AFC South Reporter
LAS VEGAS — Just two Chiefs defensive starters played for Kansas City the last time it faced San Francisco on the Super Bowl stage: fellow defensive tackles Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi.
With Nnadi’s season over — he was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury last month — Jones stands alone for the unit ahead of the Super Bowl rematch.
“I think we’re a little faster,” Jones said during Super Bowl opening night Monday of the difference between Kansas City’s defense now relative to the 2019 season. “We’re a little more aggressive now. We’re grittier.”
Over the four years since meeting the 49ers in Super LIV, the Chiefs have constructed one of the NFL’s elite defenses. They ranked second in points allowed and total defense this season. They ranked fourth against the pass, seventh in defensive DVOA, tied for eighth in red zone efficiency and 10th in third-down efficiency. They have All-Pro talent up front (Jones) and in the secondary (cornerback Trent McDuffie).
In a Kansas City era defined by Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid’s explosive offenses, the 2023 Chiefs are led by defense. A championship-caliber defense that at times has kept the team afloat, and is why they have a chance to win their second straight Super Bowl Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.
How did we get here?
It starts with drafting well.
Six of Kansas City’s expected Super Bowl starters have been drafted by the team since 2020: McDuffie (2022, first round), cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (2020, fourth round), defensive end George Karlaftis (2022, first round), linebackers Nick Bolton (2021, second round) and Willie Gay (2020, second round) and defensive end Michael Danna (2020, fifth round). Safety Bryan Cook, a 2022 second-round pick, also started 12 games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in December.
In just his second season, McDuffie was named a first-team All-Pro. Karlaftis tied a team-high 10.5 sacks. Sneed, widely regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, had the stellar goal-line forced fumble against Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Zay Flowers that helped seal the AFC championship game. It’s a defense with talented players who have started to come into their own.
According to NFL Research, the Chiefs also had the youngest defense in the league this season with an average age of 25 (based on the average age of players with one-plus games played in the regular season).
This might be just the beginning of Kansas City’s dominance on defense.
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“I would tell you age was some of the factors in this world of the NFL and free agency,” Reid said Tuesday of the defense’s turnover over the last few years. “Things change. (General manager) Brett Veach has done a nice job of bringing in an influx of young guys into the program. Those young guys, a bunch of them were in that secondary. They’ve gotten better here with time. We took some bumps and bruises early last year and they’ve gotten better. They got better toward the end of last year.
“Then they just picked up on it and have done a nice job working into this year.”
The Chiefs have also bolstered their depth on defense without breaking the bank in free agency.
Safety Justin Reid, who’s in the last season of a three-year, $31.5 million deal, has the largest 2024 cap hit of any Chiefs defensive player at $14.2 million, according to Overthecap.com. But Kansas City’s other starting defenders acquired in free agency — linebacker Drue Tranquill and safety Mike Edwards, who’s stepped in since Cooks’ injury — both signed one-year, $3 million deals last March. Edge rusher Charles Omenihu, who was a key reserve before tearing his ACL in the AFC championship game, also signed a deal that didn’t break the bank: two years, $16 million. He had seven sacks in just 11 regular-season games.
Reid, Tranquill, Edwards and Omenihu were all signed by Kansas City at 27 years old or younger, too. Over the last two seasons, Veach has found success pursuing low-risk, high-upside talent to add to the team’s young nucleus on defense.
“I would tell you that the job Brett has done between free agency and the draft has been second to none,” coach Andy Reid said. “He does a great job with all that.”
And it’s not that the Chiefs have stopped investing in offense.
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Their offensive line is still one of the best pass-protecting units in football (starting right guard Trey Smith and Pro Bowl center Creed Humphrey were drafted in 2021; All-Pro guard Joe Thuney and right tackle Jawaan Taylor were signed to big-money deals in the last two offseasons, respectively). They’ve used second-round picks on wide receivers in each of the last two drafts (Rashee Rice, Skyy Moore) and traded for former first-rounder Kadarius Toney in October 2022. The problem is that two of those players, Moore and Toney, have failed to meet expectations this season, exacerbating the void left by Tyreek Hill, who was traded in March 2022.
But the play of the Chiefs’ defense has helped overcome inconsistent wide receiver play and other offensive issues the team has had this season.
It’s a unit that’s extremely tight, too.
On opening night, Jones said the defense is one of the closest he’s been a part of since entering the NFL in 2016.
“That confidence in each other just breeds an environment where guys get along,” safety Justin Reid added. “We don’t have any drama. We don’t have any fights. I’ve been on teams that have had a lot of both of those. We’re just focused on everyone contributing in whatever way they can to get the win on Sunday.”
The defense will lead the way.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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