Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Oct 2007

Every Play Counts: Kansas City Defense

By Michael David Smith

We're six games into the season, and the Kansas City Chiefs are in first place in the AFC West. There's still a long way to go, and the smart money is probably on the Chargers right now, but still: These Chiefs are better than expected.

It's especially surprising to see the Chiefs playing competitive football because their most important player the last couple years, Larry Johnson, has declined significantly after the backbreaking workload he got last season. But the Chiefs' defense is solid, and I examined it closely in Sunday's win over the Bengals.

The best player on the Chiefs' defense, and one of the best defensive players in the league, is Jared Allen. He had two and a half sacks and a forced fumble against the Bengals, and that doesn't tell the whole story.

Allen's first sack was split with fellow defensive end Tamba Hali, but Allen really deserves the credit for it. Allen bull-rushed Bengals left tackle Levi Jones straight back, forcing quarterback Carson Palmer to backtrack, and then Allen shed Brown's block and grabbed Palmer. Hali took such a wide route in pass rushing that he would have been totally out of position if Allen hadn't backed Palmer into him.

On Allen's second sack, the Chiefs blitzed, with six pass rushers, and Palmer never had a chance. Allen got to him first, but it was basically a jailbreak toward the quarterback. Even if Jones had managed to block Allen (which he never did, but more on that later), someone else would have gotten to Palmer. The Chiefs' pass rush thoroughly whipped the Bengals' protection.

On the third sack, Allen just plain made Jones look ridiculous. Jones reached both arms out in a funny-looking attempt to shove Allen and could barley touch him, and Allen just ran right past him, hitting Palmer (who never saw it coming) and knocking the ball out of his hand. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who fought through a double team on the play, pounced on the loose ball.

After that, Jones was benched. His replacement, Andrew Whitworth, did a much better job against Allen than Jones had, so we were robbed of seeing a mismatch along the lines of Osi Umenyiora vs. Winston Justice. Still, though Allen didn't register any more sacks once Jones left, he applied pressure several more times, including on Whitworth's first play of the game, in which Allen ran right past him and chased Palmer out of the pocket. Allen is fast, his technique is outstanding, and he's one of the league's best defensive players.

I really liked how Allen worked together with the player who lined up next to him most of the time, defensive tackle Alfonso Boone. On one play late in the second quarter, Boone went hard to the outside to tie up the left side of the Bengals' line and Allen looped to the inside, running through the opening Boone created and hitting Palmer just as he passed. On the next play the Bengals looked like they were expecting the same thing, but this time Boone rushed straight ahead, used a good swim move, and knocked Palmer down. Boone is a big, tough player who's very disruptive in the middle and doesn't give up on plays, even when they're not going anywhere near him. (Gratuitous shot: Boone started his career in Detroit but Matt Millen didn't keep him around, so you know he must be good.)

The rest of the defensive line is solid, but there's no one who makes the spectacular plays that Allen makes. Left end Tamba Hali is a good athlete, but he can be beaten when the offense runs directly at him. Bengals right tackle Stacy Andrews usually got the better of Hali on running plays. Note especially the run to the right by Rudi Johnson at the beginning of the Bengals' second drive. Andrews drove Hali off the ball, and Hali never even got close to the play, even though Johnson ran straight at the spot where Hali lined up.

I was surprised the Chiefs didn't get more of a contribution from their two rookie defensive tackles, second-round pick Turk McBride and third-round pick Tank Tyler. Both played, but neither started, and I liked the starters, Edwards and Boone, better than I liked the rookies.

Linebacker Donnie Edwards is probably the Chiefs' best player against the run. The Bengals' fifth possession consisted of three Kenny Watson runs, and on the third run, on third-and-1, Edwards knifed though the line of scrimmage, caught Watson from behind as he tried to cut upfield, and stopped him for a loss of a yard. Edwards also stopped Rudi Johnson for a yard on a second-and-3 and stuffed Watson at the line of scrimmage to get the Chiefs the ball back on a fourth-and-inches. Edwards started his career in Kansas City in 1996 and re-signed with the Chiefs this off-season after five years with the Chargers. He looks just as good at age 34 as he did when he last played for the Chiefs at age 28, and his addition is one of the reasons for the Chiefs' defensive improvement.

