From the offense, to the defense to the intangibles, here’s 10 detailed reasons why the Chiefs rallied from a 1-5 start to win a franchise-record 10 consecutive games and finish 11-5.
1. The offensive line’s improvement: Because of a combination of injuries and necessity, the Chiefs have started seven different offensive line combinations this season. But over the last 2 1/2 months, it’s hardly mattered.
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Start with the simplification of the pass blocking schemes. During the poor start, the Chiefs’ offensive line was often beaten on stunts and blitzes. But now the unit has adopted an inside-out philosophy in pass protection, which helps protect quarterback Alex Smith from free rushers up the middle. Through the first six games, the Chiefs were surrendering four sacks per game. In the 10 games since, they’ve sliced that number to approximately two.
The Chiefs also have enjoyed some natural progression from first-year starters such as center Mitch Morse and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and don’t underestimate the return of fourth-year pro Jeff Allen, a left guard who did not start the first six games of the season as he worked his way back from a training camp knee injury. Since his insertion into the starting lineup against Pittsburgh on Oct. 25, the Chiefs are 10-0. Allen has given the line grit, attitude and experience.
2. Quarterback Alex Smith’s running ability: While the offensive line has improved, it is not infallible. There are still breakdowns and miscommunications in pass protection, but whenever defenders start closing in, Smith either rolls out of the pocket — keeping his eyes downfield when possible — or sprints though the nearest crease up the middle.
Smith is a plus-athlete, as evidenced by his career-high 498 rushing yards this season — fourth-most among NFL quarterbacks — and this is often a problem for defenses, especially if he catches them in man coverage. While corners are running with receivers with their backs to the line of scrimmage, Smith is doing his best Steve Young impression.
Smith’s running also has given the Chiefs a counter, of sorts, to all the stunts and defensive-line games teams tortured them with earlier this season. It has not been rare to see the offensive line pushing stunting defensive linemen wider upfield, which creates natural rushing lanes for Smith.
3. The budding trust between Smith and Jeremy Maclin: The Chiefs were ridiculed last season for being the first team since the 1950 Pittsburgh Steelers to go an entire season without completing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. Plenty pointed the finger at Smith, and he played a role in it, but a lack of a dynamic wide receiver was the real problem.
Enter Maclin, who signed a five-year, $55 million contract this March to be the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver. He’s been worth every penny. He not only snapped the goofy wide receiver touchdown drought in Week 3, he also set a club single-season record for catches by a wide receiver with 87, caught eight TD passes, the most by a Chiefs receiver since 2010, and finished with 1,088 yards, becoming the eighth Chiefs’ 1,000-yard wide receiver.
Maclin earned Smith’s trust with his combination of speed, hands and competitiveness, and is even the recipient of deep passes from his quarterback, who was often criticized for failing to attempt them. Their chemistry has grown as the season has worn on, which is an excellent sign for 2016 and beyond.
4. Finding an offensive identity: The season-ending ACL injury to star running back Jamaal Charles in Week 5 left the Chiefs offense in flux. How were they going to replace someone who had accounted for 31 percent of their yards?
Chiefs coach Andy Reid surprised people when he elevated little-known backups Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware over the previous No. 2 back, Knile Davis, but Reid has been vindicated by the move, as West and Ware have formed a strong and unselfish tandem. The two are solid, one-cut runners who can take advantage of the inside running plays this particular group of linemen happen to be best at blocking.
The Chiefs’ running game — they rank sixth in the league in rushing — has opened up space for their playmakers to operate. Smith is the maestro of it all — the coaches have given him more ability to change protection and audible, “some weeks more than others,” he’s noted — and he’s thrived, completing 65.3 percent of his passes for a career-high 3,486 yards, 20 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
“We have a lot of trust in him to do those things that he does,” Reid said. “He’s got a good eye for it and, again, he studies like crazy.”
5. A playmaking secondary, led by Marcus Peters: It’s been a long time since the Chiefs have had a rookie make the impact their 2015 first-round pick did this season. Quite simply, the Chiefs could not have made this run without Peters, who became the first Chiefs rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Eric Berry in 2010.
