Rookie offensive tackle Tytus Howard and cornerback Bradley Roby left with injuries as well. Joseph should be back for the Divisional Round matchup as he missed the Wild Card game with a hamstring injury. Another player that missed the Wild Card game was wide receiver Will Fuller, who’s dealing with a groin injury but could play this weekend.

Kansas City has lost players to Injured Reserve throughout the season, but the unit has gotten healthier in the latter portion of the season. While the team will be without rookie safety Juan Thornhill, a bye week has given defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo time to adjust his gameplan for life without him. That’s not to say it won’t hurt the defense not having their rangy safety on the backend, but the week off helps.

New contributors for Kansas City

Since the Week 6 matchup, the Chiefs have added new contributors not only to the roster, but young players have stepped up due to injuries. Kansas City claimed edge rusher Terrell Suggs, after the Arizona Cardinals decided to release him before Week 16. In just two games, he’s already recorded a sack and become another rotational piece along the defensive line. His presence against the run is significant as Kansas City struggled to find someone opposite of Frank Clark, who could set a hard edge and make a significant impact in the run game.

Another contributor along the defensive line that has since been signed is defensive tackle Mike Pennel. The interior defensive line has improved remarkably since the signing of Pennel when discussing the run defense. Having another stout defender in the middle next to Derrick Nnadi has proven successful. Rookie defensive tackle Khalen Saunders heard his name called earlier than most expected due to injuries as well. His first playing time in the NFL came against the Texans in Week 6. It was a rocky start given he was a raw talent from a small school, but he’s shown development to be a viable rotational piece in the middle.

On the back end of the defense, sixth-round pick cornerback Rashad Fenton is another piece that many fans weren’t expecting to play a significant role in year one. Another project type selection in the 2019 NFL Draft that has already exceeded expectations. While his skillset is better suited as a boundary corner, Fenton has spent most of his time in the slot filling in for Fuller. He’s developed nicely over the season and could play a significant role in the playoffs with Thornhill inactive. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chiefs rookie class ranked 4th in the NFL in 2019.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Chiefs signed offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski. Following an injury to offensive guard Andrew Wylie against the Indianapolis Colts, the Chiefs were desperate for offensive line help. Wisniewski has been a solid grab as the veteran has filled in for Wylie again in Week 17 against the Los Angeles Chargers. His limited playtime has helped improve a struggling unit, especially along the interior. Rookie running back, Darwin Thompson has earned the trust of the coaching staff to take more snaps following injuries as well. He likely won’t see a significant role in the playoffs, barring injury, but is an excellent rotational back.

Run defense has improved

It was hard to watch the Chiefs defense try and stop the running game early in the season. The struggles brought up lingering question marks as it seemed Kansas City went another offseason without finding any improvement to their biggest weakness. Following the game against Houston, the defense turned a significant corner.

Spagnuolo started to implement more into his scheme as players began to catch on following the first month and a half. He also found the best linebacker group to get the job done. Inserting Reggie Ragland to play more on early downs proved to improve the success against the run and adding Ragland, along with Pennel and Saunders, in the middle, making it a lot more difficult for teams to run up the center which is where the Chiefs were gashed the most.

Kansas City ranked third-worst in the NFL when it came to stopping the run through Week 6, giving up 161.9 yards per game. Following the game against the Texans, the Chiefs have improved to 108.2 yards per game. That includes the game against the Tennessee Titans when the team decided not to activate Pennel. Even while Mahomes was hurt making the offense less effective, the defense shut down running teams like the Minnesota Vikings who had led the league in rushing at that point, and the Green Bay Packers.

Despite not being a perfect unit against the run, it’s easy to see the improvement. With Clark and Suggs setting the edge, and a rotation of stout defenders along the interior to keep offensive linemen off the linebackers, it’s unlikely that Texans running back Carlos Hyde will have the same success he had in Week 6.

Well-rounded team contributing

Even after Mahomes returned from his knee injury, questions were circling among media, including the national press, that the defense was relying too much on him to win games. Primarily in his first game back against the Titans, where Kansas City lost despite Mahomes throwing for 446 yards and 3 touchdowns. Things have changed since that game against Tennessee.

Not only have the Chiefs won every game since the loss to the Titans, but it also hasn’t always been because of the offense. Since the game against Tennessee, the Chiefs defense has allowed an average of 11.5 points per game during their six-game win streak. Frank Clark has turned a corner since missing two games after starting the season with a pinched nerve leaving him without feeling in multiple fingers. He’s recorded 5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 3 pass deflections, and 1 forced fumble since returning in Week 10.

Veteran safety Tyrann Mathieu has taken control of the defense as a leader proving his contract was worth every penny. Asked to play everywhere in the Chiefs defense, his versatility has been a significant reason for the success along with his leadership and attitude. With 4 interceptions and 12 pass deflections on the season, Mathieu turned it up down the stretch while playing a majority of his snaps as a slot corner. In December, Mathieu earned Defensive Player of the Month for the AFC. For the first time in his career, Mathieu made the 2019 All-Pro Team.

Clark’s and Mathieu’s leadership and attitude have changed Kansas City’s defense. Over the last several years, the defense has been known for being soft and lacking attitude. Former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s bend but don’t break defense, while refusing to show any aggression, played a significant role in that reputation. General manager Brett Veach was tasked with finding guys for Spagnuolo that fit his scheme and bring fire to a defense that drastically needed it.

Replacing quiet leaders like Justin Houston and Eric Berry, Clark and Mathieu have been outspoken while leading by example. Playing with confidence and swagger, both are more than willing to include some smack talk between plays. The defense has followed suit and seems to be embracing the new attitude in Kansas City.

While the Houston Texans won’t be a pushover matchup, the Chiefs should feel confident going into the rematch. Having a healthy Mahomes, along with Hill and Watkinsa back to being in full-time roles, the offense should be expected to have a much better performance. Receivers that can beat press-man coverage was easily the part that hurt the Chiefs last time around. Going up against a defensive secondary that has been pieced together as the season has gone along, it could be a big game for the offense. The return of defensive end J.J. Watt will still prove tough, but tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz are finally both healthy.

Assuming Fuller is able to play for Houston, the Texans offense elevates multiple levels with him on the field. Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Bills was just one example of how that offense struggles without their field stretch in the lineup. It will be interesting to see how Spagnuolo decides to attack Deshaun Watson without his ranging safety playing single high. Will he play with more two safety coverages on the back end? Or will he continue to do what he did against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 17, rolling his coverages just before the snap or post-snap? How aggressive will he be with blitz packages against an inconsistent offensive line?

Only time will tell, but Chiefs fans should feel good about where they are before this matchup.

Next. Five Keys to Beat the Houston Texans. dark