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Chiefs defensive film room: Five things to like and dislike from the Titans’ loss

Tennessee Titans tight end Taylor Thompson fought off the tackle attempt of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker James-Michael Johnson in the third quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
Tennessee Titans tight end Taylor Thompson fought off the tackle attempt of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker James-Michael Johnson in the third quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. The Kansas City Star

The season opener always offers fans their first real glimpse of what their favorite team plans to do, particularly schematically. This can be quite revealing if you look close enough, and it’s my job to look closely at the Chiefs.

So that’s why I’ve decided to blow out my initial film-room session this season into two parts, just like I did last year after their season-opening victory against Jacksonville. And in the interest of time (and organization), I’ve decided to pick out five things on both sides of the ball that intrigued me during my re-watch of the Chiefs’ 26-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

Going forward, the plan is to do one post like this per week, with at least five observations or thoughts, unless I simply can’t help myself. And it won’t always be X’s and O’s stuff, either — sometimes you come across funny or interesting things that happen during the course of the game. I just hope to highlight a few things that can entertain you and help you become a more knowledgeable football fan.

So without further ado, let’s get it started. Offensive review coming Friday.

1. Ken Whisenhunt’s playcalling

So Denver is coming up Sunday, folks. You know what that means — more bunch formations and pick plays!

Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt gave the Chiefs a small dose of that during the opening drive of the third quarter as the Titans went on to take a 17-3 lead. On the drive, Whisenhunt called nine plays, all shotgun, all three-wide — as Denver is wont to do.

Here’s one play during that drive:

And here’s another:

Again, the Chiefs will see a lot of this stuff come Sunday. Denver used a lot of two tight-end sets on Sunday but there’s no reason to expect them to wholly get away from the same stuff they tortured the Chiefs with last season.

2. The Chiefs’ run defense

When the Chiefs lost Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito, the Titans really started pounding the ball between the tackles. Out of shotgun, no less.

I covered this in my story in Monday’s edition of The Star, but the Titans rushed 10 times for 26 yards before Johnson got hurt, an average of 2.6 yards per carry. After he got hurt, they rushed 28 times for 136 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry — nearly twice as high.

Here’s an example of a play where the Chiefs missed Johnson, in particular. Watch his replacement, James-Michael Johnson (52).

Johnson is left unblocked, yet he whiffs on the tackle. Pro Football Focus gave him a run-defense grade of negative-1.9 in this game, which is easily the worst on the defense by a wide margin.

Now, don’t get me wrong. James-Michael Johnson brings some good things to the table, particularly in pass coverage. But he must tighten up his run defense, particularly when it comes to diagnosing plays and shedding at the point of the attack. This isn’t anything new. His run-defense grade in his start against San Diego last season was negative-1.1 and it was negative-2.5 his entire rookie season.

Johnson has a tremendous opportunity ahead of him, and he knows it. But to take advantage of it, this is one area he must shore up. Otherwise, teams will be running at the Chiefs with impunity all season long.

3. Dee Ford sighting!

Dee Ford, the Chiefs’ first-round pick in May, only logged three defensive snaps. That’s clearly not enough.

However, here’s how the Chiefs used him when he did get in the game in the first half (on third-and-9):

In the top circle, you’ll see Ford lined up at outside linebacker while Justin Houston shifts down to tackle. Tamba Hali is rushing from the other side. Now watch Houston work right guard Chance Warmack over with his speed and a rip move.

I’ll be very interested to see if the Chiefs go back to this look in obvious passing situations. If Houston proves to be too quick for guards to handle, and Ford makes progress when it comes to stringing together pass-rush moves, this could be pretty deadly.

4. More Houston

Check this one out, where Justin Houston lines up as a one-technique tackle in 1-3-7 personnel (one lineman, three linebackers, seven defensive backs).

This is a pretty exotic design. Josh Mauga and Tamba Hali drop into coverage while Husain Abdullah and Chris Owens come on the blitz. Houston was initially stonewalled by the left guard, but he picked up the sack when Locker stepped up in the pocket.

Houston, who already has two sacks, could be headed toward another very strong season. He’s good against the run and the pass. He just needs to stay healthy to get the payday he craves.

5. Eric Berry’s usage

Berry, a three-time Pro Bowler at safety, spent a significant portion of his time as a box linebacker last season, and more often than not, the results were solid — as his plus-12.5 Pro Football Focus pass coverage grade last season would attest.

But on Sunday, his first play as a box linebacker did not come until the 2:54 mark of the third quarter.

That’s incredible, considering how much he was used in that position last season.

By my count, Berry — who racked up 15 tackles, by the way — played single-high safety 26 times in 79 plays, compared to 25 for fellow safety Husain Abdullah.

Berry’s number is probably fewer than the number of times say, Earl Thomas would play there, but my hunch is it’s still an increase over the times he was used there during an average game last season.

By the way, I also think it’s important to note that the Chiefs didn’t start using him as a box linebacker very much when Derrick Johnson got hurt. Perhaps the staff is intent on allowing Berry to prove he has a diverse skill-set. As far as I can tell, he wasn’t tested much, though he did allow this big gain to Nate Washington when he bit inside:

He also took the bait on the Titans’ first touchdown, when Dexter McCluster ran an angle route at him and Berry allowed Delanie Walker to get behind him:

But give Berry credit — the man does play his tail off. Here he is, with 5:31 left and his team trailing by 13, getting knocked to the ground by Kendall Wright and still finding a way to hustle to the ball.

No wonder he finished with 15 tackles. Berry’s tackling ability is superior to Kendrick Lewis’, so that should be one positive of the switch. Now, it will be interesting to see if he takes the next step as a communicator and ballhawk in the one-high role, provided the staff allows Berry to keep it up.

BONUS: Breaking up his hard to do, eh Chiefs?

I suppose I severely underestimated how much banter was going on between Dexter McCluster and his former Chiefs teammates, even during the second half.

Here’s McCluster, yelling something that sounded like “Let’s get this (expletive)” toward the Chiefs’ sideline on the first drive of the third quarter:

Here’s McCluster on the very next play:

Now watch long snapper Thomas Gafford (43) go up and yap to McCluster on this fair catch:

And finally, here’s Hali and Sean Smith giving McCluster a hard time following this third-quarter incompletion:

Make of that what you will. Some of you will probably call that nothing. Others will be mad it happened with the Chiefs trailing. Whatever. Just pointing it out because I think it’s interesting.

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

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