Andy Reid is a master of the news conference, which is what happens when a smart man has been doing the same thing three times a week for 19 years. The Chiefs’ coach is actually hilarious and brilliant, but in front of a microphone he turns all of that off like a spigot. The only goal to say as little and express as little as possible.
There are times you get the feeling he could be asked why he loves his wife of more than 45 years and he’d say, “Listen, she’s a good woman, and that’s how we roll.”
But there are also moments his learned verbal stinginess doubles as the truth, or at least the base version of the truth, and that happened this week when Reid was asked why his defense gave up more yards to the Raiders than any game since the horrifying playoff loss in Indianapolis after the 2013 season.
“We all have a piece of it,” Reid said. “That’s how we feel about it.”
That’s certainly one honest way to put it. The rest of this column is, hopefully, a more nuanced and thorough way to put the struggles of the Chiefs’ defense into context.
Bob Sutton, the defensive coordinator, is taking much of the heat from fans. But the fairest and most productive way to look at the problem is to recognize a partnership between Sutton and the players that just isn’t working.
Sutton deserves criticism, but largely not for what the most vocal fans are the most frustrated about. To quickly cite two specific examples: he’s not dropping Justin Houston into coverage as often as many fans believe, but he was was clearly outcoached against the Raiders by leaving safety Eric Murray far too often in a terrible mismatch alone against tight end Jared Cook.
The players deserve criticism, too, because their execution seems to be getting sloppier and more inconsistent as the season has progressed. To quickly cite two specific examples, the defensive backs are getting beat in coverage too often and everyone is missing too many tackles.
There is a third element in which the coaches and players are challenged together: Eric Berry’s absence, Derrick Johnson’s declining speed and Justin Houston’s unreliable health are conspiring to make everything more difficult.
This could be a special team. Alex Smith has never played this well and, if we’re honest, isn’t likely to play this well again. The offense has game-breakinig talent at every level, and the line is getting healthier. The Chiefs rank first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and only one team has scored more points.
It’s largely up to the defense not to screw it up. There is more than enough talent, experience and ability here. In Sutton’s four years with the Chiefs, they’ve never finished lower than seventh in points against. Right now they’re 19th, and 26th in DVOA.
The usual disclaimers about an outsider watching film apply here, but let’s take the problems listed above in order, starting with Sutton. A coach’s main job is to put his players in position to succeed, and at times against the Raiders Sutton did the opposite, particularly with Murray.
Murray had a miserable night, perhaps best summed up by being blamed for a penalty that wiped out Houston’s fumble recovery in the second quarter. If you watch the play with the coaches’ tape, you see the flag was almost certainly (and justifiably) against cornerback Phil Gaines.
When Murray wasn’t being misidentified by the official, he was being misused by Sutton. Murray is generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 199 pounds, and was consistently left alone against the 6-5 and 254-pound Cook.
This happened throughout the game but was most obvious in the fourth quarter, particularly on the Raiders’ last drive. Oakland’s 4th and 11 conversion was rather simple, with Cook basically posting up like a power forward against a point guard. Similar thing happened on the Raiders’ 29-yarder down the left sideline. Derek Carr threw an alley-oop, exploiting the size mismatch.
At least 59 of Cook’s 107 yards — including at the game’s most important moments — came from this basic advantage. It’s worth noting that Sutton has generally been pretty good at avoiding these things this year, and that the Raiders’ personnel presents a terrible matchup for the Chiefs, but still. This is Sutton’s job.
The other major area in need of improvement for Sutton is creating more pressure. Again, the Raiders are a bad matchup for this because Carr is among the NFL’s quickest at getting rid of the ball. But the Chiefs’ pass rush has been fairly vanilla the last two weeks, void of the stunts and loops and creative blitz packages that can sometimes help wreck a play.
“The games are a good alternative,” Sutton said. “A good way to change things up, and something we’ll probably look at a little bit.”
The players have their piece of this, too. Some of it is basic. On the Raiders’ first snap, Amari Cooper ran a simple out route, but Gaines was beat so badly he couldn’t even make the tackle after the catch. The difference was a first down.
The Chiefs’ tackling was horrendous against the Raiders. They missed 10 tackles, which is nearly a quarter of their season total. One hundred and seventy of Derek Carr’s 410 yards passing came after the catch. In the last three games, 67.4 percent of the rushing yards against the Chiefs have come after contact. All of this data is from Pro Football Focus.
You can find examples all over the tape. On Cooper’s second touchdown, Murray was slow to take him in zone coverage and then wasted a good angle in being outrun around the edge. Marcus Peters took a 47-yard pass-interference penalty for what looked like simple panic.
On the Raiders’ final drive, Carr’s 39-yard pass to Cooper down the middle was one of the biggest plays of the game. Sutton’s call had Terrance Mitchell and Daniel Sorensen doubling Cooper, so the problem wasn’t scheme. Cooper just beat both men with a jab toward the outside, getting the defenders turned the wrong way and creating enough space for the shot downfield.
“They just made plays and we didn’t,” Mitchell said. “Simple as that. Step here, step there.”
The most important thing for the Chiefs may be whether the coaches and players can work together to make up for some unavoidable deficiencies. Berry’s injury stuck out enormously last week. There is no way Cook makes all those plays if Berry is in coverage.
Johnson and Houston are playing, but at least right now not at their best level. Johnson looks a little slower and at times indecisive. You can still flashes of greatness, but those dips under linemen to make tackles are outnumbered by bigger men wiping him out or fakes taking him away from the play.
Houston has been dominant at times — he looked like a superhero for much of the Eagles game — but slowed by injury the last two weeks. He dismisses any questions about his health, but he has been on the injury report with calf spasms and an unspecified knee injury.
Against the Steelers, Houston looked rigid and slow particularly while running in space. Against the Raiders, he rarely if ever tried to get around the edge, instead bull-rushing most of the time. These are the only two games of the season in which he has failed to register even a quarterback hurry.
Houston’s health is the most important single factor going forward in determining the effectiveness of the Chiefs’ defense. Eleven days between last week’s game and this Monday should help. A bye week after the next game should help even more.
But there is so much more to it. Like Reid said at the top, they all own a piece of the blame. The burden for fixing the Chiefs’ defense falls on everyone, coaches and players.
The consequences are no less than protecting the potential of the best Chiefs team in two decades.