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The Chiefs’ Defense Is Worse Than Their Offense Is Great

The Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night in New England showed they have the second-most explosive offense in football. The most explosive one? Whomever they happen to be playing.

Through six games, the Chiefs are the worst defense ever measured in yards allowed.1 They’ve yielded 2,809 yards, or 468.2 per game, and are on pace for 7,491 yards allowed over the full season. That would smash the record set by the 2012 Saints, the only team in history to give up more than 7,000 yards. No team that’s allowed even 6,600 yards in a season has ever finished with a winning record.

For all their offensive firepower, the Chiefs have somehow gained nearly 300 fewer yards than opponents (2,511). They are more efficient in yards per play — but not by much. Their opponents’ 6.56 average gain is the seventh most through six games since the 1970 merger. But defenses in 2018 are struggling leaguewide: Two clubs this year are actually worse in yards allowed per play than the Chiefs — the Buccaneers (who have played just five games) and the Raiders.

Yes, the Kansas City offense is so good that the Chiefs are still 5-1. They’ve already won two games this year when they gave up more than 500 yards, while every other team in the 500 Club since 2000 is 63-186-3. They have allowed at least five entire football fields worth of offense three times — putting them easily on pace to break the single-season record of five by the 1950 Colts.2 Only seven other teams ever gave up four 500-plus-yard games in a single season. Could any team that’s so seemingly helpless on defense overcome such profound weakness on that side of the ball? Or could their defense somehow improve?

The Kansas City defense is historically poor

NFL team defenses that surrendered the most yards through Week 6 and how each fared the rest of the year, 1940-2018

Yards Allowed Yards/Game Win %
Team Year By Week 6 Full Year By Week 6 Rest Of Year By Week 6 Full Year
Chiefs 2018 2,809 468.2 .833
Saints 2012 2,793 7,042 465.5 424.9 .333 .438
Colts 1950 2,743 5,246 457.2 417.2 .000 .083
49ers 2005 2,716 6,259 452.7 354.3 .167 .250
Raiders 2016 2,669 6,001 444.8 333.2 .667 .750
Chiefs 1976 2,663 5,357 443.8 336.8 .333 .357
Patriots 2017 2,644 5,856 440.7 321.2 .667 .813
Chiefs 2002 2,580 6,248 430.0 366.8 .500 .500
Bills 2012 2,579 5,806 429.8 322.7 .500 .375
Browns 2012 2,553 5,821 425.5 326.8 .167 .313
Patriots 2011 2,542 6,577 423.7 403.5 .833 .813

The 1950 Colts played 12 games; the 1976 Chiefs played 14.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.Com

The stomach-turning numbers from the Chiefs’ defense can partially be explained by their offense. Patrick Mahomes and company have routinely jumped out to big leads, outscoring opponents by a league-leading 46 points in the first quarter. That has made opposing offenses play with urgency and desperation — two qualities that will generate yardage quickly in the NFL.3

The good news for Andy Reid and the Chiefs is that every team that appears on the list above eventually got better. On average, they allowed 81.72 percent of their yardage per game for the remainder of the season. If the Chiefs enjoy a similar regression, they would allow 382.6 yards per game, which through Sunday of Week 6 would rank 23nd. That’s like being The Steel Curtain compared with where they are.

Kansas City doesn’t have to look far for an example of how to rebound on defense. The Patriots last year had allowed 2,644 yards (440.7 per game) at the same stage of the season — good for fifth worst since 1940 at the time. They improved that to 321.2 for the rest of the year and coasted to the Super Bowl. (Granted, that’s when they reverted to their prior form and lost 41-33 to the Eagles despite posting 613 yards of offense and never punting. The Pats’ defense gave up 5384 total yards.)

Or maybe Kansas City doesn’t even need to improve on defense. Mahomes is a big play waiting to happen, and the Chiefs have firepower everywhere on the field — from the backfield with Kareem Hunt, to middle of the field where Travis Kelce roams, to far downfield where Tyreek Hill hauls in Mahomes’s rockets. Plus defense seems optional this year, with the league on a record pace since 1950 in points, yards, yards per play and yards per pass play — and even yards per rush has never been higher. In other words, in 2018, NFL teams generally can’t stop anyone or anything.

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  1. Since 1940.

  2. The Colts hit that mark in only 12 regular-season games.

  3. This was not a valid excuse Sunday night, when the Patriots racked up 500 yards and 43 points while leading the majority of the game.

  4. Our favorite number.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.