There will be as much offensive firepower on the field Monday night as you’ll likely find in any NFL game this season. That can only mean one thing. One of the two defenses will decide the outcome by rising to the occasion.
The Chiefs (9-1) enter the weekend heading into their showdown at Los Angeles ranked second in the league in points per game (35.3) and third in yards per game (423.1), while the Rams (9-1) currently rank second in yards per game (448) and third in points per game (33.5).
Each defense will almost assuredly take its share of lumps from these explosive offensive units. But any play by a defense that gets the opposing offense off the field could ultimately prove to be the turning point.
“It’s going to take a whole game, (and) it takes really good team defense to stop them,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “You’re going to have to make some — in my estimation — critical plays in the game because they’re going to move the football. They move it on everybody, but you’ve got to be able to make a third-down stop. You’ve got to make a red-zone stop. Those are the kind of plays — a takeaway if you get a chance — to do those things.”
Neither defense has set itself apart as among the elite in the NFL this season. DVOA (Defense-adjusted value over average), as measured by Football Outsiders, ranks the Rams 20th in the league and the Chiefs 25th. Both teams are largely identified, nationally, by their offensive stars, such as Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Rams running back Todd Gurley.
Of course, the resumes of the respective offense won’t change the mindsets of the defensive players. Chiefs inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who appears poised to play this week after sitting out last week because of bruised ribs, wholeheartedly believes defense will determine the outcome.
“I look at every game like that,” Hitchens said. “If we don’t give up no points, with our offense, there’s a 99 percent chance we’re going to win because we’re going to score some type of points. As a defense, we’re just going in and start off zero-zero and let’s keep it like that. They’re going to get plays. They’re going to get first down. We’ve just got to be able to keep battling.”
Slowing down Gurley serves as the top priority for the Chiefs’ defense. Gurley leads the NFL in rushing yards (988), and he’s also caught 40 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, he hauled in 64 receptions for 788 yards. Sutton described Gurley as being as good a back as there is in the league, and Hitchens said the only player he’d compare him to was the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell.
Gurley’s receiving prowess holds game-changing potential in this match-up. In back-to-back weeks, the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals were led in receiving yards by backs out of the backfield against the Chiefs’ defense. Cleveland’s Duke Johnson and Arizona’s David Johnson combined for 16 catches, 163 yards and three touchdowns.
The Chiefs know, as Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said following last Sunday’s game, “Todd Gurley is different, man.”
“First we’ve got to just take the air out of it,” Hitchens said of containing Gurley in the passing game. “We can’t just give him space. There’s a lot of times where off of play action he’ll sneak out of there and real sneaky catch a 2-yard pass and it ended it up being 20 yards. …
“He’s a good player. He’s going to make good catches on us. He’s going to make guys miss. We’ve just got to limit it. Those players like that, you have to just limit. He’s going to get yards. He’s going to catch the ball. We just have to limit it.”
Defensively, the Chiefs were maligned early in the season as they gave up gaudy yardage and point totals and every game seemed to be a shootout. In their past four games they’ve allowed an average of 17 points per game and held two opponents to 14 points or fewer.
Count ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst and former NFL defensive lineman Anthony “Booger” McFarland among the naysayers in regards to the Chiefs’ defense in the opening weeks of the season. He pointed to the defense as the thing that could hold the team back. Specifically, McFarland pointed to outside linebacker Justin Houston as under-performing.
Coming off a win against the Cardinals in which Houston’s return from injury helped ignite a pass rush that dominated the game, McFarland now sees a unit playing with more energy and intensity than the first few weeks of the season.
“I have seen some growth, and some would say that’s to be expected,” McFarland said this week. “However, in football you take nothing for granted. You just turn the tape on, and you let the tape speak to you.
“I think that’s going to be the challenge come Monday night. You have two teams that have high-flying offenses. The game is going to come down, in my opinion, to which defense can get stops in certain situations. If your defense can get your offense some extra possessions, I think that’s going to be a critical part of this game.”