Chiefs have some tough decisions ahead regarding their exposed defense
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs coach Andy Reid made it clear at his season-ending press conference that the work geared toward the 2014 season starts now.
Phase one, he said, was evaluating his players’ performances from 2013.
In the final eight games, the Chiefs surrendered nearly 30 points a game. The only exception to the slide was the Washington game, when the opponent hardly seemed interested.
And opposing offenses had no problem moving the ball up and down the field. Opponents racked up over 400 yards in six of the final eight games. In two of those games, they trashed the Chiefs’ defense for over 500 yards.
The defense was never more porous than in the heartbreaking 45-44 loss to the Colts in the playoffs. The defense coughed up a 38-10 second-half lead, and overall gave up an astonishing 536 yards.
What happened to the vaunted defense?
Part of the problem is that to some degree, the Chiefs simply started playing better teams — Broncos, Colts, Chargers — in the second half of the season.
But the defensive leaking really started at Buffalo in Week 9. Yes, the Chiefs escaped with a 23-13 win that week. But the Chiefs gave up 470 yards to a mediocre Bills offense, including an eye-opening 241 on the ground. And remember, the Chiefs were healthy at that point.
And that was when all those sacks that Justin Houston and Tamba Hali had been piling up through nine weeks began to disappear as quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers began delivering the ball on quicker drops.
And defensive coordinator Bob Sutton could not adjust schematically as opponents began chewing up comfortable yardage on the ground. In the final eight games, the Chiefs held only one opponent under 100 yards rushing — you guessed it, the sad-sack Redskins.
Meanwhile, opponents had over 300 yards passing in five of the final eight games.
In other words, opponents did pretty much anything they wanted to against the Chiefs’ defense, on the ground or through the air. Injuries to Hali and Houston didn’t help matters, but the defense struggled at times with both of them on the field as well.
Now, no one is suggesting that general manager John Dorsey needs to gut the defense or fire Sutton. But there are major concerns.
On the line, Dontari Poe (51 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks) blossomed into one of the elite nose tackles in the game. But the ends — Mike DeVito and Tyson Jackson — were pretty much pedestrian during the final two months, though, to be fair, DeVito battled injuries.
Yet it’s an area where Dorsey needs to upgrade. Jackson is a free agent and may be allowed to walk. Dorsey might also see what he has in young ends Allen Bailey and Mike Catapano.
At linebacker, Hali, Houston and Derrick Johnson may be the best trio in the business, when healthy. The other inside linebacker position, filled by Akeem Jordan this season, could definitely be upgraded. Jordan was assignment-sure, but he’s not a playmaker (zero sacks). Jordan was valuable because draft pick Nico Johnson, whom the Chiefs really wanted to win the position, struggled to pick up the system.
But Jordan is a free agent and it seems likely the Chiefs will either put Nico Johnson to the test in 2014 or look at free agency or the draft to fill that hole.
The most obvious concerns are in the secondary, which got toasted on Saturday to embarrassing extremes. And, in fact, it’s a unit that got sizzled throughout the final two months.
Cornerback Brandon Flowers and safety Eric Berry are Pro Bowl players, but each struggled down the stretch with blown assignments and missed tackles.
Free safety Kendrick Lewis is a free agent and Dorsey may have a tough decision there. Lewis battled injuries that slowed his play. But he was the culprit several times Saturday on missed assignments, and again, it could be a spot that Dorsey upgrades.
Cornerback Sean Smith also had a terrible game Saturday, but he is under contract for two more years and the Chiefs like his size (6 feet 3) and length.
Slot corner Dunta Robinson also is signed for two more years, but his status is less certain. He had one of the most forgettable games in recent Chiefs history as he tried to play chase with the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton on Saturday. At times, Robinson was 10 yards off in coverage of Hilton, who caught uncontested pass after uncontested pass on his way to 13 grabs for 224 yards.
It’s certainly a question whether the Chiefs, who benched Robinson earlier this season, will bring him back.
The Chiefs do have some young corners who could be groomed into Robinson’s role in Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker, though Cooper, after enjoying early-season success, was exposed in the final eight games.
The Chiefs also will have to make a decision on free-agent safety Husain Abdullah, who has a nose for the ball and is a special teams demon. Abdullah, who had a pick-six in the regular season, had two more interceptions Saturday. The guess here is that he will be back.
Safety Quintin Demps also is a free agent, and it will be interesting to see how the Chiefs rate his value. He had four picks during the season, and he was a threat on kickoff returns (95-yard touchdown, 30.1-yard average). But Demps, like the rest of the secondary, looked lost, confused and always a step behind Saturday.
In all, Dorsey and Reid did an admirable job of piecing together some parts (Sean Smith, DeVito, Jordan, Abdullah, Cooper) that helped the defense become a force during the first half of the season.
Now, Dorsey and Reid just have to figure out how to do it again for all of 2014.
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email email@example.com.