The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the AFC West division rival Los Angeles Chargers 27-24 in front of a raucous crowd 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 eventually winning.
Heading into the 2022 season, the general consensus was that the new Chiefs defense would need some time to come together and find its footing early in the season. After two games, however, Kansas City has done more than well. Does this mean the Chiefs are ahead of schedule?
Over the years under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ defense has bounced back from a slow start and improved as the team got deeper into its season. With many new faces at every level of the defense in 2022, it was expected to happen again.
Enter George Karlaftis, a first-round pick and defenseman who hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet in two games but has made his presence felt early and often. The bike never stops with Karlaftis and he has been nicknamed “Furious George” by fans in Chiefs Kingdom. Not only did he work his tail from play to play, but he was able to showcase his skill set more often than many expected. In Week 2, he was on the field more than any other defender on the team. He was second on the entire defense in snaps in Week 1 and ranked seventh in Week 2.
The entire linebacker group is learning new roles. Nick Bolton takes over the defensive quarterback role, with Willie Gay Jr., who played almost all of the Chiefs’ most recent game against the Chargers, and rookie Leo Chenal involved in certain packages. All three played their roles well at the start of the season, with Bolton the best of the bunch so far. He led the team in tackles in Week 1 and finished second on the team in Week 2. Overall, he looks like the best tackler on the team.
Gay struggled at times against Los Angeles when trying to close, but he ended up leading the team in tackles. He was flying all over the field and showing flashes of the potential that many Chiefs fans saw in him from day one. Chenal made his presence felt early on against the Chargers, coming in with a blitz package and nearly getting to quarterback Justin Herbert. His role will be limited but nonetheless important as the season progresses.
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Then there’s the secondary, where the Chiefs have seen the most turnover since last season. L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and Juan Thornhill are the mainstays from previous seasons, with the Chiefs adding veteran safety Justin Reid and rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie (first round), Joshua Williams (fourth round) and Jalen Watson (seventh round).
Reid shows his ability to be a leader both on and off the field, making plays when needed at the second level and giving the team a boost in the kicking game at times as well. McDuffie was terrific in Week 1 before going down and eventually landing on the injured reserve with a hip injury. The Chiefs hope he can return when he’s 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 a bit out of favor during the preseason. Williams was drafted in the final preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, and it looks like that may have opened the door for the seventh-rounder. Watson received an increase in playing time with McDuffie’s absence. 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 the Chiefs Kingdom.
With the score tied 17-17 early in the fourth quarter and a first-and-goal drive at the Chargers’ four-yard line, Watson jumped on a pass from Herbert, intercepted it and returned it 99 yards for a game-changing touchdown. It was the play of the day, turning the game around with a 14-point swing and propelled 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 improve as the season progresses, 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 who continue to have fun on and off the field.