Chiefs key on red zone defense to slow Falcons

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Coach Andy Reid’s voice cut through the crisp autumn air, admonishing his Kansas City Chiefs team of the challenge that awaits them Sunday afternoon against the Atlanta Falcons.

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback D.J. White (24) helps linebacker Dee Ford (55) and defensive lineman Jaye Howard (96) bring a ballcarrier to the ground during the team's 27-21 win over the New Orleans Saints, Oct. 23, 2016. (Nick Tre. Smith/Special to The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback D.J. White (24) helps linebacker Dee Ford (55) and defensive lineman Jaye Howard (96) bring a ballcarrier to the ground during the team’s 27-21 win over the New Orleans Saints, Oct. 23, 2016. (Nick Tre. Smith/Special to The Topeka Capital-Journal)

No one believes you can win this game, Reid told his team. No one believes you can go to Atlanta and win after a thrilling victory at Denver last Sunday. No one believes you can win with a Thursday night showdown at Arrowhead Stadium against the Oakland Raiders looming in four days.

“We wouldn’t to be in any other position,” wide receiver Albert Wilson said. “We’re just going to strap them up and hit these next few days hard.”

The road trip to Atlanta sandwiched between last Sunday’s dramatic win and Thursday’s battle for the AFC lead poses a big enough hurdle on face value. But the mystery of slowing down the NFL’s highest-scoring offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones adds to the dilemma the Chiefs face.

Atlanta averages 32.5 points per game and leads the league with 6.6 yards per play. The Falcons gain yards in chunks, capable of moving the ball through the air and on the ground at will.

The task of slowing down Ryan and Jones falls to the Chiefs secondary, which comes off an uneven performance against the Broncos last week. Opponents increasingly steer away from cornerback Marcus Peters, a fact not lost on Ryan.

“Very aggressive, great ball skills and he has a great knack for timing up when to be aggressive,” Ryan said of Peters. “We’re certainly going to have to be aware of where he’s at and show him the respect that he deserves because he’s done a great job.”

The Chiefs lead the league in takeaways with 24 turnovers, largely due to the influence of Peters. The Falcons display high degree of ball control, however, that can minimize that advantage.

But Ryan believes his receiving corps can challenge Peters.

“We have a lot of respect for him for sure,” Ryan said. “But we’ll go through our plan and throw to where we think is the right spot.”

But the true opportunity for the Chiefs may come in the red zone. The Chiefs rank fifth in the league in red zone defense, holding teams to touchdowns less than 50 percent of the time.

If the Chiefs can hold the Falcons to field goals rather than touchdowns, that swings momentum Kansas City’s way, according to linebacker Derrick Johnson.

“Offenses never like field goals,” Johnson said. “When we get closer to the end zone, we’re making a conscious effort to not let them in as far as scoring seven points.”

Injuries remain another obstacle the Chiefs must overcome. The team placed defensive lineman Jaye Howard on injured reserve this week. Defensive lineman T.J. Barnes, an intimidating specimen at 6-7, 364 pounds, fills Howard’s roster spot.

Defensive tackle Dontari Poe missed practice this week with continuing back spasms, making him questionable. If Poe cannot play, that leaves the Chiefs with a defensive line rotation leaning on rookie Chris Jones, second-year Rakeem Nunez-Roches and recent free agent acquisitions Kendall Reyes and Jarvis Jenkins.

Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton praised Jones for developing into a strong force in the trenches.

“He’s a doing a great job of pushing the pocket – that’s huge,” Sutton said. Some of those don’t go as sacks, but when you put a guard right back into the quarterback, then, hopefully that effects them a little bit.”

The Chiefs also ruled out wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who continues battling a groin injury.

The Chiefs stand 8-3 in the AFC West, one game behind the Raiders at 9-2. The team stands in solid position for a playoff berth, but the team has its designs on winning the division.

That makes this weekend’s trip to Atlanta crucial, Johnson said.

“We got a lot of things at stake for us as the season goes,” Johnson said. “Our division, it’s almost like you’ve got to win every weekend. They’re at the top of their division, so they got a lot to play for too.”

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Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and the Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.

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