Nov 3, 2013; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson (94) and defensive end Mike DeVito (70) tackle Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson (22) during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Chiefs beat the Bills 23-13. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Prioritizing Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Needs

Kansas City’s season is over, which means the offseason has just begun. The Chiefs have already been active with smaller signings but there are a lot of big questions the team still needs to answer. Here are some of those questions the Chiefs need to answer on defense, as ranked by biggest need.

1. Pass Rushing Defensive End

It is easy to look at the second half of the season and the playoff game and say the Chiefs need to set their entire secondary on fire. Heck, Joel suggested doing that over the weekend. And really, after the way the playoff game went down, I don’t blame him having that perspective.

But let’s face some facts here. The defense – especially the secondary – was lauded in the first half of the season for being great. Marcus Cooper was getting nods from some people as a potential defensive rookie of the year candidate, and the Chiefs secondary had produced 10 interceptions and 56 passes defended. They were awesome.

Then Peyton Manning happened, and then Philip Rivers, and then Peyton Manning again, and then Andrew Luck, and then Philip Rivers again, and then Andrew Luck again. It was ugly. Luck, Rivers and Manning combined to throw 2,000 yards (333.3 ypg), 17 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a combined 6-0 record. Horrifying numbers for the Chiefs defense.

But the most horrifying number of all – aside from the 6-0 record? Kansas City’s defense managed six total sacks in those six games. And of those six, three of those game in the final game of the regular season where the Chiefs sat all of their starters. So in the five games the Chiefs faced Manning, Rivers, or Luck and they started their first team defense, Kansas City recorded three sacks.

Three. 1, 2, 3. Tres.

To put that in perspective, the Chiefs had 42 sacks in the other 11 games they played this season, nearly four sacks per game. KC recorded three sacks or more in a game seven times this season. In those games KC allowed an average of 190.6 passing yards per game,  six total touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. KC won all seven of those games. And before you start talking about backup quarterbacks and weak schedules, quarterbacks in those seven games included Michael Vick, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, and Robert Griffin III. Not necessarily murderers row, but not seven Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s or Terrell Pryor’s either.

Three sacks in five games is not going to get it done, and it certainly isn’t going to help out the secondary in any way. If there is no pressure on the quarterback then the secondary is going to be doomed. And when KC is blitzing to try to get that pressure, it only puts the secondary in an even worse position when the blitz fails to generate pressure.

Some of the Chiefs pass rush problems came from Justin Houston missing several games due to an elbow injury. But a lot of the lack of pass rush was the result of the defensive line’s inability to generate pressure. Of Kansas City’s 48 sacks this season (including the playoffs) only 10.5 of them came from the defensive line. Dontari Poe recorded 4.5 of those, but 3.5 came in the first two games of the season (other was in the Titans game).

In fact, of the 10.5 sacks the Chiefs defensive line accrued, 5.5 of them came in the month of September. So in the final 13 games of the season (including the playoffs), Kansas City’s defensive linemen averaged less than 0.5 sacks per game. For perspective, 19 individual players had 10.5 sacks or more (including Hali and Houston). And of those 19 players, 14 are defensive linemen.

Or to put it another way, Aldon Smith had 8.5 sacks in 11 games, three more than the entire Kansas City Chiefs defensive line in the final 13 games of the season.

KC has an excellent pass rushing duo in Houston and Hali, but the lack of inside pressure killed the Chiefs against better offensive lines. If Kansas City wants to help out the secondary, a more consistent pass rush from the defensive line will go a long way towards solving those problems.

Top Free Agents: Greg Hardy, Michael Johnson, Jared Allen

Draft Targets: Kony Ealy, Stephon Tuitt, Garrison Smith, Taylor Hart

2. Athletic Middle Linebacker for Passing Downs

One thing that killed the Chiefs on defense was the inability to cover good tight ends and crossing routes. Some of this problem stems from the Chiefs not having a good cover linebacker to play next to Derrick Johnson.

