Chiefs Preview: Can K.C. Surprise Again?
The epic wild-card game at Indianapolis was a microcosm of the Chiefs’ 2013 season: tremendous first half followed by a horrendous second half. At the forefront was the defense. It’s the more talented of Kansas City’s two major units, but we’ve learned that it still hinges largely on manufactured productivity. Last season, remarkably, the Chiefs ranked first in fewest points allowed in the first half of the season and 32nd in total yards allowed in the second half.
This doesn’t mean they should change their approach in 2014. Andy Reid’s handpicked defensive coordinator, Bob Sutton, uses a collection of different blitz tactics in his 3-4 man coverage scheme. Last year Sutton developed a high-quality dime package that, by replacing two linebackers with two defensive backs, infused more speed throughout his unit. That speed extended the range and radius for blitzes, with players rushing the quarterback from deeper spots. Slot and “corner cat” blitzes (when an outside corner rushes the passer) were staples, and each week you’d see the occasional safety join an inside linebacker on the rush.
In the first half of the season, this gave opponents fits. Most protection concepts are not designed to regularly handle third-level pressures. But as time wore on, opponents got more familiar with Sutton’s tactics. It didn’t help that top pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston (especially) battled injuries at some point. With pressure arriving less and less, Kansas City’s corners struggled to sustain coverage.
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A symbol of the secondary’s decline was cornerback Marcus Cooper. The seventh-round rookie who arrived in the heartland after being waived by San Francisco was surprisingly terrific as a nickel outside corner early on. But after he got beat deep by Bills wideout Marquise Goodwin in Week 9, offenses seemed to notice some subtle flaws in his bump-and-run technique. Soon after, Peyton Manning ruthlessly exploited those flaws, and it wasn’t long before Cooper was benched.
Cooper will have a chance to reclaim the No. 3 job this season, and maybe even the No. 2 spot considering that free-agent pickup Chris Owens is nothing special. Owens is, however, experienced in the slot; Cooper and Sean Smith are not. The long-armed Smith has slid inside only sporadically and is more proficient along the boundary. Last year he played the defensive right side almost exclusively. This year, with Brandon Flowers having been cut, Smith is clearly the best corner (regardless of how much attention Ron Parker has received in August); it will be interesting to see if he ultimately shadows opposing No. 1 receivers.
Because two good corners aren’t enough in today’s NFL (or because they might privately hold doubts about Cooper), Reid and Chiefs GM John Dorsey also spent a third-round pick on Phillip Gaines. One of the Chiefs’ top man-to-man defenders is safety Eric Berry. That’s impressive considering that man coverage had been the most glaring weakness in his otherwise sterling game.
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Berry can handle most tight ends one-on-one, and he’s a capable linebacker in the predominant dime package. In fact, Berry’s run defense, blitzing and help-coverage are so good that Sutton, in an effort to keep him at linebacker, will probably continue playing dime instead of nickel, even though the changes at corner and the loss of starting free safety Kendrick Lewis (replaced in-house by Husain Abdullah) leaves this secondary thinner than a year ago.
The Chiefs don’t have a second pass-defending linebacker to put alongside Derrick Johnson anyway. Last year’s fourth-rounder, Nico Johnson, is known for his run stuffing, and free-agent pickup Joe Mays is less athletic than predecessor Akeem Jordan (now in Washington). This isn’t to say Mays, who is stout against the run, isn’t viable. Mays also showed in Denver two years ago that he’s better as a complementary player rather than a feature guy. That’s perfect for playing alongside Johnson, one of the most diversified destroyers in the NFL. Johnson, typically finesse, has cultivated some physicality to punctuate his superb closing quickness in recent years.
These traits make Johnson good at blitzing, which he does often in between Hali and Houston. Both edge rushers have the speed and burst to reach the quarterback, though both also get necessary aid from many of Sutton’s pressure designs. With Hali turning 31 in November and having a game predicated on tenacity—which could quickly dull once his athleticism wanes—Reid and Dorsey invested a first-round pick in edge rusher Dee Ford, who figures to get reps in certain passing situations this season. Ford’s presence also presents insurance in the event that Houston, whose contract expires after this season, proves too expensive to re-sign.
