Last Thursday night the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in their first preseason game by the score of 41-39. It was an entertaining game to watch and the details of that game have already been discussed in detail. However, while DeAnthony Thomas and Travis Kelce provided some amazing highlight real plays, it was the two defensive scores that really caught my attention. It got me thinking about how the Chiefs turned things around so drastically last season.
Trying to sum up the Chiefs 2013 turnaround in a couple of sentences is hard to do. The arrivals of Andy Reid, John Dorsey, and Alex Smith were the faces of the turnaround, but the actual nuts and bolts of the turnaround are greater than just those three men. The Chiefs (in hindsight) did have a pretty favorable schedule. On offense, Alex Smith protected the football and allowed Jamaal Charles to be the heart and soul of the offense. Charles made enough big plays to move the offense and special teams often gave them a boost as well. They excelled on defense (especially early on) at getting pressure on opposing QBs. That combined with an efficient offense put pressure on opposing offenses and resulted in a dramatic increase in forced turnovers.
So can the Chiefs follow that same blueprint for success in 2014?
If I was making a checklist of the factors from last season and if it’s safe to assume they can do it again, it would look like this:
Will Andy Reid and John Dorsey provide stable leadership? Yes
Will Alex Smith protect the football and at very least do enough to not lose games? Yes
Will Jamaal Charles still be a special player? Yes
Will Special Teams continue to be a positive factor for KC? Dave Toub + DAT = Yes
Will the defense continue to get pressure on the QB? Hali + Houston + Ford = Yes
Will the defense continue to force a lot of turnovers?
I don’t know…..
That’s the real question.
That’s why the two defensive interceptions returned for TDs against the Bengals got my attention. I understand that the interceptions came when both teams’ starters were long gone. I understand that preseason play can mean very little when the regular season roles around. I just found it interesting that the Chiefs came out and won their first preseason game the same way they won a lot of games last season. That being with big plays on defense and special teams and enough offense to get the job done. Getting big plays on defense and special teams can be a streaky and inconsistent thing. It’s hard to rely on those plays to win games and yet it was a major part of the KC blueprint in 2013. It appears that the pieces are in place for most of those elements to be present again in 2014 and if Alex Smith and the passing game can take a step forward like they did late in 2013 then things could really go well for KC.
If they can continue to force turnovers that is.
In case some of you reading this are not believers in just how important winning the turnover battle is, take a look at the following numbers. Over the past five NFL seasons (2009-2013) there have been 33 teams that finished +10 or greater in turnover differential. Those teams finished a combined 361-166-1. That’s a 68.5% winning percentage which is good for an average of about 11 wins per season (not so coincidentally, that’s exactly how many wins KC had last season). Of those 33 teams only ONE finished with a losing record. So the odds say that if you finish with a +10 or greater turnover differential you will be in the playoff hunt.
Last season there were three teams that had monumental shifts in their playoff differential from the previous season. The Houston Texans went from a very good +13 differential in 2012 to a league worst -19 in 2013. That’s a -32 turnover shift that was a key reason that Houston went from a 12-4 division winning playoff team to 2-14 team with the first pick in the draft.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs. The Eagles went from -19 in 2012 to +14 in 2013. While Chip Kelly’s innovative offensive schemes get most of the credit, that +33 turnover swing played a huge role in their jump from four wins up to ten in 2013. While the Philly turnaround was impressive, the Chiefs had by far the biggest swing in recent history. In their 2-14 2012 season they had a NFL worst -22 turnover differential. Last season they were second in the NFL behind the Seahawks with a +19 differential. That’s a +41 turnover swing from 2012.
I understand that a serious debate could be had as to the relationship between wins and turnovers. A case could be made that the reason teams turn the ball over more is because they are losing and have to gamble more and that teams that are winning have to gamble less so they will turn it over less. That’s all completely valid, but the Chiefs were proof last season that turnovers (and a lack there of on offense) were a reason that they were able to win games, not just a byproduct of those wins.
I believe that the Chiefs understand just how vital winning the turnover battle is. If you look at how they have built both sides of the football this becomes pretty clear. The offense is built around a super star running back and a quarterback that utilizes a lot of short and safe passes. The defense is built around an attacking blitz heavy scheme. That scheme relies on the pass rushers getting heat on the QB and the defensive backs defending (often alone on an island).
Fans need to understand that when you take those approaches there are going to be times that fans are frustrated by it. When you play it safe on offense to avoid turnovers there are going to be drives that stall out and result in punts. When you play with an attacking style on defense in order to try and create turnovers there will be times when you get burnt. No team is going to get to the QB 100% of the time with their pass rush. The best defensive backs in the NFL can’t cover elite WRs man to man every snap and not give up some plays.
The idea is to have the “successes” outnumber the “failures”. The Chiefs were able to do that 11 times last year and came out and did it again in their first preseason game of the season. I believe the two biggest keys to having this strategy work again in 2014 are for the offense to create enough big plays while still protecting the football (that’s where JC, DAT, Kelce, etc. come in). The other key is for the pass rush to be effective all season long. An elite pass rush will cut down the time that the defensive backs have to hold coverage and increase hurried throws that are more likely to be intercepted. The additions of Dee Ford and Vance Walker and the continued development of Dontari Poe, Mike Catapano, and Allen Bailey should help in that department.
History says if KC can win the turnover battle and finish at +10 or greater in that department that they should win double digit games and be in the hunt for the playoffs in 2014 despite their difficult schedule. I believe they have the blueprint to do just that.
So what do you think Addicts? Is winning the turnover battle the key to success in 2014? Do you think this Chiefs team is built to win the turnover battle again this season? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
As always, thanks for reading and GO CHIEFS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!