Still, Edwards isn't perfect. Specifically, he has trouble in coverage against tight ends; on a second-and-6 pass from Palmer to tight end Reggie Kelly that went for 14 yards, it was Edwards who allowed Kelly to get open in the middle of the field. The other starting outside linebacker, Derrick Johnson, is a very athletic player and better in pass coverage than Edwards. Johnson got into great position to get his hands on a short Palmer pass in the fourth quarter, and although the pass actually bounced out of Johnson's hands and into the hands of Cincinnati's Antonio Chatman, that fluky bounce of a ball doesn't change the fact that Johnson made a great play in coverage.

I didn't see many great plays in coverage from cornerback Ty Law. For most of the day Law was responsible for covering T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Patrick Surtain was responsible for Chad Johnson. Surtain had the better game, and therefore Houshmandzadeh did, too.

The Chiefs' entire secondary needs work on its open-field tackling. Strong safety Bernard Pollard's method of tackling is head down, dive into the guy with the ball, and although it works sometimes, it's often ineffective -- he missed what should have been an easy tackle on Watson by failing to wrap him up, allowing him to gain 10 extra yards. Hitting with the head down can also be dangerous.

Problems with Law, and with tackling, showed up on the last play of the Bengals' first drive, a touchdown pass to Houshmandzadeh. The play started with Johnson and Houshmandzadeh both lined up on the left side of the field. Law appeared to be getting help with Houshmandzadeh from safety Jarrad Page, but they allowed Houshmandzadeh to get open between them, and after Houshmandzadeh caught the pass 17 yards downfield, that bad open-field tackling allowed Houshmandzadeh to take it the rest of the way for a touchdown. (Note: When Houshmandzadeh scored his second touchdown, in the fourth quarter, he was covered by Surtain.)

Surtain made a great play for an interception when Johnson ran a 15-yard sideline route. Surtain saw it coming all the way, stepped in front of it and grabbed it. Surtain doesn't have great speed -- on one 11-yard catch, Johnson ran right past him -- but while he's not as fast as he once was, at this point in his career he can make up for it with an improved feel for knowing where the quarterback wants to throw.

Law, on the other hand, seems like he's gotten to the point where even his improved ability to read quarterbacks can't make up for the fact that he has lost a couple steps. I wonder if undrafted rookie nickel back Tyron Brackenridge, who bailed Law out by making the tackle on Houshmandzadeh on one play when Law missed him, will eventually take Law's spot in the starting lineup.

The last thing to say about the Chiefs' performance against the Bengals is that defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham called a great game. Cunningham just seemed to have a perfect feel for applying the right pressure at the right time. Whether that was blitzing when the Bengals weren't ready for it or crowding the line of scrimmage to blow up a run, the Chiefs consistently had the right play called. This is a talented, well-coached defense, and it's a defense that will keep the Chiefs in the playoff race a lot longer than most people thought.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 17 Oct 2007

19 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2007, 4:56am by t.d.

Comments

1
by Sam (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 1:31pm

I'm quite sure that I know far, far less about football than you, MDS. But I'm fairly certain that when you write "On Allen’s second sack, the Bengals blitzed, with six pass rushers, and Palmer never had a chance" you really meant "the Chiefs blitzed." I hope.

2
by Sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 1:44pm

"Not many people expected the Chiefs to be in first place after six weeks"

But nobody figured 3-3 would be leading the division, either. As far as the decline of Larry Johnson, it's not as if there's a scary passing attack to worry about when you face the Chiefs. It'd be amazing if he did have good stats.

3
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 1:48pm

Appreciate the comments about Allen. When Mckinnie was getting ripped for his play in the Chiefs' game, it seemed like an obvious case to me of not giving the opponent proper credit. A cornerback doesn't necessarily suck because this year's Randy Moss has a good day against him, when the corner isn't given adequate help, or sometimes even when he is given help. Similalry, a tackle hasn't necessarily sucked because Jared Allen has a good day at Arrowhead stadium, when Allen has spent most of the day split out very wide, and the tackle doesn't get a lot of help. Sometimes the opponent is pretty damned good, and that needs to be considered.

