Sam Mellinger

The case for Bob Sutton’s Chiefs defense and how he can totally redeem himself Monday

Chiefs’ Sutton looking for defense to elevate its game

Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was asked about the play of Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland on Thursday October 18, 2018, and instead of singling out the two players, said that everyone has to elevate their game.
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Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was asked about the play of Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland on Thursday October 18, 2018, and instead of singling out the two players, said that everyone has to elevate their game.

Maybe I’m the last person who should write the case for Bob Sutton. There are moments over the years I’ve thought (and written) that he was a good and smart man who nonetheless owed whatever professional success he had to the talented players he was holding back.

After last year’s (most recent) playoff meltdown I wrote he should have been fired as Chiefs defensive coordinator.

I still believe he earned it, by the way.

I also believe this: He’s riding a nice wave right now, with the opportunity of the season here in front of him with a matchup against the Rams.

Do well here — and because this is the NFL in 2018, “do well” means keep the Rams below their season average of 33.5 points — and he’ll have every right to go “Good Will Hunting”.

Imaginary Sutton: Do you like apples?

Me: Yeah, why?

Imaginary Sutton: Well Eric Berry’s still hurt and we’re making every play we need to so how do you like them apples?

Two months ago, Sutton was the least popular man in Kansas City, with the possible exception of The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named. Now ... well, he’s still not exactly popular. But he’s inching closer to, say, Madison Bumgarner.

Facts: The Chiefs are tied for second in sacks, fifth in passer rating against, sixth in touchdown percentage against, and have held six of their last seven opponents to 23 points or fewer (of the six other AFC teams with winning records, only the Titans can match that last one).

Pretty good argument against those of us who’ve said his defenses aren’t productive enough.

More facts: Dee Ford is among the league’s most effective edge rushers, Chris Jones is a star, Reggie Ragland is playing the best of his career, Marcus Peters is imploding with the Rams, and Steven Nelson ranks 11th of 77 cornerbacks with at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

Pretty good argument against those of us who’ve said he doesn’t put his players in position to succeed, or that he’s mush without the considerable talents of Berry.

Let’s pause for context. There is a big difference between the defense’s performance against mediocre or worse quarterbacks and the kind it will need to beat in the postseason. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers have averaged 36 points against the Chiefs. Everyone else — from Case Keenum to Blake Bortles to Josh Rosen — has averaged 18.9. That’s part of what makes this game a mile marker of sorts.

Also, if the Chiefs make their first Super Bowl in 49 seasons it will be on the back of a spaceship offense that replaces the antiquated Defense Wins Championships with a more honest If The Defense Just Doesn’t Vomit On Its Shoes We’ll Be OK.

So, the standard is low, but it’s also not a gimme. The Chiefs have vomited on themselves plenty — most famously in the No Punt Game after the 2003 season, and most recently after holding a 21-3 lead over the Titans at home in a division playoff game last January.

That last one necessitated a makeover. Chiefs coaches and front-office executives wanted to get younger, faster, tougher, and more cohesive. That meant Anthony Hitchens in and more responsibility for Ragland in the middle. Peters was dumped in a trade. Every draft pick but one was used on defense.

Eleven men played at least half the snaps in the meltdown against the Titans. Six were discarded in one form or another.

Change, change, change. Except for Sutton, who oversaw it all. The NFL is largely about coaches (and quarterbacks, obviously) but here Andy Reid and the Chiefs placed a significant bet against the former players.

Sutton has doubled down on that bet, largely running the same stuff now as a year ago. They’re playing more nickel (already more than twice as many snaps as all of last season) and less dime, which is the expression of the free agent signing of Hitchens to pair with Ragland.

But other than that, it’s mostly the same stuff. With the help of Pro Football Focus, we see they are blitzing at almost exactly the same rate (20.8 percent this year; 21.8 last year). They are running slightly fewer stunts now (6.0 per game; 6.9 last year) but are having significantly more success (56.7 win percentage compared with 37.3 last year).

Sutton’s relative recent success (is that enough qualifiers?) is surgical. This is not a supremely talented or particularly well-rounded defense. It is a group with a few stars, a couple nice pieces, and some guys. Nobody has played more snaps than Ron Parker, who the Chiefs cut because they thought he was done, and then brought back in desperation after another safety-needy team cut him.

Sutton is cooking without all the ingredients, in other words, so his job has basically been to accentuate the taste of what he has. And the focus — smartly so, by the way — has been on a few specific areas that can help tilt games.

That means sacks, turnovers, and at least forcing field goals.

No team has turned it over fewer times than the Rams, who also rank eighth in avoiding sacks. So the difference here might be how well Sutton’s defense can limit the Rams to field goals, instead of touchdowns.

The Chiefs’ defense ranks 24th in points given up in the red zone, and 27th in touchdown percentage in the red zone according to Football Outsiders.

Those numbers have to change — going forward against everyone, but specifically against the Rams.

“A third-down stop there (in the red zone) is worth four points,” Sutton said. “It’s a big ol’ stop ... In a game like this, field goals are important.”

Sutton’s weekly challenge is both plainly obvious and tenuously complicated. Particularly now with Houston healthy, the Chiefs have a defined strength: the pass rush.

Last week, they recorded pressure on 54.5 percent of snaps, which was the most of any team in any game this season, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Using Pro Football Focus’ grades, the Chiefs have the league’s No. 3 pass rush, with more pressures than everyone except the Eagles. A year ago, they had the No. 28 pass rush. Their pressures per game are up nearly 25 percent.

Sutton is also working with defined weaknesses: The safeties have been wretched, they can’t stop the run, and according to Football Outsiders no team has given up more receiving yards to running backs.

The way this works, then, is a sort of game of chicken. Offenses try to isolate the Chiefs’ safeties, and accentuate their own running backs. Sutton’s counter is to get the pass rushers home, and hope Patrick Mahomes and the spaceship on the other side force the opponent away from runs and short passes and toward longer drop backs.

These are strange times, and right now might be the worst to choose to write a column complimenting Sutton.

The Rams are the only team with more yards than the Chiefs (though they’ve scored fewer points, and generally rank lower with advanced metrics) and Todd Gurley is essentially the Chiefs’ worst nightmare: hard to tackle, and equally adept with both handoffs and passes. In many ways, this is Sutton’s greatest challenge so far, even more than the Patriots.

Sutton and the Chiefs’ defense failed last year, and spectacularly. Some of us will be hard to convince he earned this second chance.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate what he’s doing with it, and be ready to applaud if he succeeds.

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Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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