Akeem Jordan was very solid against the run, but was basically worthless in passing situations. According to Pro Football Focus, NFL quarterbacks had a 137.8 QB rating when throwing into his coverage. PFF also graded Jordan as a -1.4 player when rushing the passer. Jordan was basically worthless when he was on the field in passing situations.

Between Hali, Houston, Poe, Mike DeVito, Johnson, and Berry, the Chiefs have a very good core of guys who can stop the run. What the Chiefs need to add is an inside linebacker who can hold his own against the run, cover tight ends, help defend the crossing routes, and rush the passer when needed. A guy like Vincent Rey of the Cincinnati Bengals is a good example of someone who comes in as a sort of “linebacker pass specialist” who can help take away somethings underneath or rush the passer effectively.

Adding this kind of role player can help with increasing the inside pass rush as well has take away some of the yardage other teams were getting underneath. Between boosting the pass rush with a defensive end and improving the coverage abilities of our middle linebackers, this should help Kansas City’s secondary out significantly.

Top Free Agents: Karlos Dansby, Daryl Smith

Draft Targets: Yawin Smallwood, Max Bullough, Avery Williamson

3. Safety to Play Next to Eric Berry

Kansas City’s safety solution may come from a guy who is already on the roster: Husain Abdullah. Abdullah missed all of the 2012 season because he went on a religious pilgrimage, so it makes sense that his playing time was limited in 2013 because he had been out of the NFL for so long.

But by the end of the season, Abdullah had earned the respect of his teammates enough to be named a captain for the playoff game in Indianapolis. He returned the favor by recording six tackles, two passes defended, and two interceptions. PFF graded his game that day as a +3.1, and received a +1.7 coverage grade – the highest of any Chiefs player.

There was some inconsistency with Abdullah, which one would expect given his situation. But with a full season back under his belt and another offseason to prepare and learn Bob Sutton’s scheme, he may be the Chiefs best option to start next to Berry.

However, even if the Chiefs do keep Abdullah, they are going to need to add some depth at the safety position. Kendrick Lewis (-2.8) and Quintin Demps (-4.4) each struggled in their turns playing next to Berry. Lewis allowed a 96.9 QB rating in coverage, and Demps struggled to tackle all season long.

The need to spend big money or a high draft pick on a safety may not be necessary if the Chiefs are sold on Abdullah as a starter for next year. But if Kansas City could land, say, a Jairus Byrd to play next to Berry, then things could get crazy interesting for the Chiefs defense.

Top Free Agents: Byrd, Donte Whitner, Chris Clemons,

Draft Targets: Ha Ha Clenton-Dix, Calvin Pryor, Ahmad Dixon, Sean Parker, Tre Boston

4. Cornerback to Replace Dunta Robinson

Kansas City’s cornerbacks had a rough go of it trying to play virtually every snap in man coverage without much help over the top. The result was a lot of negative pass coverage grades for the Chiefs. But it may surprise you who PFF said was the worst of all the Chiefs cornerbacks.

KC’s Cornerback Grades per PFF (min. 200 snaps)
Player: Overall Grade, Coverage Grade, Snaps

Sean Smith: +0.9, -2.7, 1035
Marcus Cooper: -3, -5.4, 662
Dunta Robinson: -5.3, -4, 274
Brandon Flowers: -5.9, -9.8, 887

To some degree it makes sense that Flowers is the worst graded cornerback on the team because he generally had to face the best wide receiver the opponent had to offer. This was especially made true in games against Dallas and Denver where he had to cover the much bigger receivers in Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker. As a result, Flowers had by far the worst coverage grade on the team.

Something to consider about Flowers is that he was drafted to be a Tampa 2 cornerback. His job in that defense asks him to play far more zone coverage and help stop the edge run game and passes to the flat. Under Sutton’s scheme Flowers is being asked to play far more man coverage and to try to defend much larger receivers downfield. Remember, Flowers is 5-9, so match-ups agaisnt Thomas, Bryant, and Decker leave him at a significant disadvantage.

