When NFL teams lose a block of games in a short amount of time — as the Chiefs have done in losing three of their last four — the coaching staff seeks answers. Changes get made, because teams can’t stomach another miserable seven-day stretch following a loss, and coaches do extensive self-evaluation, trying to figure out ways to spur improvement in critical areas.
On offense, for instance, there’s little doubt the Chiefs’ line needs to pick it up. The running lanes aren’t as big as they once were, and quarterback Alex Smith is getting harrassed more than he was early this season. The coaching staff can help them out with better playcalling, but there’s significant hope internally that the long time off will give their banged-up offensive line time to heal and re-establish its September form.
The Chiefs’ issues on defense, however, run a little deeper.
Their deficiencies against the run have mainly been the fault of the front seven, whose gap discipline and physicality needs to improve. The pass rush has fallen off as well, as the Chiefs — who rank 22nd in the NFL in sacks, with 19 — have recorded only five sacks in their last four games, compared to 14 in their first five.
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The secondary, meanwhile, has been hampered by an increasingly inconsistent pass rush and the absence of proven playmaker Eric Berry.
Although the Chiefs have recorded eight interceptions this year — tied for 11th in the league — they’ve had just one in their three losses, when they’ve surrendered an average passer rating of 101.8 to Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Oakland’s Derek Carr and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
“The play’s been up and down — that’s a part of this league,” Chiefs secondary/cornerbacks coach Al Harris said. “Obviously, we have to get better. We have to make more plays and prevent the big play from happening.”
Far too often, Chiefs defensive backs have been in position to make plays on 50-50 balls, but simply have not. And while you can chalk some of that up to the nature of professional football — after all, the other guys get paid, too — the Chiefs’ bar is higher than that.
“Certainly we had some 50-50 balls we haven’t come down with that you’d liked to,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Those are for a number of reasons. We’re trying to work on that a little bit every day and hopefully get a little bit better as the season goes on. It’s a skill, it’s a technique. You can improve it and you’ve just got to keep working at it.”
The Chiefs, who stress the importance of forcing turnovers daily, have not been shy about shaking things up in the secondary in search of answers.
After starting cornerback Terrance Mitchell allowed seven catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns on 15 targets in a 31-30 loss to Oakland on Oct. 19, he was benched the next week in favor of veteran Kenneth Acker, who has started the last two games. He got that nod by earning the trust of Harris with his versatility and smarts.
“One thing about Acker is, I can put him at corner, I can put him at nickel, I can put him at safety,” Harris said. “He’s versatile. We’re just trying to find the right pieces. I don’t have to worry about the mental part.”
One other player Harris has been happy with is third-year corner Steven Nelson, who returned to action in the last two games following core-muscle surgery at the outset of the season. Although he surrendered a pair of touchdowns against the Cowboys, Nelson is easily the Chiefs’ best nickel back — a critical position in today’s pass-happy NFL, and a spot the Chiefs are happy to have solidified again.
“Steve didn’t miss a beat,” Harris said. “Came back, practices hard, competes and does a good job.”
But Nelson, a two-year starter, is also eager to record his first NFL interception.
“It’s just gonna come to me,” Nelson said. “A lot of the passes I get are quick, because I’m in the slot a lot and the ball is not really floating. It’s like a bang-bang play. Hopefully I get a tip or an overthrown ball or something. As long as I’m doing my job, I’m not really trippin’ anymore.”
It would help if Nelson could contribute in that way, because the Chiefs’ only consistent turnover threat in the secondary thus far has been all-pro cornerback Marcus Peters, who leads the team with three interceptions but has been encouraged by the coaching staff to step up his tackling in an effort to improve the unit’s all-around performance.
“One thing is, Marcus is a good tackler,” Harris said of Peters’ tackling in past seasons. “You guys will see an improvement as far as his tackling.”
Sutton agreed, although he doesn’t want Peters to lose his aggressiveness as a playmaker. His insistence on punching the ball out created a scoop and score that jump-started the Chiefs in their win over Denver.
“I think he’s got to tackle better,” Sutton said of Peters. “But he’s got a good feel for that (strip) technique, and I think anybody, two weeks ago at Denver, would have said ‘Awesome job.’ There’s some of those things you have to live with, and that doesn’t mean he can’t use better judgment at times, too.”
Peters does not lead the Chiefs in missed tackles this season. While he has missed four tackles, according to Football Outsiders, that distinction belongs to safety Daniel Sorensen, who has missed 12 — tied for fourth-most in the league, and the most by any defensive back.
This can be blamed, in part, on Sorensen’s heavy run-defending responsibilities near the line of scrimmage, something that can also be said for inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who is second on the team in missed tackles, with 11. Safety Ron Parker is third on the team in missed tackles, with nine, followed by defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches (five) and Peters.
“I think we’ve got to tackle better as a whole,” Sutton said.
The defense will have an opportunity to get back on track on Sunday, when the Chiefs face the New York Giants, 1-8, at noon at MetLife Stadium.
The Giants’ 25th-ranked offense has struggled to both run and pass the ball, and Reid’s penchant for beating bad teams — he’s 33-5 with the Chiefs against teams that are .500 or worse — would appear to make this a prime opportunity to get the good vibes going again, especially as it relates to a secondary that hasn’t lost confidence in itself.
“We’re still the same secondary from past years that had a lot of turnovers,” Nelson explained. “We know we can do it, we believe in ourselves. We’ve just got to get back to doing it.”