More than 300 elite college football prospects congregate in Indianapolis in late February each year to showcase themselves to NFL scouts, execs, coaches and analysts leading up to the April draft.
The 2010 NFL Draft Combine featured a mix of sure-fire NFL stars, including the Kansas City Chiefs' own Eric Berry, Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions, and Cleveland's Joe Haden. But it was one player who stood out above the rest, and it wasn't for what he was doing in the various combine activities -- this player showed up a cult hero.
You would have thought University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was a rock star on the fifth leg of his nation-wide tour during the combine. Spectators flocked to Tebow on the streets of Indianapolis like he was carrying an invaluable jewel that he was preparing to toss to a lucky fan. Every step he took was followed with sincere interest and fans anxiously awaited his next move.
But it wasn't just fans who wanted a piece of Tebow. His on-field transgressions were closely monitored throughout the combine, and throughout the weekend and via his other pre-draft preparation, the unorthodox lefty wooed Josh McDaniels and the Denver Broncos enough to select him in the first round of the 2010 draft.
It was a bold move by a young coach who firmly believed in his system and ability to groom quarterback talent, much like McDaniels had helped both Tom Brady and current Chief Matt Cassel do. McDaniels was as dedicated to technically improving his quarterbacks as he was calling plays for them. He believed in Tebow's football skills and unmatched desire, competitiveness, and the intangible winning aura that seemingly followed him every he went.
You know the rap on Tebow's NFL career thus far, and most Chiefs fans won't soon forget the work Tebow did in 2010 against Kansas City when he rushed and threw for a score in a Broncos' blowout win. It was a stinging Sunday for the Chiefs that will be long-remembered as the (non) "hand-shake" game, but also one that kick-started a three game winning streak down the home stretch for the Chiefs. After the 49-29 waxing in Denver, Kansas City would go on to score a home victory versus Arizona, followed by a rout win at Seattle, and it capped off the streak by exacting some revenge in a 10-6 win at home versus Denver.
But I digress.
2011 is half-way in the books and we still don't know exactly what to make of the Chiefs. Just when we thought the Chiefs were ready to catapault into fourth gear and run through the AFC West, the hapless Miami Dolphins marched into Arrowhead Stadium and stunned the Chiefs in a rather non-dramatic fashion.
Are we to simply chalk the Chiefs up as a Jekkyl and Hyde football team? One week resilient and tough, the next uninspired and flat? It's a question most Chiefs fans will continue to ask themselves heading into the Week 10 match-up with the Denver Broncos, and one that we may not know the answer to for some time. But instead of slaving over a question that isn't a black and white manner, let's delve back into what we know: the Chiefs stand tied atop the AFC West half-way through the season, and have a winning-record within the divison. Those two things are positive for Todd Haley's team. They also have a second half schedule that features visits to New England, the New York Jets, Chicago, and they will play host to the Green Bay. A tough slate, no doubt, but insurmountable? Surely not.
I wrote last week about the importance of doing whatever it took to beat the Miami Dolphins after an emotional Monday night win versus the Chargers. Some may confuse this with coach-speak or white noise, but after last week's loss it's clear that the Chiefs need to strive for consistency every game. The only way to do this is to start with one. So instead of looking ahead and playing the game of "what if" to see just how the dominoes may fall for the Chiefs for the rest of 2011, focus instead on the task at hand: the Denver Broncos. Maybe it's a broken-record tactic, maybe it's too conventional for one's taste, but come Sunday afternoon, it's back to business for the Chiefs in their biggest game of the 2011 season.
Here are our five keys to a Kansas City Chiefs' victory:
2. Defending Tebow (Pass) - Force him to his secondary reads: The question people most often ask me about Tim Tebow is, "If Tebow was so outstanding in college, why can't he succeed like that in the pros?" It's a fair question, because Tebow wasn't just a good college player, he was one of the best of the past decade. But the difference Tebow faces at the NFL level is the pace of the game and the athleticism of defenses. At Florida, Tebow was surrounded by future NFL players who hardly had to worry about beating press coverage or separating from defensive backs. He also didn't face the prospect of a speed rush from Tamba Hali or Shaun Phillips coming off the edge, as protection wasn't an issue either for Tebow and his talented offensive line. The point is, execution for Tebow in college was a far less multi-dimensional task than it is now. Where Tebow has been able to have some NFL success is when he is able to lock in on his primary option and deliver a strike. Tebow's mechanics are clearly a work in progress and accuracy will never be his forte, but he still has enough skill to thread the needle on occassion. The Chiefs, and specifically their linebackers and secondary, need to do an excellent job of disrupting the Broncos' rhythm to force Tebow off of his intial read. They can do this by being physical at the line of scrimmage, disguising blitzes pre-snap, and bringing pressure from multiple angles. The more that the Chiefs can throw at Tebow, the more he'll be forced to think and fall out of his comfort zone. Tebow isnt an especially cerebral quarterback, and many of his mistakes derive from process overload. Forcing Tebow to his secondary reads is one way to induce those mistakes.
