Chiefs

Chiefs’ secondary closes out season in style, keeping Chargers’ offense in check

Chiefs defensive back Jamell Fleming (30) and cornerback Sean Smith celebrated after Fleming broke up a third-down pass in the closing seconds of the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Chiefs defensive back Jamell Fleming (30) and cornerback Sean Smith celebrated after Fleming broke up a third-down pass in the closing seconds of the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Kansas City Star

On a day in which Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston vaulted past team icon Derrick Thomas for the single-season team sack record, even his teammates in the secondary were crowing about the achievement — and reminding people they played a role in it, too.

“We take the credit,” cornerback Sean Smith joked. “Nah, but it definitely goes hand in hand. We’ve got to keep tight coverage, and give those guys the time they need to get sacks and vice versa. A majority of the time, they get sacks before my guy even finishes the route.”

But while the Chiefs’ pass rush was on fire, recording seven sacks in a 19-7 win over the Chargers on Sunday, the secondary held up well on the occasions the pass rushers didn’t get home.

Quarterback Philip Rivers completed 20 of 34 passes for 291 yards, but he also threw two interceptions to safety Kurt Coleman, and the Chargers only converted two of 11 third downs, a tribute to the marriage of a strong pass rush and sticky coverage in the secondary.

“We got off the field on third downs,” safety Ron Parker said. “We recognized formations and capitalized and communicated well on defense.”

This has been the formula of success all season for the Chiefs’ secondary, which enjoyed a significant turnaround in 2014. Last year, the Chiefs gave up 63 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the third-most in the league. This year, they gave up 41 — the fifth-fewest in the league — thanks to a newfound emphasis on taking away the deep ball.

“As a secondary, you don’t want to get beat deep,” Smith said. “That hurts the whole team. We take pride in that, personally, because we play so much man defense.”

The Chiefs gave up the second-fewest passing yards per game this year (203.2) after ranking 25th last season (247.6). Nowhere was that more evident than the way they fared this year against Rivers, a gunslinger who torched them for 392 yards and three touchdowns in 2013 at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs, by the way, didn’t allow a 300-yard passing game all season.

“People don’t even know about that stat,” Smith said. “We’ve got some young guys that played their hearts out … it doesn’t matter who you put in, we go out there and play as a unit. And that’s something we can all be proud of out there.”

One area where the secondary has been lacking is interceptions. After recording 21 last season, the Chiefs got just six this year, tied for last in the league.

That’s why, to a certain extent, Coleman’s two interceptions — both of which came when the Chargers were trying to mount a comeback — were a breath of fresh air.

One came when Coleman, who was signed as a free agent during training camp, ranged all the way from the middle of the field and intercepted a deep pass intended for Eddie Royal.

“Coaches have been on me to stay on the deep post — they beat us on the route the first game we played them,” Coleman said. “They went with sail-and-go and I read the route and was able to break on it.”

Coleman’s final interception came over the middle on the Chargers’ final drive, on first and 10 at the Chiefs’ 10 with 4 seconds left. One play before, Smith also intercepted Rivers, only to see his pick get wiped out by an offsides call on Allen Bailey.

“He should have had one (interception),” Smith joked about Coleman.

Smith could joke about the play. The Chiefs, and particularly Houston — and the secondary —closed out their season on a high note.

“We all had an idea of how we wanted to end this thing,” Smith said. “We went out and executed and got two picks.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TerezPaylor.

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