This is not something that is talked about much, but I wonder if the Chiefs will consider trading Flowers this offseason. Flowers has a $10.5 million cap number in 2014 and does not fit the scheme the Chiefs are tying to install. A team like the Houston Texans, who are about to hire former Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel as their defensive coordinator, could really use the cornerback help in their secondary. This may be a spot where the Chiefs can open up some cap room and fill a roster spot with a player who better fits the Chiefs’ scheme.

But the more likely thing the Chiefs will do this offseason is to replace Dunta Robinson’s spot on the roster. There are a lot of interesting free agents out there, too, who could fill that opening well for the Chiefs. Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, Chris Harris Jr.(Note: Harris tore his ACL against SD this past Sunday), and Drayton Florence all graded in the top 15 for cornerbacks in coverage and are all free agents. There will be a lot of options out there for the Chiefs to find players who fit what the Chiefs are trying to do on defense.

Top Free Agents: Davis, Grimes, Harris Jr., Forence, Sam Shields, Alterraun Verner, Brandon Browner

Draft Targets: Justin Gilbert, Loucheiz Purifoy, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Antone Exum

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Tags: Kansas City Chiefs

  • jpopejoy

    Without question #1 is a safety. Lewis cost us multiple games bc he couldn’t play center field…CENTER FIELD.

  • freshmeat62

    I agree w/ your poinrts made above but the first thought that came to my mind for each one was “why didn’t Sutton make some sort of adjustment” to stop the blood letting. As much as I didn’t like Crennel’s bend don’t break defenses, he usually could find some adjustment during a game, or planning for a game, to make the defense more effective. Sutton doesn’t seem to be able to do that.

    After watching signings of FA’s the last few years I’ve become wary of FA signings. I think you have to spend way more than they are worth, and it really screws up the cap for future years. The biggest concern I had w/ Dorsey last year was how fast he went thru the cap surplus the Chiefs started out w/. I understand how he wanted to get a competitive team on the field ASAP, but I’m hoping that was just a one year deal. It takes more discipline to stay building thru the draft, but in the long run, I think it’s the best.

    • mnelson52

      Last year there were way to many holes to fill to get them in the draft.

  • tazer15

    Anyone who has eyes can see Flowers years are well behind him.Time to move one if he’s kept his salary needs restructured again.And he should always play opposite 2nd or 3rd best WR.I told everyone all year Smith is our best corner they rest need to go! Sickening to think about how many points they allowed moving up huge wins the Chiefs had in the bag.Broncos, Chargers, Colts!!! Yes Lewis needs to go also and our pass rush slowed but those CBs are terrible.Chiefs needs in order CB, CB, S, OLine ,Wr

  • tazer15

    I agree freshmeat62 I screamed it all year they refused to make adjustments.In my eyes Sutton should have been fired long ago.Hes obviously recklessly stubborn.

    • mnelson52

      Every game where the opposing team came back on us, the other team made the necessary adjustments at halftime, and we made none that I could see, and they scored at will. Our offense didn’t make the right adjustment either, getting outscored 35-6 in 28 minutes in that last game. I can’t remember trying to blitz either to slow Luck down. Just stayed man to man, that clearly wasn’t working, and staying with the 4 man rush that also clearly wasn’t working. I would think that when they scored the 1st 21 of those 35 points without us even slowing them down (partly because our offense quit scoring TDs) , you would think you would try something different to get pressure on the QB. Luck has shown that he makes mistakes under pressure but we brought none. The 1st game against SD.,they made adjustments and scored 38 points in the last 31 minutes to beat us. Again Sutton made no adjustments to get to the QB. When the opposing offense knows exactly what you’re going to do without change, then they know how to beat you. Just my thoughts