Chiefs' Alex Smith after 29-19 win over the Broncos
Following the Chiefs’ 29-19 win over the Denver Broncos on Monday (check out the report card here), beat writer Terez A. Paylor answered Twitter questions about the Chiefs’ sagging run defense, Tamba Hali’s possible return and much more in an extended mailbag.
Not completely. Look, a win is a win. Kudos. Good for them. That’s the entire point. But sometimes you can see critical flaws in a victory that can come back to bite you against better teams. This was one of those games. The Chiefs’ run defense remains a serious problem; the Broncos couldn’t throw the ball and they still racked up 177 yards and a ridiculous 5.7 yards per carry. What’s more, the inability of the offense to finish in the red zone was a bit concerning; no one likes to see five field goals. Add that to the Chiefs’ miserable running game on offense — the offensive line failed to generate much movement against the league’s No. 2 rush defense as Kareem Hunt was held to 46 yards in 22 carries — and fans have more than enough to chew on at the midway point of the season. This team will win the division, and it will go to the playoffs. It still has a chance to go to the Super Bowl. But any of these three areas have the ability to sabotage the season in January. Just know that.
Justin Houston and Marcus Peters are the unit’s best players. Without either, they’re in trouble. Even Houston at 80 percent (a complete guestimate) is better than the Chiefs’ other options as a pass-rush threat, while Peters and to a lesser extent, safety Ron Parker, are the only consistent playmaking threats in the secondary. But the bigger problem is the run defense. I understand that the Chiefs are never going to be among the league’s top teams in run defense, due to their preference on using even-count boxes — seven defenders near the line of scrimmage vs. seven blockers, for example — to stop the run. But they’ve been using this strategy for a few years now, and they’ve been better at it in the past. If the Chiefs don’t shed more blocks and play more gap sound, a physical, run-oriented team (see: Pittsburgh) could bounce them from the playoffs. Again.
It’s hard to say. When I asked coach Andy Reid about Tamba Hali’s status a week ago — when he was first eligible to be activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list — he offered a tepid response of “He’s feeling OK — we’ll address all that as we go.” All has been quiet on that front, but it’s my opinion that Hali can still help. Both Houston and Dee Ford — who left Monday’s game with a back injury — have been banged up this season, and while Frank Zombo is solid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has been complimentary of rookie Tanoh Kpassagnon (who earned his first reps of the season Monday), I think a rested and rejuvenated Hali could add some juice to a position that could use some reinforcements. Based on his summer outburst, it’s clear Hali thinks he can still play. If he doesn’t get that opportunity this season, it’s safe to say the two sides will be heading toward a Jamaal Charles-ish split in the offseason.
Some of it has to do with scheme. The Chiefs ask a lot of their front seven (or front six, depending on the personnel). Conventional football wisdom says teams will add an additional player to the box to stop the run, but given the pass-heavy nature of today’s NFL, that’s basically suicide. That means you need better personnel up front to corral the run most of the time. The Chiefs are okay on the defensive line — Bennie Logan has been particularly impressive against the run — but the inside linebackers have to step it up if the Chiefs are going to make any marked improvement in this area.
Sure, there’s a chance. The Chiefs haven’t surrendered a 200-yard rushing game all year, though Pittsburgh (194 yards) was close. Plus stud back Ezekiel Elliott may not play. But it’s probably safe to assume they’re going to rush for 150 yards-plus, barring an unforeseen development.
I wrote about this very subject this week. But in general, I think he’s holding up okay. He’s not a big guy, but he’s still proving to be difficult to bring down. He even had a few “wow” moments Monday. I attribute his latest struggles to his offensive line. The Chiefs got handled up front by Denver, which insisted on stacking the box and forcing Alex Smith to beat them deep, which he did (at least early on). The offensive line needs to play better and the Chiefs need to make teams pay deep for dissuading the run with defenders.
I still like Terrance Mitchell as player, but kudos to Kenneth Acker for seizing the opportunity by stepping in, doing a nice job and recording the fourth interception of his career. He deserves the chance to keep starting going forward. However, Mitchell is very competitive and I’d be surprised if we heard the last from him. The return of Steven Nelson, an underrated player in my book, really improves the Chiefs’ depth at this position.
Chris Conley’s season-ending Achilles injury was brutal for two reasons. First, Conley was maturing into a really solid possession receiver. Second, Achilles injuries sometimes require two years for a player to return to old form, even if they return to the field in a year. I like Demarcus Robinson, but you have to start worrying about the depth behind him now. As for Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who is regarded as the Chiefs’ nastiest lineman, his return will give them a boost. He was questionable for Monday’s game and would appear to be close to playing again. He’ll give the group an edge and allow Zach Fulton to slide back into a sixth-man role, where he offers great insurance at the three interior positions.
I kind of answered this one earlier. I credit Denver’s defense, because they actively sought to take away the run. But I still have some questions about the offensive line’s ability to set the tempo up front against a good team. The Pittsburgh loss on Oct. 15 seared that into my consciousness, and it’s something I won’t forget until I see the full, first-string unit run the ball the way they did earlier this season.
Hard to say, obviously. I think they could use more help at receiver, especially with Albert Wilson leaving the game Monday due to a hamstring injury, but in general, it’s tough to add someone midseason and expect them to give you an instant boost. I also wonder how aggressive the Chiefs will be. New general manager Brett Veach surrendered a 2019 fourth for inside linebacker Reggie Ragland and a 2018 fifth for offensive lineman Cam Erving during the preseason, and the Chiefs are still waiting on both players to become the type of contributors they envisioned at the time. At some point, you need to keep your picks, which essentially amount to cheap, team-controlled value when you draft well.