Ah, yes, it's that time of year again, Arrowhead Pride readers. It's time for training camp. You can almost smell the optimism wafting out of St. Joe as the Chiefs set up in the Missouri Western dorms this week. We'll learn a lot about the team and the depth chart over the next couple weeks, but before we get to that point, I'd like to take a (too early) look at the 2015 Chiefs defense. I'll take a stab at the starters, some key depth members, and make some predictions as to where I think this group will rank at the end of the 2015-16 season. Grab a beer and clear your schedule and let's look at the Chiefs stop unit!
Nose Tackle - [Editor's note: See below for a Poe update.] Yeah, okay, we'll start with the softball. Dontari Poe is a giant amongst giants. He's the biggest and arguably most important cog in the machine, and the Chiefs are incredibly lucky to have him. He took a lot of knocks last year for "underperforming", despite still being one of the best big men in the league. Valid arguments have been made for getting Poe some rest this year. While Poe may not have a straight-up backup, with the depth at the defensive end position I wouldn't be surprised to see No. 92 getting a drive or two breather to keep the big man fresh all game.
Starter - Dontari Poe
Defensive End - My goodness, is there a spot on this team with more quality depth than at defensive end? The Chiefs get their mauling run-stuffer back in Mike Devito, with a pay-cut, no less! They return both of last year's primary starters, Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard, and they get a hungry Mike Catapano who will be desperate to put pads on and show he's 100 percent again. Throw in rookie Rakeem Nunez-Roches, and there's no reason why any of these guys should be short of breath. With a healthy Catapano, expect some Bailey / Cat sub formations for all-out pass rush, as well as some BIG nickel Poe / Devito to help shore up the sub-package run defense. This is a really bright spot on this team, and Sutton has to be salivating at the chess pieces he gets to use this year up front.
Starters - Mike Devito (RDE), Allen Bailey (LDE).
Contributors - Jaye Howard, Mike Catapano, Rakeem Nunez-Roches.
Outside Linebacker - The BEST pass rush (PUFF PUFF PASS RUSH!) tandem in the league remains in Kansas City for 2015, and the league weeps openly. Tamba Hali restructured his contract this season, reportedly turning down offers to stay and finish his career in KC. Justin Houston, the best outside linebacker in the league, just became the highest paid linebacker in the league. Both are happy, both know exactly what needs to be done, and I don't envy the offensive coordinators they have to face. This spot actually has some quality depth as well. 2014's first round pick, Dee Ford, will likely see the field spelling Tamba and in some odd pass rushing sets. Josh Martin continues to be solid depth and a special teams contributor. Add in Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses, and I'd argue this position makes for the most difficult cut on the team.
Starters - Justin Houston (LOLB), Tamba Hali (ROLB)
Contributors - Dee Ford, Josh Martin
Inside Linebacker - Ah yes, the apple of my eye and the thorn in my side of this Chiefs defense. I may have somewhat of an affinity toward returning linebacker and all around awesome guy Derrick Johnson, and nothing excites me more than to see the very first DJ Special of the season. That position on the field is going to be leaps and bounds better than it was in 2014. HOWEVER, the spot next to him...
Look, I can wax poetic for the 40 billionth time on why the Chiefs need a three-down linebacker next to DJ. Pretty soon, I'll be forced to wax poetic on why they need a three-down linebacker to replace the man (but hey, not like anytime soon, right? Please?). I'll save the time and effort. Right now, the SILB spot belongs to one Josh Mauga, who got an extension this offseason from the Chiefs. I didn't rate him highly last year, and needless to say, my expectations are low this year. James-Michael Johnson was the hopeful candidate last year for me, and well, that also didn't fare so well. KC drafted two guys in D.J. Alexander and Ramik Wilson this year, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed for some quick development out of the two and that they can play a role this year.
Starters - Derrick Johnson (WILB), Josh Mauga (SILB)
Contributors - PLEASE, ONE OF THE ROOKIES.
Cornerback - In 2014, the Chiefs were pretty darn good against the pass, even with losing Eric Berry halfway through the season, and not having Marcus Cooper play up to the hyped potential at the beginning of the year. All of the secondary's big bright spots return this season, and with the new additions, corner is STACKED. Sean Smith had the best season of his career last year and looks to repeat it to net a LARGE contract. He'll miss the first three games of the season (because of course, Broncos and Packers), leaving the young guns to rule the roost. Last year's big surprise, Phillip Gaines, will see lots of time on the field this season, likely starting outside in Smith's absence and possibly rotating inside as the year goes along. 2015 first round pick Marcus Peters is the prototypical Bob Sutton corner, and he'll be leaned on early and often. Another 2015 rookie, Steven Nelson, will look to get some nickel corner snaps and could feature heavily as the Chiefs face four WR sets. Finally, Jamell Fleming held his own in spot duty last year for the Chiefs and could end up playing a sizable role early if the rookies aren't quite ready.
