Four days until the season opener and the Chiefs still have no idea whether the soul of their defense will be ready. This is a problem, and we’ll get to that in a second, but here’s another issue symbolic of where this team is in the days and hours ahead of kickoff:
Ron Parker walked into the Chiefs facility, the safety officially a team employee again for something like 23 seconds, and immediately started answering scheme questions from guys already here.
“Yep,” Parker said. “First day.”
Look, this doesn’t have to be a negative. Or, at least, not a complete negative. Young players trying to get better — that’s a good thing. More experienced players willing to help — again, a good thing.
But a safety cut by a team in need of safeties walking in as a starter so close to the season opener and (told you we’d get back to it) uncertain whether he’ll be playing next to an All-Pro who hasn’t practiced in nearly a month — not a good thing.
Eric Berry has not practiced in 25 days and did not play at all in the preseason. Having him close to full strength against the Chargers in suburban Los Angeles this season seems impossible. Whether he’ll play at all on Sunday is a major concern.
Chiefs head trainer Rick Burkholder descriptively labeled Berry as “literally day to day,” which we might assume is somehow different than the time Justin Houston was simply “day to day” for most of the 2016 season, but either way, this is a suboptimal way to begin.
“Let’s see how it goes,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said about Berry. “Play it by ear. We’ve kind of done that to this point, and we’ll continue to do it.”
For all the excitement and wonder surrounding Patrick Mahomes and an offense that should again be terrific, the torpedo coming for the 2018 season is a defense ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, with more holes than could be filled in one offseason.
If you want to go optimistic, you can talk yourself into that. Philip Rivers is 2-8 with 12 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a 76.3 passer rating against Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
Last year was particularly bad — two losses, one touchdown, six interceptions and a 42.9 rating. Berry missed both games, the Chiefs’ defense stunk and the Chargers still managed their two lowest point totals of the season.
But, if you want to be realistic, the two biggest factors in the Chiefs’ success are gone or compromised. Marcus Peters had four interceptions in the last three games against the Chargers, and the Chiefs were consistent in pushing Rivers off his spot.
Of Rivers’ six interceptions against the Chiefs last year, Peters peeled off his man for three of them, Rivers was hit as he threw one, moved off his spot on another and badly underthrew the other.
Let’s take a look, first at an example of Peters reading Rivers and making a play on another man. This is part of what made him so dangerous.
<iframe src="https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-hJfiR_5voTWt0P7Z1Ku4_fVY84QY7VZ/preview" width="640" height="480"></iframe>
Now, let’s take a look at the two created by pressure.
<iframe src="https://drive.google.com/file/d/138uElIbtb0ZRg7D1lfw6Lkh6F8tiqyTv/preview" width="640" height="480"></iframe>
Peters is gone, and if the Chiefs’ pass rush is inferior compared to a year ago, then gone, too, are the root causes of five of the Chiefs’ last six interceptions against Rivers.
Parker is 31, and doesn’t move as well as he used to, but he can still be a useful piece for the Chiefs. According to research by B.J. Kissel of Chiefs.com, Parker has played 500 more snaps than anyone else for the Chiefs since Sutton’s arrival.
He’s also widely respected in the locker room generally and in the defensive backs’ room specifically, which will be particularly useful as the Chiefs manage Berry’s injury and transition younger talent like Armani Watts, Eric Murray and Jordan Lucas up the depth chart.
But there is little doubt that this is where the Chiefs’ success will be realized or squashed — at that intersection between how quickly the pass rush can get to the quarterback and how long the secondary can cover.
Sutton talks constantly of “affecting the quarterback,” and that’s particularly true against Rivers, who even as a younger man — he’ll be 37 in December — was never agile. The Chiefs have used that to their advantage in recent years, consistently making him uncomfortable or getting him to throw the ball away.
Linebacker Justin Houston is still disruptive but has not been the force of nature that earned his current contract since a knee injury suffered in 2015. Dee Ford is inconsistent, Tanoh Kpassagnoh is intriguing but unproven and Breeland Speaks may be better suited to rushing from the inside.
That’s a worrying state with all the questions in the secondary. Kendall Fuller, the crown of the Alex Smith trade, will prove to be one of the league’s best cornerbacks. But he is not the same playmaker as Peters, which could give quarterbacks more chances and confidence to test everyone else on the Chiefs’ defense.
Even at full strength, that’s a lot for Berry to make up for.
The good news is the Chiefs’ defense should have a stronger backbone. Anthony Hitchens is a significant upgrade over the injured and 35-year-old version of Derrick Johnson from last year. Derrick Nnadi looks stronger than Bennie Logan and Chris Jones could be poised for the season of his career.
But success in the middle hasn’t been the key to winning eight straight against the Chargers. It’s been rushing the edges, and making plays in the secondary.
Those are the biggest concerns from a defense that was among the league’s worst last year, and those are the factors most likely to determine the outcome of Sunday’s season opener.