A telling moment occurred on the Chiefs practice field last week when longtime left cornerback Brandon Flowers and veteran right cornerback Sean Smith switched sides for a day.
It was Flowers’ first venture to the right side since his rookie season in 2008. Smith had played the left side in 2012 at Miami, and was signed, ostensibly, to stop a revolving door at right corner.
But it was a clear signal that the Chiefs are trying to do anything and everything to rebuild a secondary that not only hemorrhaged big plays last year, but came up with few game-changing plays of their own.
No longer will the secondary be subject to mismatches just because a shorter corner like Flowers is stuck on the left side against a taller receiver. Or if Smith is paired against a quicker receiver. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton can pull the ol’ switcheroo.
“We want to get comfortable on both sides of the field because we don’t know if some games we go into this season and we might match up with certain receivers,” Flowers said. “We don’t want any side to feel foreign to us.”
Sutton has brought an attacking defense, based on pressuring the passer and playing, tight, man-to-man coverage on receivers as opposed to the zone schemes under former coach Romeo Crennel when the Chiefs pass defense was historically bad.
A year ago, the Chiefs surrendered 51 pass plays of 20 yards or more, last season. That was 13th most in the league, and of those plus-20-yard plays, 14 were 30 yards or more; six were 40 yards or more; two were 50 yards or more, and two, both in the same game at Tampa Bay, were 62 yards each.
The Chiefs also allowed 29 touchdown passes — second-most in franchise history — and tied for fifth-most in the league. Many of the scores came early in games that put the offense in a come-from-behind mode. The Chiefs didn’t have a lead in regulation until the ninth game of the season.
And worse, the Chiefs’ pass defense failed to bail out the offense. The Chiefs intercepted just seven passes, the fewest in franchise history, and tied with Dallas for the fewest in the NFL last year.
So Sutton brought what head coach Andy Reid called “a million different packages” involving his cornerbacks and safeties, almost all with one-on-one principles, to shore up the leaky pass defense.
It starts with the play of the cornerbacks, and that’s what made the signing of Smith, a tall, rangy defender who plays in-your-face coverage, so important.
“He’s obviously one of the bigger corners in the NFL,” Sutton said. “He’s got long arms, he’s got good range, he has the ability to sit down and cover receivers from down low, which is important in our style. He’s at the peak of his career where he can really take off. His style fits us.”
Smith was part of an overhaul in the secondary that also includes the additions of veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson, who is manning the nickel spot; Vince Agnew, who filled in for Robinson when he was out because of an injury; veteran safeties Quintin Demps and Husain Abdullah, who are competing for backup spots; and fifth-round draft pick Sanders Commings, who played both safety and corner at Georgia and is out right now with a fractured collarbone.
“When you play an attacking defense, the main thing is to put pressure on the quarterback,” Smith said. “One of the ways to do that is by pressing wide receivers. That’s one of my specialties. I like to get up there and press, use my hands … as long as I can re-route and throw off the timing of receivers …
“This is why you play cornerback. You definitely want to be out there on an island. If we mess up, it’s six (points).
Flowers, even at a compactly built 5 feet 9 and 187 pounds, is just as aggressive on the corner and believes he can thrive in the new scheme.
“It’s what I love, that’s what I know starting from early days,” said Flowers, who has 16 interceptions in his five-year career. “I always played man-to-man coverage, that’s what they installed at Virginia Tech. I love the way we’re getting pressure with the front seven just letting us lock up in the back end.”
In some passing downs against multiple receivers, Sutton has used seven defensive backs with one down lineman, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and pass-rushing linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Some of the backs are in coverage, some are blitzing the quarterback.
“Being a defensive back, we think we’re the most talented guys in the room, so you want to put as many of us on the field as possible,” Smith said. “Coach Sutton says, ‘If you have one thing you can do great, we’re going to find a way to get you on the field. If you’re good at blitzing, we’re going to find a package for that.’
“When you see guys out there, just know they bring something to the table and we’ll try to find a way to get them involved.”
Already, the Chiefs defensive backs are showing some evidence of getting their hands on the ball. In Thursday’s practice, Flowers jumped a route on Dexter McCluster, intercepted Alex Smith’s pass and returned it for a score.
The Chiefs haven’t returned an interception for a touchdown since Flowers did it at Oakland midway through the 2011 season.
“I can’t really speak on last year because I wasn’t there,” Smith said, “but this defense is all about applying pressure on the quarterback. It all starts up front. The front seven has to do a good job of blitzing and affecting the quarterback and force him into releasing the ball early.
“Then it’s up to us to make the play in the backfield. It’s all about having that mentality as we’re going to be aggressive, take the ball away and we’re going to score. That’s something that Coach Reid is telling the defense and to score on the off side of the ball as many times as possible and that’s what we’re going to do this year.”