The music inside the Chiefs’ locker room is booming, but to find its source, you’ll have to maneuver through some equipment bags, jerseys and 300-pound football players. That winding path leads toward some tight quarters, where a single transportable speaker sits next to Chris Jones.
He is the DJ, of sorts, after the Chiefs’ 17-9 win in Jacksonville, and his choice of a Lil Durk song has a handful of defensive teammates rapping every last word.
“This defense,” cornerback Trent McDuffie says amid the celebration, “is what we’ve been talking about all offseason.”
Through the exit doors, about a 40-foot trek on the ground floor of EverBank Stadium traces to the visitors’ news conference room, where, before long, quarterback Patrick Mahomes steps behind the lectern.
“The defense won that game,” he says.
We are in unusual territory for this era of Chiefs football, the defense potentially reaching its stride in the opening month of the season rather than a sudden late-November discovery. And for the most part, the vibes are good.
Except one tiny problem. There’s perhaps too much truth to that Mahomes remark. The defense undoubtedly won a game Sunday, but only because it had to win a game. The offense left it no choice.
What matters most is the end result and all that, but the pesky details indicate that the Chiefs are a late-era Bob Sutton defense away from being 0-2 to start the season. From too closely resembling the path of their defending Super Bowl champion predecessors.
And from Sunday’s post-game celebration transforming into a quiet locker room with quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers answering questions about what the heck is going on with the offense.
Speaking of which: What the heck is going on with the offense?
The Chiefs turned the ball over three times. They committed a dozen penalties. The offensive line didn’t pass block nearly as well as it did a week earlier. The quarterback showed moments of panic. The highest-paid right tackle in football was briefly benched. It got ugly, or at least momentarily ugly.
The Chiefs have scored fewer points only twice in the Mahomes Era than they did Sunday. That might typically be considered evidence to chalk this up to just a bad day — that’s what the history suggests, right? — except they were actually statistically better in Jacksonville than they were Week 1.
The 2023 Chiefs have put only two games on film, and each of them shows an offense struggling to make it click against a very specific type of defense.
“Got a lot of zone coverage,” Mahomes said. “Just have to find ways to execute versus zone.”
Let’s just acknowledge that we have a form of this discussion almost every year — the new way to defend Mahomes — and the history too suggests that the quarterback and his coach usually figure it out. It’s not a five-alarm fire. But they do have something to figure out, because against two teams that finished bottom-10 in defense a year ago, the Chiefs have made moving the football look as difficult as penetrating the 1971 T.C. Williams defensive line.
For a year, teams tried to blitz Mahomes. Then they tried press coverage against his receivers. And you certainly haven’t forgotten about the two-high shells.
Well, welcome to 2023, where zone coverage is apparently all the rage.
What gives? Maybe it’s easiest to initially explain it with one of the Chiefs’ better offensive snaps Sunday. Facing a third down from the 9-yard line early in the third quarter, Mahomes made a quick drop, with tight end Travis Kelce as his primary read. But the Jaguars fell back into a zone, which blanketed Kelce’s hook pattern.
On to Plan B. Kelce read the coverage and moved about five steps forward to the goal line, all the while Mahomes’ eye never left him. He flicked a pass for a wide-open touchdown.
“You get down in the red zone, (and) they really make you find voids in the zones,” Kelce said. “With that being said, I knew once Pat broke contain where a soft spot was going to be. And ... yeah.”
— ESPN (@espn) September 17, 2023
Easy enough, right? That’s the appearance of it. The reality is that play requires a quarterback and receiver to see a defense precisely the same way — and for the quarterback to trust that the two are going to see it precisely the same way.
They both have to know.
Even if the Chiefs have all the talent in the world at wide receiver, they aren’t there yet on that piece of it. That’s not just my analysis. That’s what the first two defensive coordinators have told the Chiefs.
They are no longer negating the Chiefs’ speed at wide receiver. They are seizing on the Chiefs’ inexperience at wide receiver.
For the most part. I mentioned the turnovers and penalties, but given the bump in zone coverage, this is the place to start. It doesn’t really need to be stated that the Chiefs’ ceiling is a bit higher when the offense is carrying the load.
Frankly, there are worse problems to have, because if the talent is good enough, the solution is often merely time. It’s fazing out the inexperience by, well, playing.
You know, for all of the early struggles Sunday, second-year wideout Skyy Moore ran a couple of routes that required him to read a play exactly the way his quarterback read it.
The first went for a touchdown. A back-shoulder pass. They both spotted the cornerback playing top-heavy.
The next went for 54 yards to seal the game. Both read that scramble drill.
It has to show up versus zone too.
Because the Chiefs haven’t seen the last of it.