It was one of the top storylines of the offseason as the Kansas City Chiefs sought to improve a run defense that struggled at times during the 2017 campaign.
That was one of the motivating factors behind the additions of linebacker Anthony Hitchens and defensive tackle Xavier Williams last spring, and when coupled with the abilities of emerging players such as linebacker Reggie Ragland, the defense feels that they have the pieces to accomplish that goal this season.
That group will face a mighty test right out of the gate on Sunday in the form of Los Angeles Chargers’ tailback Melvin Gordon.
“Melvin has done a great job for them. I think he’s a player that’s really improved over the years,” said Defensive Coordinator Bob Sutton. “He’s a legit dude. He runs hard, he can cut, he can pop out on you - he really has the ability to break out either to the outside or cut back inside. Not all ‘backs can do that, but he’s done a really good job.”
Gordon tallied 1,581 yards from scrimmage last season – the fifth-most in the NFL – as the third-year professional established himself as one of the more dynamic threats in the league.
“He can do it all. He can run between the tackles, you can pitch it to him outside and he’ll outrun the corners and he can catch it out in the flat – he’s tough,” Ragland said. “He’s diverse, which makes it tough as a player, so we’ve just got to do the best that we can at containing him.”
Ragland and Hitchens will shoulder a portion of that responsibility on Sunday as the duo patrols the middle of the Chiefs’ defense. The pair didn’t play much alongside one another during the preseason, but Ragland remains confident in their ability to work cohesively against Los Angeles.
“We have to get the job done and do our best to make sure that everybody is lined up and doing everything correctly,” Ragland added. “I’m really comfortable with Hitch and he’s comfortable with me. We didn’t get the game reps, but we’re still practicing beside each other all the time…I’m very comfortable playing alongside a guy like that.”
The ability for those two, along with the rest of the Chiefs’ defense, to stop the run is something that Sutton is looking forward to evaluating on Sunday.
“It’s going to be exciting to get everybody out there and see where we’re at,” Sutton explained. “I think we came out of the preseason really not knowing that, because I don’t think we ever had more than five guys in our [starting] group out there at once. It’s going to be interesting to see where we’re at and where we need to improve, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Of course, stopping Gordon and the Chargers’ rushing attack doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Los Angeles’ offense flows through quarterback Philip Rivers, and the Chargers’ ability to move the ball on the ground ultimately ties back to the 14-year veteran’s comfort under center.
“Gordon is one of the best ‘backs in the NFL, so if you can stop him, you have a pretty good chance of stopping the Chargers, but at the end of the day, if you don’t get pressure on Philip, it doesn’t mean a thing,” Ragland said. “We need to get pressure on him and frustrate him the best we can.”
The Chiefs have done plenty of that over the years, sacking Rivers 22 times and forcing 13 interceptions during Kansas City’s eight-game winning streak over the Chargers since 2014.
Kansas City will look to continue that trend on Sunday as the Chiefs kick off the regular season against the Chargers at 3:05 p.m. CT. Catch the game on CBS (KCTV5 local) and 101.1 The Fox.