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.