Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
27 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Two years ago, everything was going great for the Kansas City Chiefs. They were a bright young team under a well-regarded head coach, Todd Haley. They surprised everyone by riding the league’s best rushing attack to an AFC West title. They had invested $28 million guaranteed in quarterback Matt Cassel, whom they felt was a good fit in Haley’s shotgun-based passing game. General manager Scott Pioli was building this team "The Patriot Way," stockpiling depth on both sides of the ball and retooling the classic 3-4 defense that former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was running. This was a team on the rise.
But last season, everything suddenly went sour. In their first two games, the Chiefs looked as if they’d gotten word only the night before that the lockout was over. Buffalo beat them 41-7, then Detroit beat them 48-3. Torn ACL’s suffered by their best young defensive player, Eric Berry, and best young offensive player, Jamaal Charles, exacerbated the September gloom. A mild resurgence in October was quickly nullified by a winless November. In mid-December, Haley was fired. Not long after that came reports about how paranoia, spying, and day-to-day power struggles had poisoned the environment at 1 Arrowhead Drive.
Consequently, the Chiefs’ reputation has taken a major hit -– not in a way that impacts ticket sales or business relations -- but just in how this organization is perceived. Questions about Pioli’s competency as a top executive are starting to arise. Cassel has heard some boos at offseason events around town. The national television networks have lost interest: the Chiefs have just one prime-time game beyond the mandated Thursday night start, a Monday nighter against Pittsburgh.
What’s funny is, aside from the coaching staff, there’s really no difference between these 2012 Chiefs and the Chiefs of two years ago. It’s still a really young team. (In fact, it's the NFL’s only team without a single player over 30 years old.) On paper, the offense is better than it was, and the defense quietly matured into one of the stronger units in football last season. The Chiefs defense held opponents to 16 or fewer points in five of their last six games.
So despite general outside sentiment, the Chiefs are not rebuilding. They’re rebounding. Or hoping to rebound, anyway.
Though he never directly said so publicly, a big issue Haley had in Kansas City was that he felt limited by the mediocrity of Matt Cassel. Haley’s system had hummed under Kurt Warner in Arizona. But Cassel didn’t -– and doesn’t -– have Warner’s shrewdness before the snap or quick release after the snap. Cassel is willing to stand in the pocket and take tough hits, and he has hints of athleticism in avoiding the rush. But some of the hits he takes and rushes he avoids only come about because he didn’t see the field clearly or understand his protection. Cassel is like a streaky jump shooter: he’ll have rhythmic spurts of clarity. He's particularly good with defined reads, play-action, three-step drops, and the like. But he’ll follow those with bouts of inexplicable decisions.
New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll must understand that, in Cassel, he has a quarterback who has to be tightly managed. Same goes for backup Brady Quinn or, especially, 2011 fifth-rounder Ricky Stanzi. As the 36-year-old Daboll learned while coordinating the Browns offense in 2009-10 and the Dolphins offense last year, it’s very difficult to win NFL games by minimizing your quarterback’s impact. But what Daboll has in Kansas City that he didn’t have at his previous two stops is a potential top-five rushing attack.
Daboll’s lead back from Cleveland, Peyton Hillis, was signed in March to replace aging veteran Thomas Jones. Injuries and attitude issues derailed the 26-year-old Hillis last season, but playing in a two-back system and in an offense that actually has respectable resources around him, he should bounce back. As a former fullback, Hillis is thought of as a hardnosed between-the-tackles bruiser. But if needed, he can get outside, as well as do damage as a receiver coming out of the backfield.
He probably won’t be needed much on those fronts, though, assuming Jamaal Charles is completely healthy. Prior to injuring his knee, the fifth-year pro had arguably the best lateral agility and 0-to-60 burst in all of football. We’ll see if he can recoup that. At his best, Charles is perhaps the only runner in the league who can consistently turn the corner even when defenders knows before the play that the ball is going outside.
Haley was always good at creating outside running lanes for Charles through the use of motion-based multiple-tight end formations. Expect to see even more of those tactics from Daboll, especially with stalwart fullback Le'Ron McClain no longer around. The Chiefs plan to feature both free agent tight end Kevin Boss and third-year man Tony Moeaki in their base offense. At 255 pounds, Boss has the size and toughness to be a serviceable in-line blocker. Prior to tearing his ACL last August, Moeaki was one of the best movement-oriented blocking tight ends in the league. It’s critical he regain his form, as the Chiefs have no other proven H-back type weapons who can provide dimensionality to the ground game.
