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Improved defense makes defending champ Chiefs even scarier

The Chiefs are one of the most feared teams in the league because of their offense. Patrick Mahomes is a cheat code and Andy Reid understands how to put him in the best position to succeed.

It was a dramatic turnaround on defense, however, that catapulted them to a Super Bowl title and has them as prohibitive favorites to repeat as champions.

“Everybody talks about their offense and rightfully so,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said ahead of their 10 a.m. game Sunday in Kansas City. “They’re Super Bowl champs. They have the MVP at quarterback, speed everywhere, great players. … But their defense can play as well. They’re really good.”

The Chiefs’ defense was really good in the postseason last year. It’s elite through one-fourth of this season.

Football Outsiders has Kansas City as the fifth-best defense in the league. The Chiefs have surrendered just 17.5 points per game, second-best in the NFL.

The success is a continuation of what happened down the stretch last season and carried all the way through the Super Bowl.

Kansas City got carved up in a 35-32 loss to the Titans on Nov. 10 last season, a game that served as a wake-up call. The Chiefs knew they had to find a way to get stops occasionally or risk wasting a historically good offense.

The improvements were immediate.

Kansas City allowed just 11.5 points per game from Weeks 11 through 17, best in the league. The unit also paced the NFL with 10 interceptions to just five touchdowns allowed through the air, was tops with those 10 interceptions and surrendered a league-low 63.5 passer rating.

Raiders coach Jon Gruden has been impressed with the turnaround guided by Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who took over the job before last season.

“They take the ball away,” he said of a team that has forced seven turnovers and is tied for second in the league with a plus-5 turnover differential. “They blitz you. They come from everywhere. … I give Spagnuolo a lot of credit. You have no idea what he’s going to come up with next.”

The biggest change implemented by Spagnuolo was a switch from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. While it took time to take hold, the switch proved fruitful for a Chiefs defense that had plenty of big-name talent that just needed to be put in the right places.

Signing Tyrann Mathieu and pairing him with rookie safety Juan Thornhill also proved to be a stroke of genius for the perennial contenders. They perfectly fit into what Spagnuolo wanted to accomplish defensively.

“He presents a lot of different looks, especially on third down,” Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “But they’ve got a talented group and that’s a big part of it as well. We have a lot of respect for those guys and Steve. He’s probably most well known for his exotic pressures on third down. That’s kind of a hallmark of his.”

The Chiefs were 10th in the league, allowing 37 percent on third downs last year. They are 12th at 40 percent this season.

“They’ve got some ballers,” Raiders guard Denzelle Good said. “Those guys are disciplined and they know how to play. When you watch the film, it’s apparent. They have some big-name playmakers out there.”

The success has certainly carried over. In the marquee matchup on the NFL’s regular-season schedule, the Chiefs held reigning MVP Lamar Jackson to just 97 yards passing in a 34-20 win over the Ravens.

Carr took notice.

“They have a great front and get after it,” he said. “The linebackers run and hit and their secondary has great players. Obviously we know about Tyrann and what kind of player he is.

”I mean, Lamar’s the MVP of our league and one of the best players in football. Then you look at the other teams they’ve played against and what they’ve been able to hold them to. What a challenge this is for us.”

The Raiders managed just 19 total points in two meetings with the Chiefs last season, averaging 194 yards passing in the two losses.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.