Suffocating Chiefs defense is key to unbeaten start
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The Kansas City Chiefs were clinging to the lead late in the first half and the Tennessee Titans had the ball first-and-goal just a couple feet outside the end zone.
They ran up the middle and went nowhere. They threw a pass that was batted up in the air and resulted in nothing. They ran another pass play that resulted in a sack. And then one more run up the middle was stuffed at the goal line, turning the ball over to the Chiefs.
It was precisely the kind of stand that has become emblematic of the Chiefs defense this season, one that leads the league in scoring through the first five weeks.
“When you come out with that kind of attitude, that’s infectious to everybody,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You saw it led to a long drive after that. I thought it actually helped get the offense going a little bit there.”
The Chiefs turned around and marched 94 yards for a field goal as time expired. That gave the Chiefs a 13-0 lead, and they would go on for a 26-17 victory.
“Just coming out and playing good hardnosed, tough football,” Reid said in explaining the performance of his defense, which has been the biggest reason for their 5-0 start.
It’s not just scoring where they’ve dominated, either. They have the best mark in the NFL when it comes to third-down percentage, allowing opponents to convert just 23.5 percent of their attempts. They’re also best in the red zone at 25 percent, a number that was helped by their stand in Tennessee. And they’re best in the NFL in takeaways with 15 already this season.
In many cases, those takeaways have led directly to points. The Chiefs have scored 50 points this season, third-most off takeaways in the NFL.
“That’s a big emphasis throughout the week, and it’s been a big emphasis throughout OTAs and everything else,” Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry said. “That’s always our goal: We want to get stops, but before we get stops we want to get the ball, and before we get the ball, we want to score.”
Much of the credit for one of the NFL’s most feared defenses has gone to new coordinator Bob Sutton, who has taken the pieces that were in place last season — and a few fresh faces — and put together a scheme that uses them to the best of their abilities.
Top pass rusher Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have been given the green light to go after the quarterback, and that’s why the Chiefs have a league-leading 21 sacks. Houston has 8 1/2 of them this season, setting his sights on some of Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas’ franchise marks.
Second-year defensive tackle Dontari Poe has emerged as a run-stuffer who can also get after the quarterback, a unique blend of size and speed. So Sutton has given him more opportunities to showcase what he can do, and the result has been a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith have the ability to play man-to-man coverage at cornerback, so Sutton has put them on islands, allowing the Chiefs to blitz with reckless abandon.
“This is a great unit,” fellow cornerback Marcus Cooper said. “From the D-line, to the linebackers, to the DB corps, we are all working together. So far we have been successful at it.”
The success has paid off in a big way, too.
Even though the Chiefs offense has struggled to get into a rhythm, and has been forced to deal with a litany of injuries, the defense has put it in a position to be successful.
Kansas City has the best average starting field position in the NFL this season, which takes some of the pressure off quarterback Alex Smith, running back Jamaal Charles and the rest of the offense. On several occasions, the offense hasn’t moved the ball at all and yet the Chiefs have come away with points thanks to kicker Ryan Succop.
“Quarterbacks get a lot of the attention for winning, and same when you’re losing, but it’s such a team game, and that’s what makes it so great, so popular,” Smith said. “But the way the defense is playing right now, yeah, really special.”