Travel back to Week 1 for a second. Yes, I know, remembering that dumpster fire of a game against the Titans is painful. But I need you to get into the mindset for just a second.
You there? Suppress that vomit, you! Power through, you can do this! All right, now that you've retched your way into your mindset following that awful, awful loss, let me ask you a question.
What would you say if I told you that through Week 6, the Chiefs would have the fifth ranked defense in the NFL in points allowed despite only having three total takeaways (INT/FUM) and losing Eric Berry to injury midway through their second game?
You'd tell me I was insane, right? After all, we'd just witnessed Jake Locker and the Titans hang roughly a thousand points on the Chiefs without all that much difficulty. The secondary looked problematic, the pass rush looked problematic, the run defense looked problematic ... the word of the day was "problematic."
Never mind that the Chiefs had dates with the Broncos, Patriots, and 49ers prior to that date. Every one of those teams has a more potent offense than the Titans, and looked primed to shred a struggling Chiefs defense. Mike DeVito was gone. Derrick Johnson was gone. The entire secondary (minus Husain Abdullah) had just gotten handled in a way that looked very, very repeatable. Times were grim.
Yet here we are, five weeks later, and the Chiefs are indeed ranked fifth in the NFL in points per game allowed at 20.2 points per game being given up (it says something about the "new" NFL when 20.2 points per game allowed leads to a top five ranking). That includes holding offensive powerhouses New England and Denver both to under their season averages by a decent margin (New England, in particular, had nothing but a pair of garbage time touchdowns to boast about).
So ... how is that happening? Without Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson, or Mike DeVito? And no, the answer isn't "The Chiefs defense is better without those guys." That's an insane theory I've seen regarding one of those players, and it's asinine enough that I refuse to acknowledge its existence. Those three players are all better (two of them significantly so) than the players they've got replacing them. So what's happening?
Well, a few things could be pointed to for an answer. Sean Smith is playing really solid football. Ron Parker has been significantly better at safety than he was at cornerback (how it took the coaches this long to put him at safety is beyond me. Great speed, terrible at mirroring routes). Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have been doing their thing and terrorizing quarterbacks. Husain Abdullah has been playing out of his mind.
All of those have been important factors, but it's the pass rush that stands out as the principle reason the defense has been highly competitive (despite the defense struggling against the run, giving up 4.8 yards per carry. We'll worry about that another day). In fact, the Chiefs pass rush has been arguably the most efficient in the NFL this season.
The Chiefs are currently tied for seventh in the NFL with 15 sacks. On the surface that's good, but not great. However, as always, looking at base stats themselves doesn't tell the story accurately. Because some teams (including the Chiefs) but not others have taken their bye week, those numbers are skewed.
A more accurate method would be to look at passes attempted per sack. The Chiefs have only had opposing quarterbacks attempt 159 passes against them. No other team in the top 10 for sacks has had fewer than 193 passes attempted. Obviously, more passes attempted means more opportunities for a sack. In fact, only two teams, Oakland and St. Louis, have seen fewer pass attempts than the Chiefs. Those teams have five sacks and one sack, respectively.
When you instead look to see how many passes opposing teams attempt per sack, the numbers are starkly different. The Chiefs sack the quarterback every 10.6 pass attempts. Only the Lions (with a sack every 10.35 pass attempts) are getting to the quarterback at a higher rate.
In other words, the Chiefs (despite playing the legendarily tough-to-sack Fivehead) are sporting a pair of the two best pass rushes in the NFL.
And that's where we get to the point (700 words later). While a great deal of credit needs to go to the ridiculous duo of Houston / Hali, this year has been slightly different when it comes to the Chiefs pass rush. And that difference has started with a player most of us had given up on: Allen Bailey.
Last year I finally made peace with the fact that Bailey was a decent run defender who would forever be a liability against the pass. Despite constantly seeing individual matchups due to the presence of Dontari Poe, Bailey was generally unable to generate any pressure of his own when quarterbacks dropped back to pass. Teams picked up on this, and over the second half of the season last year quarterbacks benefited from beautiful pockets as Poe was double teamed and Bailey was stonewalled.
