This is it, six days until real Chiefs football.
Amid all the good vibes surrounding the new Chiefs led by Head Coach Andy Reid and General Manager John Dorsey, I think most Chiefs fans are equally enthusiastic about the fact that the first real test of the new-look squad will be against the Jacksonville Jaguars – the team with which KC tied last year for the dubious honor of being the worst in professional football.
It’s very easy to make the case that the Chiefs are the most improved team since that point, and most commentators will probably pick KC on the road over Jacksonville this week. I also think the Chiefs will most likely come away with a win, but I’m here to tell you that it is by no means guaranteed. While the Chiefs were busy getting better this offseason, the Jags were fast at work themselves.
He may not be a proven commodity like Reid, but new Jags HC Gus Bradley is an intriguing guy. In his college and early NFL coaching career, success followed him everywhere he went from North Dakota State to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he worked under defensive-coaching legend Monte Kiffen.
When Kiffen’s friend Jim Mora Jr. went to take over the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, Mora said Kiffen recommended Bradley to him, calling him “one of, if not, the finest football coaches I have ever worked with. He’s an A-plus. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime coach.” Bradley jumped from the Bucs’ linebacker coach to Seattle’s defensive coordinator.
But the Seahawk’s 2009 season was doomed as the franchise transitioned from the Mike (Papa Walrus) Holmgren’s era. Mora Jr. was fired after his first year, and the team brought in Pete Carroll in his stead. While Carroll jettisoned most of the coaching staff for his own, he kept Bradley, evidently seeing something in him, despite the defense’s pitiful 2009 performance.
In 2010, Seattle’s defense was even worse, ranking 27th in yardage allowed and 25th in points per game. Still, Carroll kept Bradley in as DC. In 2011, the rest of the league finally saw what Bradley’s superiors had found in him as the team ranked 9th in yardage allowed and 7th in points allowed. In 2012, Bradley improved that to 4th and 1st, respectively.
Though he seemed an obscure head-coaching candidate to take over the Jacksonville Jaguars, I wouldn’t underestimate him. If the preseason is any indication (and we all know it is a fickle measuring stick), he has already made an impact on this squad.
To get an idea of what the Chiefs will be facing, I decided to watch the Jags’ 3rd preseason game, the so-called “dress rehearsal” for the regular season where we tend to get the best look at how teams will operate once they’re playing for keeps. But, QB Blaine Gabbert, who has been named the Week 1 starter for the Jags, was held out of the third preseason game with an injury. So, I watched the first half of the 2nd game against the Jets instead.
My overall impressions? If this game is any judge, the Jags are definitely going to give the Chiefs a run for their money. Gabbert was extremely efficient, going 13/16 for 165 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT’s with QB rating of 130.5 before banging his thumb on an opposing pass rusher and sitting out the rest of the game. By contrast, Alex Smith went 7/16 for 62 yards 0 TD’s, 0 INT’s in his 2nd preseason game (although I believe those stats in particular should be taken with a grain of salt).
Remember that new Chiefs DC Bob Sutton came over from the Jets and runs a modified 3-4 version of Jets HC Rex Ryan’s defense. On one signature Ryan/Sutton overload blitz that sent four pass-rushers charging through a single gap on the left side, Gabbert planted his feet and calmly tossed the ball over the rushers heads for a long gain.
Gabbert is consistently ranked as one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks and the biggest knock against him since he entered the league as the 10th overall pick in 2011 is his panicked inaccuracy. With constant flux in the organization and playing behind a leaky offensive line, he was often hurried, and, when he wasn’t, he seemed to sense phantom pressure and throw crazy passes or scramble for no reason.
But, Jacksonville’s tackle situation has since been shored up similarly to KC’s – they have dependable veteran Eugene Monroe holding down the left side, with rookie future-stud Luke Joeckel learning on the right. The mix of steadier blocking and Bradley’s coaching seem to have produced a much more confident Gabbert who was sharp in this game. The Chiefs D has to make sure that Week 1 is not his coming out party.
In good times and bad, the Jags have been able to lean on the production of the invincible RB Maurice Jones-Drew,
and if Gabbert can be reasonably consistent, this offense will score points. The team also added speedy weapons Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson, who Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. predicts will “provide some instant offense and versatility.” Robinson, who played QB at Michigan, is particularly interesting. The Jags have him labeled simply as an “offensive weapon” and used him at QB, RB and WR in this game. The team featured a bunch of creative fronts to get the most out of these guys, and I’m sure most of their tricks remain up their sleaves. Luckily for the Chiefs, Jacksonville’s most talented wide receiver and best aerial threat Justin Blackmon will be serving a suspension for substance abuse when Reid’s troops take the field.
Still, most NFL scouts say that Jacksonville is in close competition with Oakland for the overall least talented roster in the league. That shows on defense, despite some new additions there. In this game, Bradley kept his front seven crowding the line against the run – a move I rely on in desperation when my defense can’t stop anything in Madden. Against the Jets, this had two effects – a lot of stuffed runs, and a lot of big breakaways.
If Bradley keeps up this tendency in Week 1, I think we are going to see RB Jamaal Charles go down a lot in the backfield, but he’s also sure to break away with a few big ones because if he can get past the first level; there’s literally no one else there until he encounters the safeties.
This also allowed Jets QB Mark Sanchez to look surprisingly competent in the first half, taking shots at wide-open receivers in the middle until he threw an awful interception to CB Marcus Trufant in the end zone. (The Jags cut Trufant over the weekend.)
This defense also remains a very accident-prone unit. Jacksonville committed eight penalties for 63 yards in the first half of this game alone with the starters still on the field. This included two encroachment penalties on back-to-back plays. The Chiefs, meanwhile, have played pretty clean in that respect this preseason.
There is one advantage that Jacksonville has, however, that simply cannot be overlooked. While there has been blissfully little drama in KC this offseason, this distraction is sure to get them in this game – those awful Jaguar uniforms.
Personally, I’m a fan of out-there designs like the ones sported by Oregon. I like the matte black look on the helmet. I even kinda think it would be cool for some team to embrace a Notre Dame-style, shiny gold brain bucket. But, having both on the same helmet induces vomiting. It’s actually really confusing because the two-tone helmets look totally different from the front and from the back so you occasionally have to ask yourself if you’re watching the same team when the camera switches angles. If Smith throws any picks in this game, I’m fine with him blaming the helmets – “Oh wait, so the guys in black are the same team as the guys in gold? Wait, really?”