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08-13-2007, 10:00 AM
Chiefs' defense could be back among the elite
By Michael Ash on August 10, 2007 12:11 AM

Defense is considered a traditioninKansas City. During the golden years, the era of Hank Stram and Len Dawson, the Chiefs had one of the best defensive units in the history of football. Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Buck Buchanan are all enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and others from the group - most notably Jim Lynch and Johnny Robinson - are considered by many to be deserving of the honor.
Defense ruled Kansas City again in the 1990s, as a host of Pro Bowlers - players like Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, Dan Saleaumua and Dale Carter, to name just a few - spent years dominating the teams that lined up against them. Led by their defense, the Chiefs had the NFL's best winning percentage during that decade.
But the culture changed when Dick Vermeil came to town. Suddenly, the offense was at the top of the league each year, and the defense was among the NFL's worst. In 2002, in fact, it was the worst of them all, with an overall ranking of 32nd.
Vermeil spent the final three years of his coaching career trying to get the defense fixed. It didn't have to be good, it just needed to be an average, middle-of-the-pack unit and the Chiefs' high-octane offense could handle the rest. Unfortunately, the best ranking the defense achieved in that period was 25th, which came during Vermeil's last season with the team.
It was at that point that current head coach Herm Edwards (http://www.realfootball365.com/nfl/articles/2007/08/chiefs_d_could_be_back_among_t.html#) took over. In his first year, the Chiefs' defense jumped nine spots in the NFL's defensive rankings. The unit went from being one the worst units to a ranking of 16th, putting it right in the middle of the game's 32 teams. Likewise, the scoring defense improved, going the 16th spot in 2005 to 11th.
What those rankings hide, though, is just how close the Chiefs were to being slotted higher. Had they given up just one fewer point a game in 2006, their scoring defense would have been No. 7 in the league. With just eight fewer yards per contest, Kansas City's overall ranking would have climbed to 12th.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the improvements is that Edwards came to the Chiefs with a brand-new defensive scheme, one the 'D' wasn't designed for under Vermeil. The Cover 2 defense that Edwards learned from his days in Tampa Bay with Tony Dungy (http://www.realfootball365.com/nfl/articles/2007/08/chiefs_d_could_be_back_among_t.html#) is based on specific principles that, for the most part, the Chiefs didn't have the personnel to execute.
Still, Edwards installed the new system. And he did his best to plug the holes while he worked on acquiring talent that actually fit the program. Two draft classes and a handful of free-agent signings later, the Chiefs are preparing to embark on their second season under Edwards.
And this may be the year that the defense starts retaking its place among the best in the league.
Defensive line
The overall principle of the Cover 2 is that the four down linemen can get pressure on the quarterback without needing help from the blitz. In Edwards' first draft with the Chiefs, he spent his top pick on end Tamba Hali, who complements fellow pass rusher Jared Allen (http://www.realfootball365.com/nfl/articles/2007/08/chiefs_d_could_be_back_among_t.html#) perfectly.
The two ends combined for 15 sacks in 2006, a number that would have been much higher if opposing quarterbacks hadn't been able to step up into the pocket to avoid them. The lack of a push from the Chiefs' defensive tackles allowed passers to step up and buy a few extra seconds to get rid of the ball.
The team improved its tackle rotation considerably in the offseason by selecting Turk McBride and Tank Tyler (http://www.realfootball365.com/nfl/articles/2007/08/chiefs_d_could_be_back_among_t.html#) in the second and third rounds of the draft, adding free agent Alphonso Boone from the Bears, and, perhaps most importantly, finally getting rid of draft bust Ryan Sims. Any combination the Chiefs line up with in 2007 should be better than the options they had a year ago.
Whether they've upgraded the position enough to have a truly great defense remains to be seen, but they should undoubtedly see improvement.
The Tampa 2 requires speedy linebackers who can drop into coverage. Of the Chiefs' three starters a year ago - Kawika Mitchell, Kendrell Bell and Derrick Johnson - only Johnson fit the bill. The team let Mitchell go in free agency and Bell has been relegated to a backup and occasional pass rusher.
Added in the offseason were linebackers Napoleon Harris and Donnie Edwards. In the Chiefs' defensive scheme, the middle linebacker is especially important in coverage and needs the speed to cover a lot of ground. Harris, formerly of the Raiders and Vikings, is a much better fit for the job than Mitchell, who was beaten over the top on numerous passing plays last season because he simply wasn't fast enough. Likewise, the upgrade in coverage that Edwards brings over Bell is night and day.
The Chiefs have gone from having a weakness in two-thirds of their starting linebackers to a unit that's ideally suited for their defense. The difference should be dramatic.
Because they play a zone coverage, the cornerbacks in the Cover 2 don't have to possess elite ability in man-to-man situations. Even though starters Ty Law and Pat Surtain are on the downside of their careers, both men are well-suited for the style of defense they're being asked to play.
The deep responsibility falls on the safeties. Last year's starters were Sammy Knight, a veteran with not a lot of speed left, and the talented but inconsistent Greg Wesley. In last year's draft, Edwards used his second-round pick on Bernard Pollard, an attacking, hard-hitting safety in the mold of John Lynch (http://www.realfootball365.com/nfl/articles/2007/08/chiefs_d_could_be_back_among_t.html#), and his seventh-round pick on Jarrad Page, a speedy, gifted athlete who was passed over by most teams because it was widely assumed that he would play professional baseball instead.
Both players made their presence known during their rookie seasons. Pollard was a special teams ace, blocking three punts and recovering one for a touchdown. In limited duty at safety, Page intercepted three passes and added another against Peyton Manning (http://www.realfootball365.com/nfl/articles/2007/08/chiefs_d_could_be_back_among_t.html#) in the playoffs.
Reports from training camp have raved about the young safeties, both of whom should enter the 2007 season as starters. Perhaps more than anyone else on the Chiefs' defense, Pollard and Page have the potential to become breakout stars in the league - Pollard for his "jacked up" style of hitting, and Page for his smooth, effortless ball-hawking ability.
If the second-year safeties work out as planned, the Chiefs' secondary will show tremendous improvement.
Final analysis
When a unit installs a new system and begins to improve, it's reasonable to expect the trend to continue just based on the team getting more familiar with the style they're being asked to play. The Chiefs are not only entering their second year in Herm Edwards' program, they've upgraded several key positions along the way.
As close as Kansas City was to being in the top 10 a year ago - just 8 yards a game from being ranked 12th - it has the opportunity to finish even higher this season. A defense ranked from sixth to 10th seems like the next step for a group that continues to improve. And from there the team will try to claw its way back to being the cream of the crop.
But should their new starters perform beyond expectations in 2007, the Chiefs could be back among the best even sooner.

08-14-2007, 12:59 AM
...Confirming what I and many others have said for quite some time. :)