Moeaki can also lend dimension to the passing attack. One reason the Chiefs plan on playing a two-tight end base set is they believe that Moeaki can slide into the slot, effectively morphing the offense into a three-receiver set. (Boss, on the other hand, has limited change-of-direction and quickness and is strictly a line of scrimmage tight end.) That would be a potentially potent passing set, assuming second-year receiver Jonathan Baldwin builds on the promise he flashed last season. Baldwin drew raves for his work over the offseason, which is encouraging given his overwhelming immaturity and swagger at this time last year. At this stage, the first-rounder can be described as "a very raw version of Hakeem Nicks." There’s a powerful suppleness behind Baldwin’s movements; if he can sharpen his route running, he’ll eventually be very difficult to guard one-on-one.
Opposite Baldwin is another former first-rounder: Dwayne Bowe. The sixth-year pro is looking for a long-term contract after his third 1,000-yard campaign in four years. Bowe doesn’t have Baldwin’s flexibility or downfield speed, but he’s a tough matchup inside and dynamic enough to create big plays when opportunities are specifically designed for him. He’s also a very good blocker, which is critical in an offense built heavily on an outside run game.
Past evidence suggests that Baldwin and Bowe will both struggle with consistency. Considering this, and considering that Moeaki, though intriguing, is not a sure thing as a slot receiver, it’s important that Steve Breaston be a reliable source of speed in the slot. The ex-Cardinal was a little up-and-down in his first year as a starter in 2011. He’ll have the luxury of drawing more mismatches off the bench this season, but if he doesn’t take full advantage, fourth-round rookie Devon Wylie could push for playing time. Another key cog in the offense is gadget specialist Dexter McCluster. The diminutive, darting third-year pro has bounced between running back and wide receiver since entering the league as a second-round pick. The Chiefs know McCluster can be dangerous in space, they’ve just had trouble figuring out the best way to get him there. Most likely, McCluster will work predominantly out of the slot in 2012. However, as part of the edge-attacking run game, he could get regular touches via handoffs and swing passes off presnap motion.
Mobility along the offensive line will continue to be important for Kansas City’s ground game. That said, they learned the hard way last season that mobility can’t come at the utter expense of power. Pioli likely had this in mind when he spent a third-round pick on offensive tackle Donald Stephenson. The Oklahoma product is heavy-footed but well-built. Some believe Stephenson might be a more natural right tackle, but he’s being treated as a developmental project on the left side. That won’t alleviate the pressure on constantly-scrutinized Branden Albert, who has been solid since moving from guard to left tackle a few years ago. The former first-round pick is facing a make-or-break year, as his contract expires after this season.
Normally, a player like Stephenson might compete for an immediate starting job on the right side. However, the Chiefs are squared away here after signing former Texans tackle Eric Winston. The intelligent seventh-year veteran has impressive mobility for his position. He’s comfortable landing blocks outside the numbers and at the second level. In pass protection, Winston is just a "survivor," but for a right tackle, that’s fine.
Stephenson wasn’t the only lineman drafted early this year. In the second round, Pioli nabbed Illinois’ Jeff Allen, whom scouts have characterized as a consummate finesse blocker. That’s both a compliment and an insult; Allen’s performance will ultimately determine which description carries more weight. His arrival puts veteran left guard Ryan Lilja on notice. Lilja is a very serviceable pass-blocker who also brings good movement in the ground game. However, he’s on the wrong side of 30, has a history of knee trouble, and is in the final year of his contract.
A lot of Kansas City’s power issues up front last season stemmed from inside. The hope is this will be corrected with 2011 second-round pick Rodney Hudson replacing Casey Wiegmann at center. Hudson played sparingly in 2011 but flashed a bit as a drive-blocker. Even with that change, there’s still right guard Jon Asamoah to be worried about. The third-year pro has really struggled in the ground game, mentally and physically.
Kansas City’s strong defensive finish last season was highlighted by its aggressive press-man coverage. Romeo Crennel altered his traditionally zone-based 3-4 in part because, facing a slew of quality spread offenses, he needed a scheme that allowed his reserve defensive backs to just play, rather than think. If Crennel sticks with this formula in 2012, he may not have the resources to excel quite the same way. Last year, the Chiefs could refer to bracket coverage on the inside because they had a pair of premier bump-and-run corners in Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers. But Carr departed in free agency. Stanford Routt, who isn’t as physical or reliable, was signed to replace Carr. Routt does have a wealth of man-to-man experience, having spent the first seven years of his career playing for Al Davis’s Raiders. Nevertheless, there’s a reason he cost roughly $18 million less than Carr in guaranteed money.
Part of why Pioli let Carr walk was that Kansas City already has $49.35 million over six years tied up in Flowers. It’s surprising that Flowers didn’t make the Pro Bowl last season. He was thrown at a little more than most upper-echelon corners, but that’s because the Chiefs trusted him to play man-coverage with minimal safety help.
Slot cornerback has become a vital position in today’s NFL. The Chiefs are hoping that Javier Arenas can be a sturdy long-term answer here. The third-year pro has very good quickness and a sense for undercutting short routes. He was, however, inconsistent in 2011. If Arenas struggles, Routt can slide inside. That’d be a gamble, though, considering it’d require the Chiefs to play last year’s relatively untested fourth-round pick, Jalil Brown, or this year’s utterly untested fifth-round pick, DeQuan Menzie, on the outside.
