SAM MELLINGER

These Chiefs are counting on their strong defense to lead the way

Updated: 2013-09-16T23:41:00Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

This is the NFL of Peyton Manning and Colin Kaepernick and the zone read, and that means offense. This is the evolving NFL that would prefer defensive players serve mostly as helpless henchmen tossed to the side by heroic offensive stars.

This is the NFL in which the Chiefs are trying to win with defense.

“We know the situation,” safety Eric Berry says. “We know what’s going on.”

The Chiefs are zigging when the rest of the league is zagging, basically. League trends and rules are pushing more focus and importance on offense every day, and it is in this world that the Chiefs are making their way with defense.

The New Chiefs, in other words, are trying to win like The Old Chiefs, and didn’t this feel a bit like the 1990s?

The Chiefs beat the Cowboys 17-16 on Sunday in perfect nostalgia. The biggest crowd at Arrowhead in years made the ground shake. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo looked lost at times, like he was constantly against the wind and going uphill, which is how it always feels here for quarterbacks when Arrowhead is rocking and the Chiefs are attacking.

“I know that feeling,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith says.

He does, too. Smith played here twice with the 49ers. Both times the Chiefs had playoff teams. Both times the Chiefs were built primarily on defense. Neither time Smith had much of a chance, his teams losing by a combined 62 points.

That’s what can happen in this building, especially when the Chiefs are playing defense and so far this year the Chiefs are playing defense as well as most any team in the NFL. The defense has given up one touchdown and 16 points in eight quarters now, and even if you discount what happened in the season opener because of the Jaguars’ incompetence, you saw enough to know this will be one of the league’s better defenses all season.

Outside of Kansas City, there is so much emphasis on offense.

Around Arrowhead — even after Smith and the offensively focused Andy Reid centerpieced a busy offseason — they are 2-0 because of defense.

You were fair to be skeptical after the Jacksonville game. But shutting down Dallas is real.

The Cowboys were sixth in offense last year. Tony Romo threw for 4,903 yards. Dez Bryant is one of the best five receivers in football. Jason Witten is one of the best tight ends. DeMarco Murray is a tough back.

And against the Chiefs, they managed one touchdown.

Berry went one-on-one with Witten for much of the day, and the Cowboys’ star caught three passes for 12 yards — his lightest production since last September. Brandon Flowers was left alone with Bryant for most of the day, and even as Bryant dominated the matchup — nine catches for 141 yards and a touchdown, plus a few more near misses — it was part of a scheme that let the Chiefs shut down most everything else.

When not throwing Bryant’s way, the Cowboys gained 177 yards on 48 plays.

“We asked a lot of certain players on this team and we showed up,” Flowers says. “Defense, I think, we did a great job holding it down.”

The transformation is quick and heavy. With most of the same personnel, the Chiefs have gone from one of the league’s worst defenses to one of the better units. Instead of playing what often looked like four quarters of prevent defense, the Chiefs are attacking.

Much of this is built around Dontari Poe, who has made enormous improvement both physically and in his grasp of the NFL. A 3-4 defense asks a lot of the nose tackle, and Poe is collapsing the pocket and even making tackles downfield occasionally. On one of his two sacks, he juke-stepped rookie center Travis Frederick hard enough to basically go untouched.

“He’s an athlete,” linebacker Justin Houston says, emphasizing that last word. “That’s the biggest athlete I’ve ever seen.”

It’s not just Poe, either, even as Houston notes with a smile that he’s been passed for the team’s sack lead (Poe has 3 1/2; Houston has three).

The Chiefs had 27 sacks all of last season. They have nine already. They forced 13 turnovers all of last season — no team had a lower season total in years — and now have four.

Around Poe, Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton appear to have a good formula here. Derrick Johnson is at the height of his powers, going sideline to sideline with speed and smarts. Tamba Hali and Houston give the Chiefs bookend rushers, and the secondary is generally good enough to hold up.

The unknown, of course, is how long this can last. The Chiefs play in Philadelphia on Thursday, and besides the obvious (and soon to be overdone) angle of Reid returning to the place he coached 14 years, the biggest takeaway will be how this suddenly stout defense goes against new Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s three-snaps-per-minute fast break offense.

Because the win over Dallas showcased how much the Chiefs will be leaning on their defense in this offense-centric world. Smith is an enormous upgrade from every quarterback the Chiefs have had since Trent Green of course, but he is more efficient than dynamic. Accurate, but conservative.

Emphasizing low-risk passes (he’s completed 60 percent so far) and ball control (no turnovers) plays to his strengths and combined with a top-level defense is largely how he went 19-5 the last two years in San Francisco.

Actually, that’s largely how the Chiefs became the winningest team of the 1990s.

And at least for one loud, ground-shaking day, it’s how they won again.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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