This next game against the Broncos could very well determine the fate of the Chiefs in 2014.
If they lose, they have virtually no hope of catching the Broncos in the AFC West. The Wild Card picture in the AFC this year has become such a convoluted nightmare that there's a chance even finishing 11-5 won't get the Chiefs to the playoffs. And a loss to the Broncos would leave the Chiefs with five losses and games against the Steelers and Cardinals (and the Raiders. Who, you know, beat the Chiefs) looming. Not a good situation.
There's not a lot to say about the Chiefs-Broncos game that you don't already know. We know the Broncos pretty well by now. They're quarterbacked by a guy who throws ducks better than anyone in the history of the NFL. They've got a tight end who thinks the game is too easy. And they've got an extremely high-priced defense their fans claim is one of the best in the NFL. You know them.
With that in mind (and the fact that I'm not going to write about the Oakland game again), let's go to the mailbag instead of talking about a team I don't really like talking about. I may break this into a two-parter given the long weekend. We'll see what happens. As always, send mailbag questions to @RealMNchiefsfan or MNchiefsfan@hotmail.com.
@RealMNchiefsfan what other teams (any sport) have dealt w/ things like Berry situation. How did they respond on the field?— Christian Loganbill (@cloganbill) November 25, 2014
@RealMNchiefsfan not to be insensitive but there's still football. Where does our D go from here? Back to Parker at safety? MOAR Gaines?— elliott duncan (@Elliott_Duncan) November 25, 2014
Might as well get the inevitable out of the way immediately.
First, plenty of teams have dealt with this type of situation, and considerably worse. We don't have to go back very far for the Chiefs to be dealing with something much, much more horrifying. I'm sure you all remember what occurred late in the season in 2012 involving a Chiefs linebacker. As concerned as I am for Eric Berry, this doesn't even compare.
As far as how a team will respond goes, I have no idea. I suppose it depends on the team. On one hand, Berry was considered a leader on the team and concern could be really distracting. On the flip side, sports have a LONG history of teams stepping up big when they feel like they have something (or someone) to play for. Remember #ChuckStrong? Pretty sure #BerryStrong will be a thing. Had it happened the day before I think the team would be reeling. With time to go from being sad to "Let's win it for Eric" I think the team will come out fired up.
The X's and O's are more interesting. The fact is the Chiefs defense has played very impressive football all year, even without Berry's presence. And outside of the Jets game (where Berry did a fantastic job) Berry hasn't necessarily been the difference-maker on defense (though he was solid against the Seahawks as well). The difference makers have been the pass rush and the corners. When they've played well, the defense as a whole has played well.
All this isn't to say Berry isn't a very, very good player or that the Chiefs won't feel his loss. Neither is true. What I'm saying is his absence doesn't have to be a death knell to the defense. They played the Broncos, Chargers, and Patriots tough without him, and I have faith they'll continue to fight.
My guess is that the Chiefs will move Ron Parker back to the role of safety, keep Husain Abdullah at the other safety, and have Kurt Coleman be the "third safety" in sets that call for it. This grouping played very well in Berry's absence, and there's no reason to think they wouldn't continue to do so.
From the sounds of things, the Chiefs will be healthier at cornerback than they've been in awhile on Sunday. The mini-bye-week has given Chris Owens, Philip Gaines, Jamell Fleming, and Sean Smith time to heal up. All have been nursing various injuries (though Smith has missed no time because he's a beast).
If I'm Bob Sutton, I'm playing Sean Smith and Philip Gaines as my main corners, with Owens playing slot and Fleming being used as needed. Gaines has been impressive for a rookie, and with the choice between him and Fleming outside I'd go with Gaines. However, Fleming (in limited time) has shown to be a VERY physical corner. That could play into how they want to do things against a Denver offense that relies on timing. Of course, Gaines is best as a press corner too, so ... yeah. My preference is Gaines, who looks stickier in coverage.
One area that all this movement helps the Chiefs is it gets Ron Parker away from corner. He's been a disaster at times as a cornerback. He plays the ball much better than he plays the receiver, and doesn't seem to have flexible enough hips to make cuts with receivers without getting turned around. The coaches were intent to get Parker on the field after he played well at safety, but his play at corner was a consistent negative for the team.
Moving Parker away from corner and getting decent play at that position would be a marked upgrade at the defense, which will help compensate for the loss of Berry elsewhere on the field. As always, the Chiefs defense is going to live and die with its pass rush while hoping Poe and Bailey can do JUST enough against the run to keep the team from getting run over. Speaking of run defense...
@RealMNchiefsfan How do you see Josh Mauga's future with the Chiefs? He's only 27, so surely he's earned a starting spot next to DJ, right?— Kyle from Wichita (@kyle_gamber) November 25, 2014
I might be in the minority here, but I'm not a fan of Mauga. He's had some nice moments this season and has made some nice stops, but in my opinion the good outweighs the bad.
If you go back and watch the Raiders last drive against the Chiefs, you'll see an issue that's been (in my eyes) typical for Mauga. Here's the initial tweet with the picture (please note that it's Abdullah in the picture, not Berry as the tweet indicates).
Reece's first run on comeback. Mauga hesitated. Berry was coming, seems Mauga should've filled gap Reece ran through. pic.twitter.com/prGLVqM5dc— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 22, 2014
Mauga hesitates and gets washed out of the play. I've written about Mauga hesitating to attack gaps (or just flat-out choosing to fill the wrong gap) several times, once after the Raiders game and once after the Dolphins game (here and here, respectively). This has been a consistent problem all season, and it's a MAJOR reason the run defense is struggling.
It seems as though unless one of the Chiefs defensive linemen makes a great play, runners are generally having their way with the Chiefs run defense. Again, Mauga has flashed at times and does make the occasional big stop. But overall, there are way too many mental lapses on his part (at least from what I'm seeing). Now, no inside LB is perfect. Derrick Johnson (miss you, DJ) has those lapses as well. However, there are two major differences.
1) DJ is fast enough and has good enough football instincts to recover even when he makes a poor initial decision. Mauga hasn't displayed the ability to recover from his mistakes.
2) DJ's mistakes were vastly outweighed by his positive plays and the multiple "holy crap" stops he made every game. Every single game DJ would destroy several runs completely on his own. Mauga just doesn't do that very often. There's no "ultra plus" plays to weigh against the "ultra minus" ones.
I'm not saying Mauga is a terrible player, but I'm not sure I see a future for him in KC without some serious development on the "going downhill and sticking to your job" aspect of being an inside LB. We'll see.
We're already almost to 1,500 words, so we'll save a couple more questions for after Turkey Day (one of which regards the nature of "packaged plays" and KC's use of them, which I'm really excited about). Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.