Starters - Sean Smith, Phillip Gaines, Marcus Peters
Contributors - Steven Nelson, Jamell Fleming
Safety - Another part of the highly ranked Chiefs pass defense, the Chiefs safeties may not look outstanding on paper, but played well for the most part last year. Husain Abdullah looks to have one of the safety positions locked down, playing in and out of the box last year. He might be the most underrated player on the Chiefs roster. Ron Parker signed an extension this offseason, and while he was a little iffy at cornerback last year, he shone when asked to play deep safety. The Chiefs went and signed Tyvon Branch this offseason, who could end up factoring largely into the passing game, playing as an in the box safety if he's healthy. Kelcie McCray and Daniel Sorensen are young options deep who could end up with some snaps, as well as the oft-injured Sanders Commings.
Note: News on Eric Berry just came out so he figures in here someplace, too.
Starters - Husain Abdullah, Ron Parker
Contributors - Eric Berry, Tyvon Branch, Daniel Sorensen
Denny Medley - USA Today
On paper, this is the best defense the Chiefs have had in some time. They return most of the second ranked scoring defense and second ranked passing defense. They return a stop unit that was ranked first in points against the run. They still get to line up the league leader in sacks. They add back two very key players against the run and add more depth in an already stacked secondary. Perhaps most importantly, they return the player who has lined up the defense and called audibles over the past few years, essentially adding another coach on the field. They've taken a top 10 stop unit and made it better, right?
1. The secondary won't repeat last year's performance
Let take a second and revel in just how awesome last year was. They didn't allow a single 300-yard passer despite playing a top 10 quarterback in yardage six times! They overcame adversity while losing players left and right to injuries and poor runs of form. They even dealt well with two inside linebackers in front of them that weren't good in coverage. There is just no way, however, that they hold down the rankings and stats that they did last year. First of all, that 300 yard mark isn't making it past Week 3. With Sean Smith out, the Chiefs will likely be starting at least one rookie, if not two (nickel CB is a starter in my book). Peyton Manning on a short week versus two rookies? Scary. Aaron Rodgers after watching two weeks worth of tape on two rookies? Terrifying.
Now before you start to get defensive, I'm not saying this secondary will be bad. I'm just as excited about the new kids as the next guy, and I've been championing PG-23 since last October. But rookies just don't step in and take apart Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb. They'll get beat, and not just by those guys. They'll lose some below average WRs in coverage, too. And they'll learn. And by the end of the year, they'll hopefully be firing on all cylinders. But don't expect this magical run to continue for very long into this 2015 Chiefs season.
2. The sack numbers from last year will go down
Well, duh. Justin Houston is the best pass rusher in the league, but he's not going to almost break the record again. So take a few off of that 2014 total. Now factor in that WRs will probably be open a little quicker this year with the new guys in the secondary. That takes a few more off the total. Tamba should rebound for a few more this year, and the defensive line will get a share, but I feel like Sutton's going to have to bring more pressure through blitzes this year to force the pressure, rather than getting it through rushing four guys.
3. The run defense will improve, but not as much as you'd think
Derrick Johnson is an all-world inside linebacker against the run. He's so awesome he's got a nickname for when he shoots the gap and makes the stop behind the line of scrimmage. Mike Devito is a mountain of a man who simply does not get moved off the spot. So why won't their addition improve the run defense all that much? The sub-package defense. Look back at the 2013 Chiefs team. They had the same coaching staff, had Poe, Devito, DJ, Houston, and Tamba in the front seven. They boasted a healthy Eric Berry, another run-stuffer in Tyson Jackson up front, and Akeem Jordan (who I rated higher than the guys currently at the SILB position). That team allowed 4.5 yards per rush, good for 26th in the league. 26th! By comparison, last year's terrible run defense allowed 4.7 yards per rush, good for 30th. That's not good.
However, against the base defense in 2013, teams only averaged 2.89 yards per rush. Those are fantastic numbers, and further proves just how weak the sub package is against the run. Since Sutton prefers to utilize a three-safety, three-corner sub-package, the run defense becomes very weak. At this point, based on the personnel Sutton has at his disposal, there's no reason why there should be a formational shift. Therefore, I wouldn't expect the run defense to improve all that much. Now, let's move on before I turn this back into a three-down ILB conversation again...
