The Chiefs have one of the best rosters in the NFL, and because these are the Chiefs, nationally that is overlooked and locally it is met with equal parts of hope and skepticism.
But this is the best roster the Chiefs have had in years. Perhaps the sport’s best three-deep in the backfield, a dynamic tight end, steady quarterback and much improved offensive line. On the other side is much of the team’s strength — loads of talent up front, three Pro Bowl linebackers and a secondary that has both stars and depth.
With the signing of Nick Foles, and the increasing uncertainty around linebacker Justin Houston’s return, the Chiefs’ biggest weakness is the pass rush and it’s not particularly close.
There are no perfect rosters, and the Chiefs have had to play without Houston before, so the temptation is to believe the Chiefs’ strengths will lessen their most pronounced weakness. But there are reasons this may be a critical flaw.
Most obviously, there is a personnel issue. Houston is among the best in the world, the Chiefs’ best and most versatile player. He affects how and where offenses attack, and his ability to play both the run and pass mean offenses can’t scheme around him.
Football is perhaps our most team-oriented major sport, but particularly on defense, it’s about men with superior talent winning plays.
Tamba Hali was bothered in 2015 with knee problems and is currently working his way back to health. Next up is Dee Ford, who has 5 1/2 sacks and 24 tackles in 30 career games and has yet to prove able to do anything beyond a simple speed rush in the NFL. Frank Zombo has been effective in spot duty, but nobody is presenting him as the answer.
There’s a scheme issue here, too. The 3-4 defense favored by the Chiefs emphasizes edge rushers and makes it more difficult to generate pressure on the quarterback along the defensive line.
The Chiefs may be able to make up for some of that with a deep collection of talent — most notably Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey — but the list of 3-4 defensive linemen in the NFL who are able to consistently bother the quarterback is short, and it becomes even shorter if you don’t include the exception that is Houston’s J.J. Watt.
Using the player ratings at Pro Football Focus, the list of top 10 pass-rushing interior linemen from last year includes only three from a 3-4 system: Watt (second), Tennessee’s Jurrell Casey (eighth) and Green Bay’s Mike Daniels (ninth).
The Chiefs have ranked no worse than fifth in scoring defense in each of the three years with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s system, in no small part because they’ve ranked seventh, fifth and third in sacks.
The Chiefs, then, have built a specific and efficient way of winning on defense that is now facing its stiffest challenge yet.
You can see some of this in Sutton’s extended answer when asked about the challenges of generating a pass rush without Houston.
“I think it starts with a couple things,” Sutton said. “One, obviously, Justin is a great player, a great talent. I always say about Justin, one of the things that’s really underrated about him is how good he plays all the other plays and all the other things he does for our defense.
“But I think in pass-rush mode, you have to rely on other guys. Obviously, a guy like Dee Ford has to come along, and I think (Frank) Zombo’s had a great camp right now. Hopefully, we get Tamba back eventually, and add to that. But those are two unique rushers. You don’t just go out and grab guys and say, ‘Hey, you’re this guy.’
“The thing we have to do, we tell our players all the time, the team on the field is the team. So whoever goes out there has to perform at a high level. We all know every guy has different skill levels, and things they do better than the next guy. So you move your defense that direction.
“There’s a lot of different ways you can do it. Sometimes, you have to have better coverage, sometimes you just change up what you’re doing. I think we’ll be fine, and we’re looking forward to seeing where we go. We’ve got a group of good inside guys, so there’s all different ways.”
Now, there are a few important things to note here. First, it’s interesting that Sutton’s immediate response was to expand on just how good Houston is. Also, Sutton is nice and smart to compliment Ford and Zombo, but he’s also acknowledging that Houston is irreplaceable.
Some positives exist, too. Houston has missed five games in two of the last five seasons. The Chiefs went 2-3 without him in 2013 and 5-0 last year. Without him in 2015, they were able to generate essentially the same amount of sacks and actually gave up fewer points, though the competition they faced in those games was lousy.
Also, they should be better prepared with a full preseason and training camp than losing him in the middle of a season.
Internally, the Chiefs know their pass rush could turn into a fatal flaw if not managed well. That’s part of why they were so aggressive in re-signing Hali, and part of why they are subtly challenging Ford. A lack of pressure on the quarterback means a tremendously inexperienced group of cornerbacks have to cover too long, and an offense based on ball control has to play catch-up.
And if that happens, Houston’s return could feel too late, no matter when it comes.