The Kansas City Chiefs’ 26-23 victory against the Minnesota Vikings featured its share of game-changing plays, including Damien Williams’ 91-yard run, Harrison Butker’s clutch field goals and Tyreek Hill’s downfield wizardry, but one under-the-radar moment may have been even more significant.
On the final play of the third quarter, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi disengaged from center Garrett Bradbury and stopped running back Dalvin Cook cold for no gain.
It was a symbolic play and part of the Chiefs’ defensive effort that held Cook, the NFL’s leading rusher, to 71 rushing yards and the Vikings to 96 total rushing yards.
“It’s all about getting better and better every single day,” Nnadi said. “And this game was a testament to that.”
The Chiefs’ run defense has improved since it looked like a weakness that would derail the Chiefs’ Super Bowl aspirations.
On paper the Cook-led Vikings looked like a bad matchup for the Chiefs. Kansas City entered the game with the third worst rushing defense, allowing 145 yards per game and 4.9 per carry.
And in successive weeks, the Chiefs defense had allowed 203 rushing yards, including 103 to Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram; 186, including 125 to Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson; 180, including 132 to Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack and 192, including 116 to Houston Texans running back Carlos Hyde.
“We are making every running back we play look awesome,” Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark said after the loss to the Texans.
But since losing to Houston, the Chiefs’ run defense has stiffened. After limiting the Denver Broncos to just 71 rushing yards on 3.4 yards per carry, the Chiefs allowed 118 rushing yards, including just 67 by Aaron Jones, to the Green Bay Packers.
“I’m proud of our defense for continuing to work and get better,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. “We have to keep going. We aren’t near where we can be or where we will be. We just keep pounding it ... This group has a good mind-set about them.”
One reason the Chiefs have improved as the season has gone on is that the adjustment to Steve Spagnuolo’s new system is a process. The players are also meshing with new defensive teammates. Six of the defensive starters against the Vikings — or more than half of the starters — were new to the team this year.
“Everyone’s getting more used to each other,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “Any time you get a new scheme, it might take a while.”
Ragland also has played a role. After seeing little action during the early part of the season, he earned his first start against the Broncos and responded with a sack, a touchdown and a stop of Phillip Lindsay for no gain on a two-point conversion attempt.
Originally a middle linebacker, Ragland, who is in the last year of a four-year, $5.84 million contract that counts $1.2 million against the cap this season, is now starting on the outside, where he has more responsibility in the flat.
“It ain’t no different. I’m just a football player and I love playing football and I’m going to keep giving everything I got,” Ragland said. “Everything’s clicking, man. We’re just playing ball, and everyone’s playing for one another.”
On Sunday that all-for-one defensive approach will be tested by someone familiar to Ragland — Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. The mammoth, 6-4, 247-pound back was his college teammate on Alabama’s 2015 national championship team before both entered the NFL.
Henry ran for 1,059 yards (the seventh highest total in the NFL) last year while averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
He represents another measuring stick for the oft-criticized Chiefs run defense.
“We’ve got plenty of room to grow,” Reid said. “We have to keep buckling down, practicing hard and playing hard. That’s where we’re at right now.”