4
by Evad88 (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:01pm

mmmmm...barley

5
by Topas (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:14pm

no critic, just hint:
5th paragraph should be 'chiefs blitzed six'

6
by Bobman (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:34pm

MDS, always a great read. Can we look fwd to Freeney/Ogden v 3.0 in a couple months?

7
by Ferg (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:39pm

6: Not if Ogden goes on IR, which the Ravens are apparently considering.

8
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:41pm

Can we look fwd to Freeney/Ogden v 3.0 in a couple months?
I'm guessing not -- Ogden's injured again (linked).

9
by JoRo (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:45pm

Shawn Andrews is a guard for the Eagles, the right tackle named Andrews on the Bengals is Stacy. I am almost positive. Other than that good article... though it makes me sad seeing how Denver is my team haha.

10
by mawbrew (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 3:31pm

After seeing the Chiefs in preseason, I thought they would be the worst team in the NFL this year. They were terrible and I didn't think Johnson would make much difference when he returned. Johnson hasn't made much difference (the offense is still pretty bad) but something sure has changed on the defensive side.

11
by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 4:27pm

What happened to Levi Jones? I know he was hurt last season, but he was Pro Bowl caliber I thought in 2005 (and held his own against Dwight Freeney).

12
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 5:12pm

Good stuff again. I'll second the Levi Jones question. Also, is Willie Anderson hurt? The Bengals appeared to have the best OT pairing in the league. Now, not so much.

As for Allen, have the Chiefs got him signed yet, or is he gonna hit the jackpot in the offseason?

13
by Michael David Smith :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 7:37pm

Yes, Willie Anderson was hurt and out Sunday. And Jones just looked like a mess on Sunday. The comments out of Cincinnati after the game were all along the lines of, "He just had one of those days," but I dunno. I think there might be something wrong with him.

Allen is a free agent after the season, and Carl Peterson has said he'll put the franchise tag on him if they don't reach a long-term deal. (I wrote about that at PFT today.)

14
by JoshuaPerry (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 9:58pm

Allen will likely be franchise tagged.

15
by MRH (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 10:15pm

I wrote about this in the DVOA thread, but Allen has clearly helped the D after the 0-2 start. The increased use of Bowe has helped the offense, and now that Huard isn't splitting reps with Croyle as in preseason, I think he's improved (not grear or even good, but improved over preseason). If the Chiefs can split home-and-home with DEN, sweep OAK, and beat SD in KC (in December, and Marty admittted last year the Chargers hate the cold weather), they probably can finish 9-7. That might be enough to make the playoffs, especially as that might be neough to win the division.

16
by CybScryb (not verified) :: Thu, 10/18/2007 - 2:52am

The Chiefs really need to suck it up and give Allen a long-term contract. He's going to mature eventually and his motor just runs and runs. I don't know if Carl Peterson's draft savvy includes offensive linemen...if not, he needs to find a consultant and start making those late-round picks count.

My guess is that LJ will get frustrated and find a way out before the line comes together. Which is too bad, because the Dwayne Bowe selection is looking really good.

Offensive linemen from the free-agent market and waiver wires won't cut it in this NFL.

17
by LostInDaJungle (not verified) :: Thu, 10/18/2007 - 10:50am

"and then Allen shed Brown’s block and grabbed Palmer."

We don't have any offensive linemen named Brown. It's Levi Jones, Levi Brown plays for the Cardinals.

However, Jones would probably appreciate it if you just left it that way.

18
by Rant (not verified) :: Thu, 10/18/2007 - 2:39pm

An actual Chiefs article! Do you guys track stats on how often you mention the chiefs in a non-condescending manner? I am impressed with this article and I think LJ will come on harder as the season nears the playoffs. Bowe is a baller, no doubt. Best WR in 10 years for the Chiefs!

19
by t.d. (not verified) :: Mon, 10/22/2007 - 4:56am

Allen is a beast. I'm a Jags fan, and my team did pretty well against them, but I remember him making a huge impact in the backfield. I'd say Gonzalez is clearly their best player on offense now. Johnson is Jamal Lewis 2.0