Before each portion of practice, the Chiefs’ defensive backs pick a magic number. It could be five, it could be 10, it could be more.
The number represents how many interceptions the secondary will snag in each practice period, depending on whether the offense is working on the running game, passing game or in the red zone.
“We set the number as a goal …” safety Kurt Coleman said. “As defensive backs, we try to push ourselves.”
And if they fall short of their self-imposed number, the defensive backs pay the penalty with pushups or extra running.
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That aggressive mentality was one factor in the Chiefs’ intercepting 21 passes last year, third most in the NFL, and tying for first in the league with 15 fumble recoveries. That added up to 36 takeaways, second only to Super Bowl-champion Seattle’s 38, and contributed greatly to an unexpected 11-5 season.
But it hasn’t worked out that way this year. The Chiefs, 7-5 going into Sunday’s game at Arizona, have forced just 10 takeaways, third-fewest in the NFL. And their four interceptions are tied for fewest in the league with the lowly New York Jets.
“Last year, it just seemed like the ball would bounce our way, somehow, some way,” safety Husain Abduallah said, “but this year, it hasn’t been the same. When they come, they’ll come, and hopefully down the stretch, they’ll come in bunches.”
A year ago, the turnovers came in droves, and the Chiefs turned those 36 takeaways into 147 points — 18 touchdowns and seven field goals — including six defensive returns for touchdowns.
This year, they’ve converted their 10 takeaways into just 27 points — three touchdowns, two field goals.
“It’s just a mentality of focusing on getting the ball out,” said outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns last season and has three forced fumbles this season. “I don’t know if our mentality is that. Our mentality this year is to play good defense and get off the field.
“But we preach it, and I think teams are conscious that some of the guys on our team go for the ball. But we can’t force it. We just have to play within ourselves and continue to make plays that way.”
Several factors could explain the Chiefs’ dropoff in takeaways.
▪ They’re playing a much tougher schedule this season, and instead of facing ineffective quarterbacks like Blaine Gabbert, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, Jeff Tuel and Terrelle Pryor in the first nine games, they faced Ryan Tannehill, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick and Philip Rivers.
▪ They’ve played without two of their biggest defensive playmakers in Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry. Johnson had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries last season but was lost for the season in week one with a ruptured Achilles’. Berry returned two interceptions for touchdowns last season but has appeared in just five games because of injury and is now out for the season with an illness that could be lymphoma.
“Those two players have exceptional speed for their positions and cause plays,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Berry’s pick-six at Philly last year … Derrick Johnson tipped the ball. Those are skills those players have that are as good as anyone in the NFL.”
▪ The Chiefs have put an emphasis on eliminating big pass plays by playing less press coverage than last year and keeping receivers in front of them. The Chiefs have allowed just 29 pass plays of 20 yards or more (fourth-best in the league) and only four touchdowns of 20 yards or more. A year ago, they surrendered 63 pass plays of 20 yards or more, including 12 touchdowns.
So while they rank first in the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed and have yet to permit a 300-yard passer, the Chiefs are not getting their hands on the ball as much as they did a year ago, both in the form of interceptions and fumble recoveries.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a way to explain it,” Sutton said. “A lot of times it’s taking advantage of opportunities. Last year, when we led the NFL in fumble recoveries (15), we didn’t have that many fumbles against us (22). Statistically you’re playing against the odds. The more you cause, the better your opportunity. There’s a certain element of good fortune.
“You can’t make a takeaway happen, but when you get the opportunity, you have to make them.”
The Chiefs have had several opportunities in the last two games — a shocking loss to then-winless Oakland and a humbling defeat at the hands of Denver — to intercept passes that would have sealed a win over the Raiders and made the game more competitive against the Broncos.
Early in the third quarter at Oakland, with the Chiefs trailing 14-3, rookie quarterback Derek Carr’s third-and-7 pass from the Raiders’ 34 went in and out of the hands of linebacker Josh Mauga.
And late in the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs clinging to a 20-17 lead, Abdullah had a clear shot at Carr’s pass intended for Andre Holmes deep in Kansas City territory ... but he failed to come up with it, and the Raiders went on to score the game-winning touchdown.
“He had a great break, a tremendous break on the ball,” Sutton said of Abdullah’s near-pick. “If he finishes it off, boom, that drive ends right there.
“It’s not these guys aren’t trying. ... You’ve got to keep going forward and believe they going to start coming our way if we keep being aggressive in how we finish plays and going to the ball.”
Twice in the third quarter against Denver, the Chiefs squandered opportunities for interceptions against Manning.
On the second play of the half, safety Ron Parker leaped high for a floating pass intended for Emmanuel Sanders, only to see Sanders knock it from his grasp. Fortunately for the Chiefs, on the next play, linebacker Justin Houston sacked and stripped Manning for a fumble that Coleman recovered.
Later in the quarter, with the Chiefs trailing 23-10, rookie cornerback Phillip Gaines had inside position on an out-pattern intended for Sanders, but he failed to come up with the interception as Sanders again batted it free. Had Gaines made the interception, the Chiefs would have had prime field position to make it a six-point game.
The Broncos had to punt from their 25, but a short kick caromed off the leg of Chiefs special-teams player Marcus Cooper, and the Broncos recovered. That set up a field goal that gave the Broncos a 26-10 lead.
“Some of those, when you get to this point, and you’ve only had a few (takeaways), you press a little bit,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “And you saw we had the ball in our hands a couple more times this past week.
“We just need to get one, and then they normally snowball in your direction. We’re in pretty good position. We just need to make sure we focus in and squeeze the football.”
The lack of turnovers has been exacerbated by an offense that ranks 28th in the NFL and 15th in scoring, averaging 23.1 points per game, or right at the league average. There’s nothing like a touchdown return on defense or a takeaway deep in the opponent’s territory to give an offense some relief.
The Chiefs have won their last 13 games dating to the 2009 season when scoring a defensive touchdown.
“We need to get our offense the ball and give them a lot more opportunities to mount their drives and take some pressure off them,” Coleman said.
While the Chiefs have had difficulties taking the ball away, the Arizona Cardinals are among the league leaders in forcing turnovers. The Cardinals are tied for second in the NFL with 16 interceptions, including three returns for touchdowns, and have 21 total takeaways. Safety Rashad Johnson has a team-leading four interceptions, two for touchdowns.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals’ takeaway starts with the pass rush.
“It’s always pressure on the quarterback,” said Arians, whose team has 26 sacks, six fewer than the Chiefs. “If you get him off his spot, the ball is not going to be as accurate, and our defense has very good ball skills. So if it’s up in the air, we don’t drop too many interceptions ... knock on wood.
“Too many teams, you see a quarterback throw it right to a guy, and we’ve done it, and they just drop it. The last two weeks we haven’t gotten the turnovers that we’d gotten earlier in the season. So offensively we’ve had to go a lot of long fields. That’s something that every defense prides itself on is disruption and getting turnovers.”
The one saving grace the Chiefs’ defense can point to is that while it has created just 10 takeaways, it has also limited the opposition when the Kansas City offense has turned the ball over.
The Chiefs’ offense has committed 13 turnovers — five interceptions and eight fumbles — and the opposition has converted those giveaways into just 32 points on two touchdowns and six field goals.
Arizona quarterback Drew Stanton has noticed that even though the Chiefs aren’t taking it away much, they’ve allowed just 18.7 points per game, tied for fourth in the NFL.
“They’ve got the ability to put you in some bad situations if you allow yourself to get in that,” Stanton said of the Chiefs’ defense. “They are No. 1 in the league in pass defense, so even though they aren’t getting turnovers, people aren’t really throwing the ball for success against them.”