Only 15 days ago, part of the formula that had enabled the Chiefs to win seven of their previous eight games was the fact that they hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season.
How much of that was quirk for a team giving up nearly five yards a carry and how much reflected a red-zone siege mentality of “they’re not in until they’re in” was a matter of conjecture.
At least for the moment, alas, the evidence suggests the distinction was more about a fool’s gold peculiarity than it was a reflection of some sort of immovable force.
The Chiefs were forced to swig that truth serum by fellows named Latavius Murray (112 yards) of Oakland and C.J. Anderson (168) of Denver and their supporting casts in back-to-back division losses that left them 30th in the NFL in yards rushing allowed.
It’s perhaps all the more telling that Murray, who missed the second half because of a concussion, had only 54 career yards before the Chiefs’ 24-20 loss to the Raiders, and Anderson had just 368 (albeit 167 the week before).
Those outbursts, as much as anything else, explain how the Chiefs have gone from tied for first place in the AFC West to 7-5 and thrashing in a quagmire of teams scrounging for a wild-card berth.
The good news, such as it is, is that it’s now become a problem that’s so undeniable to the Chiefs as to be a prime point of emphasis … even if it might require a multi-layered fix.
It’s not always easy to quantify “what causes what,” coolly clinical Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, adding, “There’s a lot of issues going on at once out there.”
Part of the problem actually is tethered to what the Chiefs’ defense does best. Better than anyone in the NFL, in fact: defend the pass.
As they’re yielding 136.4 yards a game on the ground, including a team five-year-worst of 199 a game over the last three games, they’re allowing only 203.5 yards a game through the air.
“Sometimes, you’re willing to take a few body blows to not let Peyton (Manning, the Denver quarterback) have what he wants,” Sutton said. “It’s big tradeoffs.”
But is it overcompensating?
Linebacker Tamba Hali suggested as much, at least in terms of mentality, if not schemes.
“I think we come in and maybe we want to pass rush, we want to stop the passing, and we forget that the only way we can get that done is to play the run,” he said. “And our guys have to embrace that and not come into the game just thinking pass rush.”
Sutton smiled at that notion.
Maybe it’s true in certain isolated instances, he suggested, but it’s not in the big picture.
“I wish it were that simple,” he said. “We could solve that problem easy.”
As best Sutton can identify it, at least for public consumption, it’s more about two specific areas: third-down conversions and, most glaringly, a deterioration of tackling technique.
Oakland converted 50 percent of its third downs, for instance. And along the way to sagging behind 17-0 to Denver, the Chiefs allowed the Broncos to wriggle out of their first seven third-down situations, including five for five yards or more and two into touchdowns.
“Get off the field on third down; that’s what complicates all these issues,” Sutton said, later adding, “Because every time you stay out there, then the sequence starts over.”
That’s both enabled and exposed what’s really become an unacceptable sequence for the Chiefs: the procession of missed tackles.
They had 15 whiffs against Denver, their most since faltering on 17 in the unsightly opener against Tennessee, and they missed on 14 two weeks before against Seattle.
On some plays, the Chiefs are less in position to pile on than they have just been pylons.
So, just tackle better, right?
There’s no real secret to that, Sutton said, not at this level. It’s ultimately a matter of technique that most have long ago mastered.
But even that isn’t as simplistic a correction as it might seem, in part because NFL teams don’t practice live during the season and in part because there’s more intricacy to any tackle than just the moment of would-be contact.
“It’s not just run over there and grab the guy,” cornerback Sean Smith said, laughing.
Instead, it’s about angles and leverage and, of course, technique, all of which is influenced by the unique dynamics of any unfolding play.
“The more stout you are up front, the less the ball comes through fast, OK, and when it doesn’t come through fast, usually you can get in pretty good position to tackle,” Sutton said.
The ball has, in fact, been coming through faster.
And when it does …
“To me, tackling is always about knowing how to enter a tackle,” Sutton said. “So you’re trying to judge where the ball carrier is, what kind of speed he has … and then how am I going to enter this tackle? Because if I don’t enter it properly, I’m going to have a hard time tackling.
“That’s the first part. The second part is understanding, ‘Where’s my help … when I tackle?’ Because I don’t want to be in many situations where it’s just me. I want to know, can I use the sideline? Can I use my next guy coming in here?
“I’ve got to be able to process all that information that’s happening as the play comes out.”
Now it’s up to the Chiefs to process all this information, sharpen their dulled technique and otherwise solve it before a potential playoff berth is further jeopardized with a third loss in a row on Sunday at Arizona.
“I’m pretty sure,” Smith said, “they’re going to try to run the ball on us as well.”