Alright, I'm harping on the negatives thus far in the predictions. Let's look at some of the positive things I think we'll see this season.
4. Turnovers are going UP
The Chiefs did not take the ball away at a good clip last year, only resulting in 14 turnovers all season, good for 30th in the league. In 2013, they came out like bandits, netting 36 turnovers, good for second in the league. This year, I'd wager they'll split the numbers and park it in the mid-20's. Turnovers are a rough thing to predict, but averaging 1.5 per game is something good defenses can do, and I believe this is a very good defense. Expect the defense to put the offense in good spots more often this year.
5. The defense will be healthier than 2014
The Chiefs have a fun situation that I haven't really dealt with in a long time: they've got a guy behind pretty much every guy. When I say that, I mean that the drop-off in play from the defensive starter to the backup in most cases is not such that it causes a panic. Poe would be concerning (after the Poe news, let's revise this: Poe IS concerning). DJ again would be concerning. Justin Houston would be a BIG deal, but that's more because he's a pass-rushing monster and less about what's behind him. They've done a good job of fleshing out depth on this squad, and I think we'll see more guys getting breathers this season. Because of that, we'll see improving play from the backups and fresher bodies from the starters. It should result in all-around more consistent play out of the team, and less impact when a player does have to skip a game. It also won't hurt that...
6. The defense will be on the field less time every game
The Chiefs were dead center in the time of possession rankings, allowing the opposition to be on the field EXACTLY half the game on average. That won't stay that way this season. Once again, the Chiefs should win more of the turnover battle, giving the ball back to the offense more often. The front office went out and tried to improve the offensive line this offseason, and they tried to improve the weapons in the passing game. Say what you will about the passing game in general, but I feel more comfortable with Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson, Chris Conley, and a featured Travis Kelce over last year's Bowe, Avery, Hemingway, Hammond, rookie Bert ,second fiddle Kelce, and something called an "A.J. Jenkins". Couple that with a run game behind a (hopefully) better offensive line, and this team should move the sticks more consistently than they did last year. Since it's rarely a quick-score, downfield threat they pose, the time of possession should shift in the Chiefs favor, and the defense should be fresher.
On top of all of that, they'll get off the field even better than last year. Simply having DJ back in the lineup means this team will shift better before the snap, anticipate the play, and even change up formations and blitzes. There was VERY little of that visible last year since they were down a couple of their field generals. There's a reason that DJ gets into the backfield as easily as he does: he sets them up that way. Expect more third and longs this season and a better success rate against them.
Appendix: The Poe Problem
After writing this article and submitting it for review, the devastating news that Poe required surgery for a herniated disc broke. I didn't edit my views on the defense, as it appears he'll be back early in the season, and these are season-long predictions. However, I did want to share my thoughts on how the Chiefs can try to cover for Poe's potential early season absences.
In the 2013 season, Sutton liked to frequently shift the front line for the Chiefs and put Mike Devito in a 0-tech or 1-tech position, which is where Poe usually plays as the nose tackle. He would shift Poe into a 2 or 3-tech position, and the other DE (in this case, Tyson Jackson) into a 4 or 5-tech position. This is illustrated below.
After the snap, Devito eats the double team and collapses the pocket (short pass), taking the center and left guard. Poe gets a 1-on-1 with the right guard, Jackson gets a 1-on-1 with the left tackle, and Houston has the right tackle all to himself. This would be no different in a run play. The blockers and gaps are accounted for, Devito or Poe end up taking the brunt of the double teams, and the RDE typically gets a 1-on-1.
This can be done without Poe. With Bailey and Howard at the "DE" spots, and leaving DeVito central until Poe comes back, the DL can function pretty similarly. Obviously, it won't be as dynamic or powerful as it would be with Poe, but playing Mike DeVito as a 0 or 1 tech is not unheard of from Bob Sutton.
In the meantime, GET BACK SOON, BIG GUY!
I expect big things out of this defense this season. It's a really solid squad that keeps looking to get younger. They've created a great foundation, and they've got a lot of guys bought into the system, as evidenced by the multiple players that restructured contracts to help out the team and stay in KC. Sutton really does appear to know how to get the best out of his guys, and I can't wait to see what he does with this group.
Well, those are my pre-camp predictions for this season. So, what do you say, AP? How wrong am I?