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Hali, Houston Injuries Change Chiefs' Identity

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Jason Seibel wrote this week that the Chiefs have to get back to their identity of stout defense to prevail in the epic rematch against the Broncos this weekend.

I respectfully disagree.

While I don’t believe in moral victories, the loss to the Chargers last week hit home the message that the Chiefs should have learned in the first Broncos game – this team can’t count on winning the same way every week. True contenders show their mettle in the playoffs by switching things up, playing clutch and finding new ways to defeat their opponents with the stakes greatly raised. A solid game plan can get you though the regular season – and the Chiefs are all but guaranteed a playoff berth at this point – but if they want to make it to the promised land, they will have to roll with the punches and step away from what they’re good at if its not working.

Here are three things the Chiefs will need to realize in order to beat the Broncos in Round 2:

 

1.) The Chiefs defense is not the Chiefs defense without OLB’s Tamba Hali and Justin Houston healthy

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It doesn’t matter that the dynamic duo hasn’t had a sack in the last three games. They were still destroying the edges of opponent’s O-lines, disrupting the run and forcing teams to go to short passes. Obviously, the goal of the pass rush is to get to the quarterback, but having QB’s be regularly hurried is just as important. Hali and Houston have been playing a major part in shutting down the pass even when they’re not putting up numbers.

San Diego, for instance, managed just three points with both Hali and Houston on the field. Once they were out, the Chargers put up 38.

Their absence means that the team will have to start tinkering with its (up until recently) winning formula. Chiefs DB’s had been playing lights out in man-to-man coverage when opposing QB’s had their pockets closing down in seconds. With time to throw against man coverage, Chargers QB Philip Rivers was able to sit back and wait for his receivers to simply outrun the Chiefs’ D-backs on crossing patter after crossing pattern.

A lot of negative focus has been put on CB Marcus Cooper who had a stunning start to the season, but has been picked on in the last two games. Cooper, an undrafted free agent, doesn’t have quite the physical skills of CB’s Brandon Flowers and Shaun Smith, and therefore gets more exposed on crossing routes where even a small separation can lead to a catch and DB’s can’t rely on muscling wideouts at the line as much. That said, Cooper was still the least bad against Rivers in the group, giving the QB a passer rating against his coverage of 116.7, while Flowers gave him 153.3, and Smith 158.3, according to Pro Football Focus.

In the first Denver game, QB Peyton Manning got great protection against Hali and Houston and was also able to put on a show by exploiting the man coverage with “pick plays” designed for receivers to change direction quickly just before catching the ball.

The remedy in both of these situations is to play more zone coverage, with the D-backs sitting in the throwing lanes and reacting to the passer rather than trying to keep pace step-for-step with the receivers. However, introducing zone looks will be a big change to the way this defense plays and it’s not what DC Bob Sutton likes to do. It may not be the Chiefs’ style, but Sutton has to realize that not changing the game plan with Hali hobbled and Houston out is leaving this group exposed.

Andy Benoit over at MMQB suggests having the Chiefs’ rushers feign blitz and then drop into the passing lanes themselves to try and snag picks if Manning keeps getting the ball out in 2.17 seasons like he did in the last game. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a bit of that.

 

2.) The Chiefs can’t count on the defense and special teams to win them the game anymore

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For all the reasons mentioned above, the Chiefs can’t get complacent and expect the D to make the game changing play or hold a slim lead to the end.

I have actually been a fan of Andy Reid since his Philadelphia days and I generally don’t like scapegoating any one person for a loss, but I agree with Reach that this last loss is on Big Red.

The Chiefs got the ball on their own 45 down 3 points with 3:51 left to play. KC has owned this sort of situation in the 4th quarter by grinding out close wins dozens of times this season. RB Jamaal Charles was running in this game like we haven’t seen since last season. In short, the plan at that point should have been to kill the clock as much as possible.

Instead, the Chiefs threw the ball six straight times and even called a timeout, just before throwing a TD. Did it give the team the lead? Yes. But it also gave the ball back to Philip Rivers and an offense that had been running roughshod over the Chiefs defense all half with 1:22 left to play. That is plenty of time to execute a touchdown drive to close the game.

Now, I know Reid will say that he was confident in the defense to hold one last time. Except that (see above) this was not the same defense that the Chiefs had been playing with all season, and Reid should have known that. The Chargers’ previous seven possessions leading up to their final drive had gone thusly: TD, TD, Punt, TD, FG, TD, Punt. Among their TD drives, their longest during that stretch took 2:47, and they only used that much clock because they themselves were trying to run out the time with their final possession of the 1st half. They gave the ball back to the Chiefs with 16 seconds left in the half, which is what the Chiefs should have done here. Their last two TD drives leading up to that point took 42 seconds and 1:42.

In other words, it was more likely than not that the Chargers were going to be able to score with 1:22 left in the game. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Chiefs should have taken a knee here necessarily, but a.) Their timeout was costly and unnecessary and b.) On 1st & Goal at the 5 yard line, at least hand it off to Sherman up the gut for a couple of yards or something. By calling a TD strike pass to WR Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs were leaving only two possibilities – go ahead by 4 but give the ball back to San Diego with plenty of time, or throw incomplete, stopping the clock and achieving neither of your goals.

Even if there was a wide open hole, there is a precedent for intentionally downing yourself on the 1, knowing that you need to kill clock more than you need to score at that point. The example even comes from an Andy Reid-coached team.

Reid gets a lot of flak for his clock management, and most of it is well deserved. Even if he did trust the defense to pull this one out in the end, it was in error.

Although the Chiefs will most likely have Hali back for the Denver rematch and they will have all week to tweak their game plan for the absence of Houston, I wouldn’t expect things to be any easier against the Broncos. The way you beat Peyton Manning is to have the lead with the ball in your hands when the clock clicks zero.

 

3.) If the defense’s identity has changed, then the offense must change with it

During the first half of the season, I found myself lounging, less engaged when our offense was on the field. I knew that it wasn’t during our possessions that the sparks would fly. The defense would take the field and I would lean as close to the screen as I could.

We all know what the Chiefs’ strategy has been this season – essentially, no one will score more than 17 on us, so let’s do just enough to score 20 and call it a day. With the team’s pass rush crippled, this plan is dead in the water. The good news is that the offense has shown that it can answer when called upon. Unfortunately, in the last two games it fell just short.

No more.

Last week, I wrote that the Chiefs need to find themselves a receiver. Well, until the next offseason, this receiving unit is

going to have to step up because the offense is going to have to get the win for the team this week, and likely in weeks to follow. Smith has been surprisingly accurate downfield, he just needs to take more chances. He had the league’s 5th best QBR last week and finished with 3 TD’s and a 68% completion percentage. I don’t even care about the interception. It was his willingness to sling it that kept the Chiefs in the game.

That’s the identity the offense is going to have to take to win this critical game.

 

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Tags: Alex Smith Andy Reid Bob Sutton Chargers Game Plan Justin Houston Kansas City Chiefs San Diego Tactics Tamba Hali

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