It’s easy to point at the late fumble, or the bad interception thrown by none other than Patrick Mahomes as primary reasons for the Kansas City Chiefs’ first defeat last week.
But the most telling deficiency for the two-time defending AFC champions has been the rush defense, which the Chiefs (1-1) sorely need to improve heading into Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Chargers (1-1).
The Chiefs rank last in the NFL stopping the run, allowing 404 yards and seven rushing touchdowns in the two games. That issue puts an even greater premium on Mahomes and the offense to play error-free and outscore opponents.
“We’re not where we want to be yet, still fairly new, all of us playing together,” said defensive tackle Jarran Reed. “We’ve got a long way to go,” “I’m pretty sure we’ll be there. We’re going to get better as we go. We’re not going to hold our heads down.”
A couple of key defenders, Frank Clark (hamstring) and Derrick Nnadi (hip), have played with nagging injuries, and now Chris Jones, who has dealt with the transition to defensive end, is nursing a wrist injury. Anthony Hitchens (fatty tissue) underwent surgery that is not expected to keep him out, while another linebacker, Willie Gay (toe) has been on injured reserve and cannot step in until Week 4.
A combination of turnovers and defensive breakdowns contributed to Kansas City surrendering an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter. Their comeback hopes in that loss at Baltimore were dashed by a fumble by Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Suddenly, the Chiefs find themselves a game out of first place in the AFC West, a division they’ve captured each of the last five seasons while going 36-12 against division rivals since Andy Reid’s arrival as coach in 2013.
“I have full trust in the defense,” Mahomes said. “I’m sure as they continue to get better, we’ll continue to get better as an offense, and hopefully we can peak at the right time of the season and we can make another run at it.”
Mahomes leads the AFC with a 131.4 rating while throwing for 680 yards and six touchdowns. The Chargers counter with Justin Herbert, who already has tied Mahomes and Dan Marino for most 300-yard performances in a quarterback’s first two seasons with 10.
Tops among Herbert’s targets is Keenan Allen, the only receiver in the AFC to post 100-plus yards in receiving each of the first two weeks. Austin Ekeler is always a threat against the Chiefs, averaging 109.2 yards from scrimmage in the last five meetings.
Herbert, however, has three interceptions to offset just two passing touchdowns. The Chargers scored only 37 points in their first two games, despite punting just twice, and are coming off a 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
“We need to put up more points, especially in the red zone and that’s something we haven’t executed,” Herbert said. “We’re moving the ball really well, and if you take away the penalties from the last game, we’re among the top offenses in the NFL.”
Oh, but those 12 flags against Dallas resulted in mark-offs totaling 99 yards.
“It’s the little things that go into playing with clean execution,” said first-year coach Brandon Staley. “It’s hurt us defensively, giving up 20 points after penalties and then offensively by our count, 150 yards of offense and two touchdowns. That’s certainly not where we want to be.”
Defenders Justin Jones (calf) and Chris Harris (shoulder) are questionable for the Chargers.