This year has been markedly different. Bailey already as 2.5 sacks through five games, or 250 percent of his production last year for the ENTIRE SEASON (yeah, it's only an increase by 1.5 sacks. But 250 percent sounds way better, no?). While Bailey is being credited with "hurries" and "hits" at about the same rate as last year per ProFootballFocus, he's simply been more impactful this season when rushing the passer.
Look no further than the third quarter of the 49ers game if you want to see the havoc Poe and Bailey have been causing. One of the primary reasons the Niners weren't able to do much on offense in that quarter is the Chiefs interior defenders were terrorizing Colin Kaepernick when he dropped back to pass.
Last year Bailey couldn't be counted on to help Poe finish plays. So even if Poe was able to get penetration, quarterbacks were able to move away and either scramble or complete the pass from an open area in the pocket. Not so this season.
Again, go back to the third quarter of the Niners game. That's where Bailey picked up a sack and a half. On both plays, Poe was right beside him causing chaos (including this life-altering club on Alex Boone, which will never get old). Bailey actually wasn't even the principle issue for the Niners on either sack; that would be Poe.
But that's the thing: the Chiefs don't NEED Bailey to be the primary disruptor in the inside. All the need is for him to be able to beat individual matchups often enough to make teams pay for doubling Poe, or that he at least be able to get free to chase down quarterbacks Poe / Hali / Houston have forced to move out of the pocket. Last season, Bailey doesn't clean up on Poe's massive club because he wasn't able to separate himself from blockers as plays broke down. This year, he's been just a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, and a little bit more decisive.
Additionally, Bailey has shown a newfound ability to successfully participate in stunts this season in tandem with Poe. The shared sack of Kaepernick is a demonstration of this. Poe drives right and takes the left guard and left tackle with him, if only momentarily. Bailey, with speed he seems to have re-discovered this season, sprints to the gap and gets hit by Frank Gore and the left guard, who recovers nicely.
In the meantime, Poe (because he's Poe) has discarded the left tackle with a club and is headed toward Kap with bad intentions. The left guard sees this and tries to move toward Poe, only to be pushed off balance by a well-timed shove from Bailey. Gore, because he was forced to help with Bailey on the stunt, doesn't get into his route on time and isn't open until Kap is about to get hit by Poe and Bailey. Shared sack for Poe and Bailey.
While Poe's otherworldly gifts are the key to this particular stunt ending in a sack (seriously, the man is a beast. He may have the best club move in the game outside of J.J. Watt), it doesn't work if Bailey doesn't attack the gap hard enough to force the left guard to fully engage and for Gore to slow down his route to help. Here's the play in action (h/t Clay Wendler)
What you see there are three players committing to slowing down Poe and Bailey and failing miserably. In past years I don't see Bailey providing the help Poe needs (including the timely shove of the left guard), and Kap likely escapes in a near miss for Poe. How many times did we see Poe get close to the quarterback last season, only to have him calmly step aside? It's just not happening this season, at least not with nearly as much frequency.
Last season the Chiefs pass rush from the defensive line consisted of Dontari Poe and ... well, that was it. This year Allen Bailey (with an assist from Jaye Howard) has forced offenses to think beyond "stop Poe and we're good." That difference alone has been enough to help the Chiefs field a good defense despite devastating losses at all three levels. Here's Bailey doing more of the same against Tom Brady, creating havoc and helping cause a fumble.
DJ and DeVito aren't walking through that door. But with Berry returning soon (which should FINALLY provide Bob Sutton with the "three good safeties on the field" look he seems to have been going for since he got here) and the defensive line starting to hold up its end of the pass-rushing bargain, this defense still has a chance to be very, very good.
So here's to you, Allen Bailey. You've brought me full circle, from believing in you to giving up on you all the way to being very glad you're next to Poe out there. Keep up the good work.