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Hali and Houston are both sturdy against the run, working alongside defensive ends Mike DeVito (still underrated) and Allen Bailey, who will share time with Vance Walker (assuming the free-agent pickup transitions from his old 4-3 role to more of a classic five-technique). And, of course, lined up between these guys is Dontari Poe, the most athletic and disruptive nosetackle in football. Poe has remarkably light feet and sudden quickness (even laterally), particularly for a 345-pounder. Most remarkable is the fact that he never comes off the field.
Sutton will use all of these players in a variety of ways this season. But in order for the Chiefs to move past their second-half meltdown, individual players will simply have to play better. No magic scheme can save the day.
Doug Pederson is the coordinator, but Andy Reid is the play-caller and the man most responsible for manufacturing productivity from Kansas City’s offense. He has one of the least threatening collections of players in the NFL, even with a top-five running back like Jamaal Charles.
Besides Charles’s providing a potent ground game—outside, where he uses his speed, and inside, where lateral agility and underestimated strength make him surprisingly difficult to tackle—he fortifies the passing game. Last season Charles rushed for 1,287 yards, a few hundred below his marks in 2010 and 2012. But thanks to 693 yards off 70 receptions, he set a career high in yards from scrimmage (1,980). His 19 touchdowns (12 on the ground, seven through the air) were also a career-high.
Charles’s passing game contributions are most prevalent on screens, which Reid does a fantastic job designing, often from misdirection concepts that get the defense flowing the wrong way. That gets Charles the ball in open space against a corner or safety—a deathblow for a defense (just ask the Raiders). Equally important is Charles’s willingness and deftness as a pass-blocker. He’s often responsible for blitzers in the A gaps, and he attacks them with the alacrity that’s crucial for creating throwing room for his quarterback.
It’s in large part because of his quarterback that Reid must “manufacture” offense. It’s chic to say that Alex Smith is much more than a caretaker. But examine how he’s used and it’s plainly apparent that he epitomizes a caretaker. Almost all of Smith’s big plays come off defined reads—like a screen, a misdirection throw back across the field, or a deep bomb off play-action. Smith can make progression reads, but his limited velocity discourages him from attempting a lot of throws at the deep-intermediate levels. On the bright side, this keeps his interceptions down.
It’s been proven that you can win with Smith under center, just as long as there’s a strong supporting cast. He now has a viable rushing attack (along with Charles, he has backup Knile Davis and the versatile fourth-round rookie De’Anthony Thomas). But in the downfield passing game, there’s no one.
By not drafting any prospect from a historically deep wide receiver rookie class or signing a free agent, Reid showed the ultimate faith in his own ability to manufacture offense. Because in Dwayne Bowe, he has a wideout who can no longer run. In Donnie Avery, he has one who is fast if given space, though he struggles to create it for himself. Drops and injuries have also been problematic. In A.J. Jenkins, Reid has a less refined version of Avery. In Junior Hemingway he has a less refined version of Bowe.
At tight end, the Chiefs would love for 2013 third-rounder Travis Kelce to become an every-down pass catching force, allowing Anthony Fasano to be more of a blocking No. 2 guy. Kelce will often supplant fullback Anthony Sherman to form more two-tight end base sets this year. Kelce, however, is presumably still raw after entering the league that way and sitting out almost all of his rookie season with a knee injury.
Blocking for this anemic group of skill players is a front line that itself borders on anemic. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher may have had the worst rookie season of all the first-rounders who saw regular action (it’s close between him and Jets corner Dee Milliner). Fisher struggled to anchor and achieve balance in pass protection, and the quick feet that he occasionally flashed as a run-blocker out in front were not there on the many times when he needed to recover in pass protection. Fisher is still moving to the left side this year because the Chiefs believe his struggles were a product of a shoulder problem (which has since been fixed) and of a tough transition coming from mid-level collegiate play at Central Michigan (a la Joe Staley, who had similar issues his rookie year). Or, they simply realize they have no one else to play here.
In Fisher’s old spot is Donald Stephenson, who has light enough feet to hold up in pass protection. Inside, center Rodney Hudson and left guard Jeff Allen are potent double-team drivers. There is no proven guard to play the right side, however, which means there’s also no proven depth. (Sixth-round rookie Zach Fulton appears to be the frontrunner for now.)
Ryan Succop missed six of 28 field goals last year, with half of the misses coming from beyond 50 yards. Punter Dustin Colquitt netted 40.2 per boot. De’Anthony Thomas is expected to headline the return game.
The Chiefs’ performance in the second half of last season was more true to the makeup of their roster than what we saw in the first half. A winning record will be tough to achieve in 2014.