It's hard to believe that the Chiefs are days away from kicking off the 2009 season. Funny, but most years, I treat the first Chiefs kickoff like Christmas. I'm like a 7 year old child waiting for Santa Claus. This year, it almost feels like I'm walking into a painful dental procedure--I know the procedure's going to hurt and I'm going to struggle through every minute of it, but I also know that it will be worth it in the long run.
Don't get me wrong. I'm still excited. What Chiefs' fan doesn't look forward to seeing the entire city drowned in a sea of red or to smelling barbeque and charcoal on their clothes after a football Sunday? The problem is that inside of Arrowhead Stadium, the defense has reeked of a different smell: swiss cheese. The good news is that the Chiefs brought in Scott Pioli, a guy who knows a little something about defense. Can he bring that same kind of magic to Kansas City's defense?
Let's evaluate how he's done so far, for better or for worse.
I'm sure there's going to be a lot of debate over the next year about whether Pioli was right to push for a 3-4 defense. I'm neutral for now. I'll get into some of the negatives later, but first let's focus on the positives. Pioli deserves every right to build the defense as he sees fit and clearly he has the track record to build a 3-4. And let's face it. There was never a better time for the Chiefs to completely overhaul their defense. After all, there weren't many players in the front seven of the 2008 Chiefs defense worth revolving the defense around.
The problem with many 4-3 defenses, particularly Tampa 2's, is that they require a lot of talent to make the engine purr. Especially up front on the defensive line. When the defensive line doesn't do their job, it creates a chain reaction of "suck." Couple that with a defensive coordinator and coaching staff who were incapable of adapting the defense to fit the players' strengths and you have a perfect storm. This is all a very polite way of saying that the Chiefs defense is going to be better in 2009 simply because of who's in charge of it.
But there is some reason to be optimistic that the Chiefs defense might actually be decent in 2009. When I look at teams that have really struggled to build a 3-4 defense over the past few years, most notably the Browns and the Jets, the one thing they share in common is that they all took a shotgun approach to putting it all together. What do you do when you are a coach intent on running a 3-4 defense, but your defense only has 4-3 guys? That's easy. You shop for cheap parts. If you can find some spare parts, you buy them ASAP. It doesn't matter where you get them. It doesn't matter how well the parts work. It's like building your own car and carelessly sifting through parts in a junkyard. An engine? Yeah, I need that. Even if this one doesn't work that well, I need it.
The Chiefs likely won't go through that same awkward transition, because they aren't in any rush to install a pure 3-4 defense. At least, that's what I suspect. Clancy Pendergast's defense in Arizona wasn't as much a 3-4 or a 4-3 as much as it was a pivot defense. There's been a lot of talk in the media about how the Chiefs are going to run a 3-4, and that's misleading. The Chiefs will like run what is referred to as a 4-3 Under defense. It's a defense that looks like a 3-4, smells like a 3-4, but arguably it isn't truly a 3-4.
The reason I call this a pivot defense is that it incorporates elements of both a 4-3 and a 3-4 in the front 7. You have a rush end like Vrabel and a Nose Tackle like Wilfork. But whereas a Defensive Tackle like Dorsey's role in a 3-4 would be to handle 2-gap responsibility and line up against an Offensive Tackle, in a 4-3 Under he can attack the Guard. And Tamba Hali's job as the "predator" of the defense is a lot more similar to a 4-3 Defensive End than it is to a 3-4 OLB. The great news is, Hali has looked fantastic in this role in the preseason. Long story short, the Chiefs didn't have to replace their entire front 7--two of their biggest pieces, a 4-3 DT and a 4-3 DE, were already there.
This is a question that I will continue to pose throughout the season: is the 4-3 Under a transition defense or is it something the Chiefs will stick with?
Let's look at two scenarios: the Chiefs are attempting to transition to a 3-4 defense or they are planning to stick with a 4-3 Under.
There is good reason to be nervous about transitioning to a 3-4 Defense. Everybody is doing it. That means that it's going to become increasingly difficult to get good 3-4 players and that offenses are going to place a lot more focus on scheming against 3-4 defenses. If the Chiefs choose to transition to a 4-3 Under defense, that's a fairly scary proposition too. The mark of Pendergast's defense in Arizona was that it was outstanding at times, but also wildly inconsistent at other times. We have limited evidence to suggest that this defense could or could not work in the NFL. We don't know if Pendergast's inconsistent defense was held back by Whisenhunt's desire to go to a 3-4 at all costs or if the defense was doomed to begin with. On the plus side, running a 4-3 Under would be a way to differentiate among the 3-4 masses. Maybe Pendergast is on to the next big thing and maybe some of the inconsistency in his previous stint was just the mark of a young coach running a new scheme. On the down side, the defense has just as much potential to bust as it does to boom.
Defensive scheme aside, from a personnel standpoint, I'm surprised the Chiefs ignored the Nose Tackle position. Regardless of whether they run a 3-4 or a 4-3 Under, they need someone to play the position. Pioli should have known well before the preseason that none of the current Chiefs were equipped to play the position. And so, for now, we have to just settle for the fact that our Nose Tackle is going to get dominated on almost every play. The Chiefs also lack depth, so expect the Chiefs to get gassed late in games and toward the end of the season. And don't be surprised if one key injury sinks the entire defense. I realize "Rome wasn't built in a day," but these are some concerns the Chiefs will have to deal with.
My biggest complaint, though, is that I thought the offense took a back seat to the defense. The Chiefs made a lot of moves in free agency and the draft for defensive players, but I don't think they did nearly enough to find players who can protect and support Matt Cassel. I'll go into more detail about this tomorrow, but it's something to chew on for now.
All in all, I think the defense will give us something fun to watch. I wouldn't get too excited because they played pretty well in a few meaningless preseason games. I would, however, pay close attention to whether this defense improves enough to justify keeping the defense around. If Hali and Dorsey play extremely well in this new defense, it might be enough to influence Pioli to alter his 3-4 plans. Who knows? Maybe that was his plan all along.