B. That being said, contain is a must: Objective number one for the Chiefs' pass defense is to get Tebow past his primary read, but immediately after that they must make sure to prevent him from what he does very well -- breaking the pocket and scrambling. You hear people talk about Ben Roethlisberger's ability to extend the play because of his strength and massive frame, well Tebow has some of that in him, but most of his damage is done on the ground. Tebow isn't a speed demon in the mold of Michael Vick, but he's a load to bring down and unafraid to duck his shoulder on a defender. So how do you keep Tebow from using his legs? It starts on the perimeter. It is paramount of the defensive ends and outside linebackers of the Chiefs to maintain their contain responsibilities. Whether it's to the strong side or weak, the Chiefs must not give up their contain leverage and open the door for Tebow to run. On the interior, the Chiefs rushers must be persistent. Heavy-hand rushing may not be the prettiest form of pressure, but players like Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey must be relentless in pushing the pocket and minimizing the area for Tebow to move in. The bottom line is this: the less time and space Tebow has, the more equipped the Chiefs are to bring him down. Contain-based rushing is a good strategy to accomplish this.
3. Establish the play action passing game: It'd be simple for us to say to protect Matt Cassel from Denver's quality duo of edge rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller (especially Miller), but that'd be stating the obvious. Miller has been amongst the league's best rookies all season, totaling 6.5 sacks through 8 games and living up to his number two overall draft pick billing. Dumervil has been slow to return from a lost 2010 season due to injury, but racked up 1.5 sacks last weekend versus the Raiders, and may indeed have his mojo back. Stopping these two is easier said than done, but one way to help yourself is to keep them on their heels by effectively incorporating the play action pass. Often we talk about the effect the play action pass can have on safeties peeking into the backfield, but it also helps to -- if ever slightly -- slow down edge rushers looking for the green light to hunt down the quarterback. If the Chiefs can run the football effectively, it'll set up the downfield and play-action passing game. Denver's defense has improved against the run, but the Chiefs can attack Miller and Dumervil -- both of whom are fairly light in the trunk -- and set the physical tone early. The threat of a run will cause a hesitation effect on play-action, and that will afford Cassel and friends more time to operate.
4. Directional Punting: Even before last weekend's 85-yard punt return for a score by Eddie Royal, the Broncos were already fairing well statistically in the punt return game. Royal is one of three separate Broncos to have a punt return of 30 or more yards, and both Royal and WR Eric Decker have taken each of their lone punt returns to the house. The Chiefs have covered punts well in 2011, checking in fourth in net punting average at 42.7 yards per kick, but Dustin Colquitt needs to have his best Sunday of directional punting yet. Colquitt presents a natural challenge for most returners in having the football steer off of his left foot (this reverses the spiral), but that alone isn't enough to ensure the Chiefs can contain Royal, Decker, or regular return man Quan Cosby. Setting up a punt return is no easy chore, and if Colquitt can effectively punt to one side or the other, he'll give his coverage players a natural leverage on the returner. Given the impact of Royal's most recent return and his history of big yardage, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Chiefs avoid kicking to him entirely. Colquitt is adept at directional punting, and Sunday looks to be a beautiful afternoon weatherw-wise, so handling the football shouldn't be an issue. If Colquitt can consistently flip the field and prevent the Broncos returners from getting a clean punt to field, he'll help his team win the all important field positon battle on Sunday.
5. Wide receiver play: It's been a semi-rollercoaster ride for two of the Chiefs top three wide receivers (Steve Breaston & Jonathan Baldwin) in 2011. Steve Breaston seems to finally have settled in after only catching 3 passes in his first two outings as a Chief, and Jonathan Baldwin has at the very least established his presence after spending the first five games on the shelf (due in part to an injury from a pre-season locker room fight). But if the Chiefs offense wants to operate at its smoothest, it'll need Baldiwn, Breaston and the more consistent Dwayne Bowe to excel concurrently. The Chiefs have had 2 receivers with over 50 yards receiving in each of their four victories, but the aforementioned triumvrate has yet to piece together a dynamic collaborative effort. When Scott Pioli drafted Baldwin in the first round in the 2011 NFL Draft and signed Breaston as a free agent, he likely had a better than 27th ranked passing offense in mind. Certainly injuries have played a part in this result, but it's apparent that the Chiefs have an opportunity to be better in the passing game than they currently stand. On Sunday, they'll face a secondary that ranks in the bottom ten of the NFL, and isn't exactly filled with superstar talent. CB Champ Bailey is still an effective cover corner, but the rest of his secondary cast leaves something to be desired. Starting the second half off with an effective passing day would serve the Chiefs and QB Matt Cassel well. Don't understimate the importance of player confidence when it comes to performance, and if the Chiefs can form a confident trio of receivers for Cassel to throw to, they'll put themselves in a better position to surge through the season's second half. Sunday, at home, versus a porous secondary, and against a hated rival would be an ideal day to get started on this.