The Kansas City Chiefs haven't been the team that we've typically come to expect through two games of the 2023 season. They dropped their opener against the Detroit Lions last week, in large part because the offense was plagued by drops and miscues. Then on Sunday they managed to go on the road and beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 17-9 despite a ton of offensive penalties and turnovers because the defense had a fantastic performance. While the offensive issues are incredibly frustrating for Chiefs fans, the early defensive play should absolutely have the rest of the NFL worried.
While the defense looked very solid in the opener against the Lions, the return of Chris Jones ramped things up another notch. Trevor Lawrence could never get comfortable or in a rhythm on Sunday, and because of that, even when they put a drive together they couldn't finish things off in the red zone. The Chiefs finished with 4 sacks on the day and several more pressures. It wasn't just the pass rush, however. The tackling was also good and the overall run defense looked great.
It would be easy to say, "It's just two games, let's not get carried away.", but I think you can make a very strong case for why you can believe that the offense will get better and the defense can maintain this level (or even improve). The offense has a proven track record. In fact, the Chiefs' offense under Andy Reid was better than what we've seen this season even before Patrick Mahomes took over at quarterback. Reid has a history of offensive reliability and ever since Mahomes took the reins of the offense they've been rewriting the history books.
Is it a foregone conclusion that the offense will be great again this season? No, but as long as Andy Reid is at the helm, Patrick Mahomes is at quarterback, Travis Kelce is still a dominant force, and they have a reliable offensive line I have complete confidence that this unit will find a reliable level of success as the season goes on. History is on the offense's side, but what does history say about the defense?
Why is the 2023 Kansas City Chiefs defense so different?
This is defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's fifth year in Kansas City. Over his previous four seasons (which include two Super Bowl wins) a pattern has emerged. The Chiefs almost always start off slow on defense and as the year goes on they develop and can handle more and more and by playoff time they are a solid and reliable unit. It's happened that way consistently enough that it's not a fluke, it's a clear pattern.
That is why the NFL should be nervous. The Chiefs defense is not off to their typical slow start. In fact, the loss to the Lions and Chris Jones' one game holdout has kept the fact that the defense has looked like one of the best in the league flying under the radar. In case any of you are thinking that I'm getting carried away, let me back that stance up with some numbers.
I went back and looked at the defensive performances in weeks one and two of Spagnuolo's first four years in Kansas City. Here are what his defenses averaged in several key defensive areas in the first two games over those seasons.
- 23.25 points per game allowed
- 399.4 yards per game allowed
- 136.6 rushing yards per game allowed (5.1 YPC)
- 40% third down conversions allowed
Now here is what the Chiefs have allowed through two games this season.
- 15.0 points per game allowed
- 319.5 yards per game allowed
- 82.0 rushing yards per game allowed (4.0 YPC)
- 29.6% third down conversions allowed
The Chiefs are down over 8 points per game from what they have typically allowed early in the season. They are giving up about 80 fewer total yards per game and over 50 yards less rushing per game and are allowing over 10% fewer third down conversions. Last season 15 points per game allowed would have finished as the #1 scoring defense in the NFL. 319.5 yards per game would have ranked as the 7th best, and 82 yards rushing per game would have been the 3rd fewest in the league.
The other encouraging thing about this start is that it hasn't come against bad offenses. Last season the Lions finished 4th in yards per game and 5th in points per game and put up 31 points and 418 yards against the Seahawks this week. The Jaguars finished 10th in both yards and points last season and put up 31 points and 368 yards in their week one win. Basically, the Chiefs' dominant defensive start has come against two top-ten-caliber NFL offenses.
The Chiefs' typical slow start on defense has been traded out for an early defensive performance on par with the top defenses in the NFL last season. Can the Chiefs maintain that elite level of defense? I'm certainly not ready to predict they'll be the number-one scoring defense in the NFL, but Spagnuolo has shown that his defenses improve and grow as the season goes on and that should have other teams worried.
Last season the Chiefs' defense ended up in the middle of the pack by the end of the regular season. They finished 11th in yards per game and 16th in points per game. If the Chiefs' defense can prove to be a top-ten unit in the NFL and the offense is even just 80% of what it has been during the Reid/Mahomes years this will be a very difficult team to beat.
The first two games of the season have been incredibly frustrating to watch. The one-point loss to Detroit with all the wide receiver drops and no Travis Kelce or Chris Jones was hard to swallow. Even winning against the Jaguars was frustrating because of the 12 penalties and 3 turnovers. Despite that frustration, the biggest takeaway fans should have is how good this defense looks. Yes, the offense has to get it together. They have to cut down the penalties and turnovers and give Mahomes some help, but I believe their track record warrants some belief that this will happen.
The next two weeks the Chiefs play two struggling offenses in the Chicago Bears and New York Jets. If the defense we saw on Sunday against the Jaguars shows up to those games and the offense doesn't self destruct, the Chiefs have a great chance to make a statement to the rest of the NFL that the defending Super Bowl champions are going to be a force again this season and not just on offense.
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