Five rookies in key roles and a devastating schedule: Why the Chiefs' defense can't start slow yet again

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If it feels like 2019 all over to Steve Spagnuolo, there’s a good reason for that. The Kansas City Chiefs overhauled their defense again, much like they did three years ago, right after Spagnuolo joined the Chiefs as their defensive coordinator.

This time, the Chiefs will have as many as five rookies, including first-round draft picks in cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis, in key defensive spots. They brought in defensive end Carlos Dunlap via free agency this offseason to help the edge rush, and they signed safety Justin Reid to replace Tyrann Mathieu on the back end.

The defense could be a work in progress, as it was in 2019.

“You’ve got some figuring out to do," Spagnuolo said as the Chiefs race to put the pieces together in time for Sunday’s season-opener at the Arizona Cardinals. “We’ve got new guys that we're not really sure where their strengths and weaknesses are.

“I spend the first quarter of the season ... figuring out what you have, who you are and what you want to do because you can't always get it all figured out going against one type of offense. This is a unique offense that we go against from [offseason practice] and right through training camp."

Spagnuolo and the Chiefs don’t get any kind of grace period. After facing Kyler Murray of the Cardinals, the opposing quarterbacks they’ll have to defend in the next five games are in order Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers, Matt Ryan of the Indianapolis Colts, Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills.

Kansas City then gets the San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Chargers again, Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos to get it through Week 14.

Shutting down high-caliber offenses nearly every single week for that long is a lot to ask of a veteran defense, much less one that will include rookies in McDuffie, Karlaftis and perhaps linebacker Leo Chenal, safety Bryan Cook and one of two cornerbacks, Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams, in major roles. And Spagnuolo may not be able to use his entire defensive playbook, at least not early in the season.

“I know we talked a lot about this in terms of the volume of scheme and all that cut way back," he said. “In the preseason games, everybody does that, right? It kind of gets vanilla. But we'll just add a little bit here and there. We’ll just be careful with how much we add on."

Chenal and Watson received more playing time as training camp and the preseason moved along, perhaps a sign those two in particular were making progress. The Chiefs appear committed to living with youth and whatever that might bring.

“Just constant growth each and every week,’’ said linebacker Willie Gay when asked about the progress of the many rookies. “Each and every day, you see the young guys add on and come in. They know the defense well. We didn’t have to slow it down for them or anything."

The starting defense played six possessions in the preseason, and the opposing team punted on each one. Three times the Chiefs forced the punt after three plays. Preseason results usually aren’t the best gauge of readiness for the real season, but the Chiefs were still encouraged.

“I've been seeing a bunch of good things with us being out there playing these preseason games," safety Juan Thornhill said. “We haven't had the most reps, but at the same time when we're out there, we're making the most of every single rep that we have and guys are making plays. We're getting stops on defense, so that's always a good thing."

Spagnuolo’s defenses have generally improved and been better late in a season. That was the case in 2019, when the defense struggled in the first 10 games as the Chiefs went 6-4. But the Chiefs led the league in scoring defense over the final six games. The defense then helped carry the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl title in 50 seasons.

It happened again last year, when the Chiefs allowed at least 27 points in six of the first seven games and then just twice over the last 10. Kansas City surrendered 390-plus yards in each of its first six matchups, losing three of them. But it only happened three times over the remaining 11 games, a stretch in which the Chiefs went 9-2.

With an extremely difficult schedule for the first half in 2022 and in a division stacked with AFC contenders, the Chiefs can't afford to start slow on defense again. They need to break the trend to keep up with the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders in the AFC West.

“The confidence is there," said Reid, the Chiefs' major defensive veteran acquisition. “You look at the first two halves of both the Chicago game and of the Washington game. They look damn near identical. The offense goes and scores on the first drive and the defense holds, a big egg on the scoreboard, and that's what we wanted to execute out of our first teams.

“The game plan is simple. We should be able to execute. I think we did a good job of that. So that's building some momentum going into the season. We’ve just got to make sure we continue to do that when the games count."