Kansas City’s defense has improved steadily since the addition of Steve Spagnuolo but this year their secondary looks like it’s ready to make the huge leap to top-3 in the NFL.
For the past two seasons, the Chiefs and their fans have enjoyed sustained success under the new leadership of safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and no Kansas City Chiefs unit has thrived more over those years than the secondary unit.
With the experienced play of 8th-year S Dan Sorensen and 9th-year veteran Mathieu leading the pack, there are still some major up-and-comers at cornerback and safety that are looking to make a name for themselves if they haven’t already, not to mention the speed that Kansas City has accumulated at linebacker.
With those younger players able to learn from some of the best at their position and the opportunity to play under legendary head coach Andy Reid and DC Spagnuolo, it’s hard to see the Chiefs’ secondary lose any of the traction they’ve been gaining in the rankings over recent years.
Rankings over the years
Kansas City’s defense was not great by any means when Spagnuolo came to town back in January of 2019. In fact, after the Chiefs’ almost reached the Super Bowl in 2018, the defense finished 31st against the pass at the end of the season. They allowed over 4,350 yards through the air and allowed the 22nd most passing TDs (30), all of which stirred drastic changes among the Chiefs’ secondary.
The next year after firing former DC Bob Sutton and bringing in “Spags” the Chiefs defense rose to 8th-best in the league in the same respective categories–an amazing leap in efficiency that was obviously one of the main staples that helped lead the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl victory in 50 years.
The following year in 2020 the secondary took a step backward but it wasn’t due to lack of effort or experience, it was largely due to the injuries that plagued the defense, like rookie standout L’Jarius Sneed’s collarbone early in the season. Although, to be fair the Chiefs did enter the league with the 10th-best secondary in the league in 2020 and could have climbed higher if it weren’t for a few injuries and a few yellow flags.
Compare these two years to today’s Chiefs’ secondary and there are obvious improvements, but also projects that have major upside. The young core of safeties and cornerbacks, alongside promising players like DeAndre Baker and Mike Hughes who are looking for second chances, have caused Kansas City to now enter the 2021 season ranked 18th-best among NFL secondaries.
It’s hard to see this secondary dropping any further in the defensive rankings with the huge potential in youthful Chiefs like Sneed, Juan Thornhill–who had an amazing interception in the preseason (below)–and Charvarius Ward, who had two interceptions, 11 pass deflections and a forced fumble all in 2019.
Mathieu’s last year?
Another reason that this secondary might thrive more than it ever has before is the contract negotiations that have stalled between Kansas City and star safety Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.
The 3x All-Pro safety and member of the All-2010s Team is in the final year of his 3-year/$42-million contract and because of that, he’s going to be the very best version of himself in order to secure what will likely be his last long-term, high-paying contract.
Sadly, that team may not be the Chiefs. Kansas City obviously wants to be the team that gives Mathieu that contract but, thanks to salary cap hits, it isn’t going to be so easy with so many other superstars on the team.
GM Brett Veach even said that Kansas City desperately wants to retain the 2x Pro-Bowler but that “the landscape is super tricky” and that the Chiefs are “handicapped a little” which is why the deal hasn’t been done yet and likely won’t be done anytime soon.
If the 2021-22 season truly is Mathieu’s last year in Kansas City, then he will have nothing but respect shown to him by the city and members of #ChiefsKingdom for the rest of his career no matter where he ends up.
With that being said, his leadership is invaluable to the entire team, not just the defense, and his reliability on the field will be hard to replace in free agency or with the homegrown talent outside of (possibly) L’Jarius Sneed.
Kansas City opponents
Obviously, there are no other Patrick Mahomes in the league. But with so much of the NFL following in Mahomes’ footsteps and the average passing yards per game going up every year since 2016, it’s easy to think that the secondary is going to have even more opportunities to show off their talent.
Kansas City has some seriously tough QBs to defeat this season though, quarterbacks like Josh Allen (career against KC: 0-2, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) and Lamar Jackson (0-3 against KC, 78.9 QBR rating). But, thankfully they also have some very flawed, inexperienced QBs as well.
Quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts (1-3 as a starter in the NFL), Daniel Jones (29 fumbles in 25 career games), and Teddy Bridgewater (66.25 QBR against KC) are ripe for some mistakes against this Chiefs secondary and will almost certainly help KC break 20 interceptions in a season for the first time since 2015 when Marcus Peters had eight by himself.
No matter how experienced or inexperienced the opposing QBs might be when facing the Chiefs it shouldn’t matter as long as the Kansas City secondary is healthy. The depth at cornerback and safety is one of the deepest in the league thanks to additions like DeAndre Baker and Mike Hughes, and the knowledge of NFL veterans like Spagnuolo, Mathieu, and Sorensen will definitely help lift any player out of a hole.
At the end of the season, if the Chiefs can stay healthy on defense, there is no doubt that this secondary unit might very easily be one of the best in Kansas City history and could possibly break records both within the franchise and the entire NFL.
The key difference is dependent on whether or not Sneed, Ward, and Thornhill can come together in unison and bring the high-caliber plays that they have all shown they are capable of in years past but at the same time.
Also, if Mathieu is able to get over his stint with COVID-19 and have no other medical issues this season then it could be his best year yet–in turn making the entire Kansas City secondary one of the best yet as well.
And if Mathieu’s leadership leads to another Super Bowl victory, I see no reason to believe that Brett Veach, Andy Reid, and even Patrick Mahomes wouldn’t do everything in their power to help him return and retire as a Chief.