With a 2-0 start to the season, the Chiefs’ new-look defense is playing better than expected.
The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the AFC West division rival Los Angeles Chargers 27-24 in front of a ruckus crowd on Thursday night at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. On a night where the offense struggled quite a bit, especially in the first half, the defense held its ground and kept the team in the game before ultimately winning it.
Going into the 2022 season, the general consensus was that the new-look Chiefs defense would need some time to gather itself and find its footing as the season began. Through two games, however, Kansas City has more than held its own. Does this mean that the Chiefs are ahead of schedule?
In years past under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ defense has gotten out to slow starts and improved as the team got deeper into its season. With plenty of new faces across each level of the defense in 2022, it was expected that this would be the case again.
Enter George Karlaftis, first-round pick and defensive end, who hasn’t been stuffing the stat sheet through two games but has been making his presence known early and often. The motor never quits with Karlaftis and he’s been tagged with the nickname “Furious George” by fans inside Chiefs Kingdom. Not only has he been working his tail off play-in-play-out, but he’s been able to show off his skill set more often than many anticipated. Through Week 2, he has been on the field more than any other defensive lineman on the team. He was second on the entire defense in snaps in Week 1 and rolled in at seventh in Week 2.
The entire linebacker group is learning new roles. Nick Bolton taking on the role of defensive quarterback, with Willie Gay Jr. playing almost the entirety of the Chiefs’ most recent game against the Chargers and rookie Leo Chenal subbing in on certain packages. All three have played their roles well early in the season, and Bolton has been the standout of the group thus far. He led the team in tackles in Week 1 and finished second on the team in Week 2. In general, he looks like the best tackler on the team.
Gay struggled at times against Los Angeles when trying to wrap up, but he did end up leading the team in tackles. He was flying all over the field and showing flashes of the potential many Chiefs fans have seen in him since day one. Chenal made his presence felt early on against the Chargers, coming in on a blitz package and nearly getting to quarterback Justin Herbert. His role will be limited but it will be important nonetheless as the season progresses.
Then there’s the secondary, the place where the Chiefs have seen the most turnover since last season. L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and Juan Thornhill are the staples from previous seasons, with the Chiefs adding veteran safety Justin Reid and rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie (first round), Joshua Williams (fourth round) and Jaylen Watson (seventh round).
Reid is showing his ability as a leader both on and off the field, making plays when needed on the second level and giving the team a boost in the kicking game at times, too. McDuffie was terrific in Week 1 before he went down and ultimately landed on the injured reserve with a hamstring injury. The Chiefs are hoping he can return when first eligible and get right back to work for the second half of the season.
Williams was making a name for himself in training camp before falling out of favor a bit during preseason. Williams was picked on in the final preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, and it seems that may have opened the door for the seventh-rounder. Watson got a bump in playing time with the absence of McDuffie. He played 51% of the defensive snaps in Week 1 and 68% of the snaps in Week 2. Not only did his playing time increase, but so did his popularity among Chiefs Kingdom.
With the game tied 17-17 early in the fourth quarter and the Chargers set up first-and-goal at the four-yard line, Watson jumped a pass from Herbert, intercepted it and ran it back 99 yards for a game-changing touchdown. It was the play of the day, flipping the game with a 14-point swing and pushing the Chiefs to their three-point victory.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement — and there will be struggles with this young core of defensive players — but the early results are promising. If the defensive unit continues to get better as the season moves along, the Chiefs will be right in the mix for another AFC Championship win and, hopefully, another Super Bowl bid.
The Chiefs are off to a 2-0 start and the defense seems to be ahead of schedule. That’s all you can hope for from this young group of players as it continues to jell on and off the field.