Derrick Johnson’s reaction after seeing the box score from the Chiefs’ 17-13 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday probably wasn’t much different from a fan’s.
“When we looked up there and saw the rushing yards, we were like ‘Man, this is way too much,’ ” said Johnson, the Chiefs’ star inside linebacker. “Way too much.”
Entering the game, the Browns ranked 29th in the league in rushing offense with 86.5 yards per contest. This looked like a clear advantage for the Chiefs, who were allowing only 92.2 yards per game, the seventh-best mark in the league.
Not so. The Chiefs surrendered a season-high 232 yards to the Browns, who had only rushed for 94 yards the week before in a 30-13 loss to Seattle. Prior to Sunday, the most rushing yards the Chiefs had allowed in a game this year was 147 to Pittsburgh on Oct. 25.
The performance, somewhat, hearkened back to last season, when the Chiefs, 10-5, had the league’s fifth-worst run defense. Some of their performance a year ago had to do with the season-long absences of Johnson and stout defensive end Mike DeVito, both of whom were lost for the 2014 season due to Achilles’ injuries.
But with both present and healthy on Sunday, what gives?
“Well, you have two elements obviously,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton began. “The quarterback (Johnny Manziel) had (108), so that’s a big part of it. I think I’m going to say all but 41 of that was on scrambles. … I think that bottom-line is that we didn’t probably play him as well on scrambles as we would like.”
Manziel had 11 rushing attempts, including a handful where the Chiefs, who were without star outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, failed to keep contain and set the edge. That’s where Manziel hurt the Chiefs the most, and Dee Ford, who has started the last four games in Houston’s place, said that’s where improvement is needed.
“Me personally, it’s just being more consistent setting the edge,” Ford said. “It really wasn’t what they were doing, it’s what we were doing from a technique standpoint, leverage and all that. It was good at times, but it’s got to be more consistent because when it’s not good, it hurts us.”
Ford credited Manziel’s shiftiness for that as well, and noted that the Browns added some new wrinkles to their offense to out-leverage the defense.
Johnson also gave credit to the slippery Manziel, who essentially won a Heisman Trophy in 2012 by doing a college-style Fran Tarkenton impersonation.
“Part of it is defending Manziel,” Johnson said. “That’s already hard in itself — you don’t really account for him. A couple of times, it was on our end and they capitalized on it. But it was nothing where you say ‘Man, this is going to be a problem down the road.’ ”
Sutton agreed, noting that the Chiefs did do a good job of covering the receivers on Manziel scrambles, which played a part in his 13 for 32 passing performance.
“What we did a great job with is plastering the receivers,” Sutton said. “It might not have been a completion on a scramble in the game, and that’s challenging for those DBs and those linebackers, because he’s back there and he’s a gambling guy.”
But where the Browns also hurt the Chiefs was on base running plays, particularly up the middle, as running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson combined to rush 24 times for 114 yards, an average of 4.75 yards per carry.
“That’s what we didn’t play as well as we thought we could’ve played,” Sutton said. “That gets down to the same thing ... it’s technique. We got a couple where we missed some tackles.”
The Chiefs will have an opportunity to get back on the right track in their regular-season finale on Sunday against Oakland, which has the league’s 25th-best rushing attack at 93.9 yards per game.
The Raiders’ quarterback, Derek Carr, isn’t nearly the rushing threat Manziel is, but the last time the two teams met — a 34-20 Chiefs win on Dec. 6 — Oakland’s backs teamed up to rush 23 times for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Oakland also boasts a 1,000-yard rusher in third-year pro Latavius Murray, who has 1,035 yards in 255 carries this year.
The Chiefs, however, are confident they’ll get their run defense squared away in their final tuneup for the playoffs. Hali and Houston are both questionable, meaning they could play, and there’s been an emphasis on fine-tuning the run defense this week.
“It’s just one of those things we’re really good at taking directions from the coaches and getting coached and we do hold ourselves to a higher (standard), especially when it comes to run defense, and that wasn’t like us on Sunday,” Johnson said. “You want to come out of this with a win and fix what you need to fix, hopefully.”