Say anything you want about Bob Sutton's new Chiefs defense â€” but don't call it 'soft'
By SEAN KEELERFS Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One of the buzz words that keeps cropping up in Kansas City
Chiefs circles this spring is "culture," which is strange, because "culture" is not a defensive kind of word.
"Savage" and "relentless" and "heat-seeking" are defensive kind of words, best uttered by the likes of a Facenda or a Kalas. "Culture?" "Culture" is something they brag about at Wimbledon.
"One of the things that we've really tried to get everybody to understand is that we're trying to develop a certain type of culture here," new Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton allowed this week. "Not only how we do something, but the way we do it."
You tend to get quite a few indirect jabs and read-between-the-lines quotes when there's a regime change, especially one as pronounced as the broom Clark Hunt used to sweep away 2012. But one keeps cropping up, over and over the past five weeks of minicamps and Organized Team Acitivies:
Grandpa Romeo was soft.
No one will just come out and say that, of course. Everybody liked Romeo Crennel, personally, as a coach and a defensive play-caller. Grandpa Romeo was level-headed, paternal, and downright cuddly, up close. In the right position, on the right staff, with the right locker room, he fits. When too many kids take too much advantage of those long leashes, though, well — we don't have to tell you what 2-14 looks like.
"The (new) guys come from systems where they attacked," outside linebacker Tamba Hali explained. "Nothing against our old system, but they (weren't) attacking."
"I mean, just any way we can disrupt," defensive tackle Dontari Poe allowed. "Disrupt the defense, disrupt the quarterback, getting our hands up."
The 2013 Chiefs want to be a hard defensive team. Hard, hard, hard. Hard to prepare for, hard to simulate, hard to play, hard to recover from.
Over the past seven seasons with the New York Jets, three as coordinator and four as linebackers coach, Sutton's defenses ranked 14th in the NFL in takeaways and 13th in points allowed.
Since 2010, the Chiefs were 23rd and 15th, respectively.
Hard, they were not.
Crennel favored a conservative 3-4 alignment, one that tried to make offenses convert first downs and drive the ball a chunk at a time. Last fall, they often did — thanks largely to the brevy of short fields provided by the Chiefs' congenital butterfingers in the backfield, with quarterback Matt Cassel as the slippery ringleader.
Sutton is more your daredevil, send-the-house type, and damn the consequences. All of which has made for some interesting OTA moments that involve Alex Smith or Chase Daniel scrambling for their lives before they get two-hand touched, or throwing the ball away to a fixed point somewhere east of Raytown.
Poe picked off a pass Wednesday and did a little dance. Derrick Johnson did the same on Tuesday, although with not quite as much of the little dance part. Tyson Jackson last week had a day that played out not unlike those GEICO commercials, with the big Chiefs end doing his best Dikembe Mutombo impersonation whenever he was within arm's length of Smith or the smaller Daniel.
"I think he's bringing in a new culture for the defense," rookie linebacker Chad Kilgore, one of several new imports, said of Sutton. "He talks about ‘culture' all the time. The need to set the tempo every day, and play fast and physical. Like Tuesday wasn't a great day for us. (Wednesday), we bounced back, and he has a lot to do with that."
Sutton is not Grandpa Romeo. He is lean, 62 years young, with shocks of white hair that rustle in the spring winds. He is an old Army guy — he coached the Black Knights for nine seasons and steered them to the 1996 Independence Bowl — who speaks in measured, strategic, Army kind of tones.
From a distance, in a black Chiefs windbreaker, he looks a bit like Bill Snyder. Up close, surrounded by reporters, he sounds a bit like him, too.
"I think that's the one element that allows you to sustain through all parts of the season, every season," Sutton said when the ‘culture' question was raised again. "The NFL has its ups and downs, and when you have this culture — which is really just a learned behavioral pattern — I think it really helps you. And that's the one thing the guys have really tried to do embrace, buy into."
As to what he's selling, well …
"I think just the way you come to work every day," the coach replied. "This is important, that when you come into that room that you come in there excited to be in that room. We want the room to be enjoyable. We don't want drudgery coming into that room. It's hard work. You have to be ready to, on occasion, get your tail chewed out … I tell them, ‘Every time you come to the practice field, you should have one little specific thing you're trying to improve on as a player. That might be your stance. It might be your key. It might be your get-off. I don't care what it is, but you should always come out here with one thing you're trying to improve on as a player.'
"We have different things as a unit that we're trying to improve on, but that's individual. That collective improvement is what we're seeking out. I think they've worked really hard at this point, and we still have a long way to go."
But they have plenty of time to get there. Win the heart, and the head and hands will usually follow.
"Now you have all these Pro Bowlers learning this defense that quick," new defensive tackle Mike DeVito observed, allowing himself a little smile. "It's really going to be dangerous."
Dangerous. Now, that's a defensive kind of word. Hell, that's a keeper.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com