For all the grousing and grumbling about the Chiefs’ secondary and its potential vulnerability, it did enough to get a win in the season opener against a Philip Rivers-led Chargers squad. It also gave the skeptics enough to justify their concerns about a unit that’s makeup remained uncertain right through last week, with All-Pro safety Eric Berry’s status up in the air.
The Chiefs’ defense, minus Berry, allowed 418 passing yards on 34 completions (three touchdowns), and that’s not including three deep pass plays that Rivers misfired on or his receivers dropped in the first half. Those probably would’ve gone for huge gains.
The silver lining for the Chiefs’ secondary rests on the idea that this group’s performance should only improve as they play together more and continue to develop the chemistry they didn’t have much opportunity to foster in training camp and during the preseason.
“This was everybody’s first time kind of playing a real game with each other,” said safety Ron Parker, who started and played every defensive snap one week after he signed with the team again. “It’s a new group. We’re not going to come in there and be on the same page from week one, but we definitely can work and get better as the year goes. I think that’s the good thing about this secondary — we know we’ve got work to do.”
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Veterans Orlando Scandrick and Parker joined the team midway through preseason as late additions and Steven Nelson missed the preseason game in which the starters saw their most-extensive playing time. Parker had been with the team for five previous seasons but spent all of training camp with the Atlanta Falcons.
“Some of the plays that we would’ve been most concerned with were plays that got zero in the book,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “They were incompletions, but they were potential big plays, touchdowns, and all that. Those are, to me, always a great concern.”
Against the Chargers, Rivers’ failed connection with Ty Williams in the first quarter and a pair of passes to Travis Benjamin each would’ve gone for more than 20 yards. And Benjamin dropped a pass in the end zone when Nelson peeled off and left him wide open.
“They involve different people on, honestly, different coverages,” Sutton said of the defensive lapses. “It wasn’t like this coverage or this player alone was the guy that’s most responsible for that.”
Starting cornerback Kendall Fuller, who the Chiefs acquired in the offseason from Washington in the Alex Smith trade, said he expects the unit’s performance to improve as they play more together “week-in week-out, day-in day-out.”
“Even (Eric Berry) just talks about just knowing each other’s movements, different movements that each guy has and things like that,” Fuller said. “Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses is just all part of it.”
Of course, the takeaways from the secondary’s play weren’t all negative. The Chiefs’ defense held the Chargers to 12 points through the first three quarters, and they’d contained dynamic wide receiver Keenan Allen. Allen, who finished with 108 yards receiving and eight catches, entered the fourth quarter with five catches for just 57 yards.
The secondary can also point to an interception by Parker, another near-interception on a diving play by Parker and the fact that the majority of the damage through the air came in the fourth quarter with the defense playing conservatively and protecting a double-digit lead.
“I think we played all right man, but, of course, we can play better,” Parker said. “I think we played aggressive as a secondary, but we’ve definitely got a lot of work that we’ve got to do to make up on the back end.”
This week, the secondary’s challenge doesn’t get easier. They’re facing six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as well as last year’s NFL leader in receiving yards and an All-Pro in wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays and willingness to stand in the pocket and make throws with defenders draped all over him will put pressure on the Chiefs’ defensive backs to cover for longer than usual.
“I just think it’s a brand new group, and we’re all working through stuff just like everybody else in the league is working through stuff,” Chiefs safety Eric Murray said. “It’s just a process, and it’s always going to be a process just to continue to get better, gain more camaraderie, and be better chemistry wise.”