The Evolving Kansas City Chiefs’ Defense


Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

We heard it all offseason. Numerous insiders claiming Bob Sutton’s defense was preparing to attack opposing offenses – that he would bring blitzes and exotic formations, and capitalize on the talent that was already on the team. The big story was simple: come Hell or high water, the Chiefs were going to get to the quarterback. The phrase, “the new, attacking defense” became a mantra of sorts around these parts.

So far, Bob Sutton’s squad has indeed gotten after the quarterback. After 3 games, the Chiefs lead the NFL in sacks, with 15.

How have they done it? It’s not as clear-cut as one would think. After Romeo Crennel’s 2-Gap 3-4 “bend-but-still-break” scheme proved fruitless, Chiefs fans nationwide were clamoring for an attack-style defense that utilized the skills of the Chiefs’ long list of high-drafted defenders. While most were focused on a switch to the 1-Gap, what was almost forgotten was what truly makes a good coach: playing to the strength of your players, and the weaknesses of your opponents. That’s exactly what Bob Sutton has done. He’s identified his player’s strengths and has picked on his opponent’s soft spots.

On Thursday, Chiefs Defensive End Mike DeVito was asked if playing an “attack-style defense” was more natural for a defender. His response was telling:

“I’m sure it depends on each individual, but this defense offers both. Sometimes you’re playing in a two-gap and sometimes you’re playing in a 4-3, so it’s kind of a hybrid. It gives guys the opportunity to do what they’re good at.”

What DeVito touches on here seems to be the key to it all. It wasn’t the fact that Romeo played a 2-Gap that resulted in an underwhelming defensive team. It was the fact that Romeo expected his players to conform to his defense, instead of leveraging his player’s skills for the betterment of the team. We heard this from Romeo all season last year as Dontari Poe, and the other high draft picks along the Chiefs defensive line were developing slowly as players. Romeo’s line was always a version of, “learning this defense takes time for defensive lineman.”

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Dontari Poe looks great this year, but it’s interesting to think about where he could be in his development had Romeo not forced him into the 2-Gap, play after play. As Bob Sutton told the media on Thursday: “[Dontari]’s the classic guy to push the pocket guy 300-400 pound, but Poe can beat you individually. That’s the thing you need to know. Dontari can go by you just like one of the rushers can go by, so he provides both things to our defense.”

But last year, Dontari was explicitly told not to fly past blockers “just like one of the rushers” as Sutton mentions. He was told to engage his blocker, read the play, and react to it. Something counter to what he’d been coached to do his entire life.

Just as Sutton’s defense has been tailored to its players, it has also been tweaked each game in a concerted effort to attack the weaknesses of the Chiefs’ particular opponent for that week (otherwise known as good coaching). Each weekly plan by Sutton has built-in counter-plans so the team knows how to adjust, depending on how the opponent plays them throughout the contest. According to Sutton, the Chiefs “go in with a plan of how we’re going to attack a specific team and within that plan are usually some sub-plans that go on because like I always say, the enemy has a (plan) and we can say they’re going to do that but they don’t have to do it.” This is opposition to Romeo Crennel, who seemingly rolled out the same game plan week after week.

Though each of Sutton’s weekly plans are designed to exploit weaknesses, and put Chief defenders in the best position to succeed, the message is always the same. “We’re going after people,” said Sutton on Thursday. “[W]e’re training people on just rushing straight up and more importantly, know who you’re playing against, [and] know how to adapt if they adjust and decide to go a different route.”

It’s called evolution. This evolution isn’t coming over a period of years, either. It’s coming week after week, and day after day. It’s like the old saying about the NFL, “if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.” This defense is growing, which is impressive, because they’re already playing like Giants.

Speaking of Giants, what will the Chiefs defense be doing this weekend? Bob Sutton gave us a hint: “[Y]ou have to start with Eli, he’s the guy.”

Here’s to starting with Eli. Here’s to getting to the quarterback. Here’s to evolving.