Even with Carr gone, this secondary as a whole should be better in 2012, as young star Eric Berry is back. Berry has outstanding range in centerfield, and he’s also an excellent blitzer. In fact, because of his speed, he can be used on delay blitzes from the third level, which are very hard for offenses to spot. Alongside Berry is another third-year pro, Kendrick Lewis, whose consistent improvement in coverage should make Crennel more willing to let Berry roam near the box. For stability and depth purposes, the Chiefs signed experienced free agent Abram Elam, which could be bad news for troubled fourth-year pro Donald Washington. Veteran Travis Daniels is also at safety, but he’s been a little more reliable as a man-defender and should be able to hold onto his roster spot. In fact, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Daniels and Elam on the field together in dime packages, with Daniels at inside corner and Elam at linebacker.
Defensive coaches generally like to blitz when playing tight man-to-man, but Crennel last season often chose to rush just three, leaving eight defenders to clog throwing lanes. The tepid pass-rushing tactic was likely a response to facing star quarterbacks known for beating the blitz, though in the back of Crennel’s mind may have been a little voice telling him that it’s not worth wasting bodies on a Kansas City pass-rush that has been hopelessly anemic most of the past four years. The only man quarterbacks really have to worry about is Tamba Hali, who has a good first step and, thanks to a tenacious motor and low-center of-gravity, a wide range of second-effort moves.
With Andy Studebaker (a poor man’s Mike Vrabel) and unproductive third-year pro Cameron Sheffield filling out the second string of outside linebackers, the Chiefs desperately need last year’s third-round pick Justin Houston to emerge as a respectable edge-rusher opposite Hali. Houston was productive down the stretch last season, but three of his 5.5 sacks came against inept Chicago right tackle Lance Louis. Houston has respectable enough speed, it’s just a matter of honing his technique. To his credit, he’s improved exponentially in run defense. He and Hali, in fact, are very good at setting the edge and redirecting in pursuit of ballcarriers.
It might not be a bad idea to let inside linebacker Derrick Johnson rush the passer more in 2012. Johnson is not thought of as a physical presence near the line of scrimmage, but his speed could make him excellent on Fire-X blitzes. It’s doubtful you’ll see him regularly line up outside, though, as his range and fluidity over the middle are too valuable in coverage. Shrewd pass defense was a big reason Johnson was an second team All-Pro last season.
Next to Johnson is Jovan Belcher, a former nickel linebacker who has become a serviceable everydown player by leaning on his speed to be an attack-oriented run-stopper. That’s a critical style to stick to because Belcher might not have the read-and-react aptitude to consistently shed blocks and make plays in traffic. Stronger backup Brandon Siler is a better option for those purposes, but he's a little stiff in the hips.
As for the men tasked with controlling the trenches, the Chiefs hope that disappointing former first-round defensive ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson can be buttressed by the presence of new first-round nose tackle Dontari Poe. Drafting the vociferous workout warrior 11th overall was a risky move. Poe has otherworldly raw talent, but he was alarmingly irrelevant at times in college. Unlike many 3-4’s these days, Crennel’s scheme adheres to classic two-gap principles up front. Poe won’t be able to just pin his ears back and attack like a Jay Ratliff or a Shaun Cody, he’ll have to learn to hold his ground while engaging multiple blockers. If he struggles early on, the Chiefs could turn to Anthony Toribio, Jerrell Powe or Amon Gordon. Toribio is an undrafted journeyman who plays the run. Powe has great size but minimal experience. Gordon has been decent before in an ancillary role, but he’s also been handled one-on-one by undersized opponents at times.
That’s been the problem with Dorsey and Jackson: losing one-on-one battles. It’s awful that offenses even feel comfortable trying to battle these guys one-on-one -– top-five overall selections should command more respect than that. In Week 10 last season, the Broncos built an entire gameplan around beating the ends one-on-one and wound up rushing for 244 yards on 55 carries. Fortunately, Dorsey and Jackson stepped up their play after that, but there isn’t a neutral football mind out there who isn’t still leery of the two. Neither is a very good pass-rusher, which is why second-year backup Allen Bailey will see plenty of action.
Kicker Ryan Succop was successful on 24 of his 30 attempts last season. Dustin Colquitt has developed into one of the more reliable punters in the league. In the return game, Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster can both be electrifying, though neither made any big splashes last season.
If Jamaal Charles stays healthy, this offense can be good enough to get by. That and the defense building on its progress from last year could make the Chiefs contenders in the AFC West ... assuming the AFC West can continue to be won with a record no better than 10-6.
2 comments, Last at 27 Aug 2012, 8:45pm by commissionerleaf