It seems like a long time ago now, but there were significant questions surrounding Peters — who was dismissed during his senior season at Washington because of his temper and issues with the coaching staff. But he expressed remorse for his actions before the NFL Draft and convinced the Chiefs to pick him, and they certainly don’t regret it.
Peters, the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month for December, won over his teammates quickly with his football IQ and passion and led the league in interceptions with eight and passes defensed with 34. He’s brought a much-needed dose of playmaking to a secondary that tied last in the NFL with a mere six interceptions last season.
In short, Peters and fellow cornerback Sean Smith — who returned after a three-game suspension for a DUI arrest in June 2014 — have formed one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. Smith is good enough that teams don’t test him much, and while they do test Peters — he leads the league in targets, according to Pro Football Focus — he eventually makes them pay.
6. A relentless pass rush: Everyone knows about the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl edge rushers, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. With those two alone, the Chiefs’ pass rush would be respectable. But general manager John Dorsey and the coaching staff should be commended for putting together a deep corps of interior linemen who can hunt quarterbacks, too.
Dorsey snapped up nose tackle Jaye Howard, a fourth-round pick in 2012, off the waiver wire from the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in 2013, and the staff has helped him develop into one of the league’s best interior defensive linemen. Howard has been disruptive, mounting a career-high 5 1/2 sacks, while Mike DeVito also set a career high in sacks with three.
It’s worth noting that end Allen Bailey, 4 1/2 sacks, and nose tackle Dontari Poe, one sack, also have their moments, as do backup outside linebackers Dee Ford, four sacks, and Frank Zombo, three, who have filled in admirably when Houston and Hali were injured.
Add in some creative blitz schemes by defensive coordinator Bob Sutton — who is utilizing nickel corner Ron Parker, five sacks, as a blitzer — and that’s how you get a defense that has racked up 47 sacks, fourth-most in the league.
7. The rebirth of the Pro Bowlers: During the Chiefs’ 1-5 start, they weren’t getting as much as they were used to out of Hali, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry, and with good reason.
Hali, 32, has been playing on a balky knee all season, while Johnson, 33, was still working his way back to form following a devastating Achilles injury in September 2014. Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Berry beat Hodgkin lymphoma in eight months and was still working his way back to form, physically.
But all three started to come alive after their first six contests. After recording one sack in the’ first six games, Hali recorded 5 1/2 in their next five. After averaging nearly six tackles, Johnson averaged a little over eight in his last 10.
Meanwhile, while Berry has recorded 61 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass defensed during a season that ended with his fourth Pro Bowl nod in six season. Hali also made the Pro Bowl, while Johnson — who has helped solidify what was a leaky run defense in 2014 — is a Pro Bowl alternate.
8. Andy Reid’s steady hand: When the Chiefs were 1-5, Reid was asked a variety of questions about his process. Would he consider handing over the offensive playcalling? Would he consider making staff changes? Would he make any other drastic changes?
The answer each time? Nope. Reid took responsibility for all his team’s failures, but expressed confidence in his staff and players’ ability to turn it around. Multiple players have said that Reid’s steadiness during this time of unease — even with chairman Clark Hunt’s vote of confidence in November — instilled a sense of belief in their abilities.
9. A good locker room: Even when the Chiefs were struggling, Reid repeatedly said he liked this team.
“Yeah, they love to play the game, they love coming to work,” Reid said this week. “And when I tell you I like the team, that’s what I’m talking about. These guys come to work and they take care of each other. The old guys teach the young guys, they’re not hiding things from them and worried about (that stuff). They’ve got a little security to them, they (think) about making everybody around them better … they’re egoless that way.”
Multiple players have spoken about the Chiefs’ family atmosphere, while Hali specifically mentioned that when the Chiefs were 1-5, the quality of their practices starting improving, which eventually carried over to game day. This speaks to the team’s fighting spirit.
“When we started out at first, guys were trying to save something,” Hali said at the time. “But now, there’s nothing to save. We’re all we have and we have to do it on the practice field and duplicate it on Sunday.”
10. An easier schedule: We’ll keep this one brief, because it speaks for itself. The winning percentage of the Chiefs’ first six opponents: .604. The combined winning percentage of their last 10 opponents: .419. The Chiefs deserve credit for mounting a strong comeback, for sure, but opponents do matter.