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Here’s what happened to the Kansas City Chiefs defense (plus an Eric Berry theory)

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Sooner or later, all things change.

My wife and I have been married for over 10 years now. When we got married, I was a 175-pound manchild. Our oldest son was one and not really talking. the rest of our children didn’t exist yet. I was working at a steel stamping company, having not finished more than a couple of semesters in college. We didn’t attend church regularly.

Now I’m 220 pounds (I swear I carry it all right, and it’s worth noting Mrs. MNchiefsfan weighs EXACTLY the same as she did back then. She may be a vampire). Our oldest son is wearing flat-brimmed hats, styles his hair every morning, and acts embarrassed to be around us. We’ve had five more children this time (one of whom is no longer with us). I’ve now completed so much schooling I’m an attorney. I’m a pastor (there’s a sentence that sounds weird when you say it out loud). We’ve moved to a completely different town where we didn’t know anyone.

Life, as the kids say, comes at you fast.

The Chiefs have a mediocre-at-best defense. That’s a genuinely bizarre thing to say. The defense has been the strength of every Chiefs team since ... like, 2004 or so (sometimes I use the word strength loosely). During the Andy Reid era, the defense has consistently been a playmaking group that made up for some deficiencies by terrorizing quarterbacks at the right times OR taking the ball away from opponents at an incredibly high rate.

Now it’s 2017, and the defense just got shredded by Josh McCown to the tune of 331 yards. They gave up 38 points to a team that averages under 21 points per game. And this wasn’t because the offense turned the ball over or failed to move the ball or score or anything like that. This was because the defense allowed the Jets to convert on third down 13 out of 20 plays. That’s absolutely horrific.

Earlier in the season, the pass defense appeared to be holding its own, while the run defense was getting hammered off the field. Some adjustments have been made, including the increased usage of two linebackers in nickel sets and the emergence of Reggie Ragland, and the run defense has actually come around a bit. But now, the Chiefs are getting scorched by an average-at-absolute-best quarterback.

I don’t know how we got here. Coverage looks shaky, with teams seemingly finding open receivers all over the field at will. The pass rush looks largely ineffective (though I haven’t gone back to re-watch to see how much of that was simply McCown getting rid of the ball quickly). Guys are running into each other, grabbing onto wide receivers, and blowing zone assignments. It’s a mess.

After the Cowboys, Giants and Bills games, it was easy to point the finger at the offense. The same could be said of the Steelers loss earlier in the season. I was hoping that the defense was starting to come around and all it would take was the offense playing at a decent level for the Chiefs to win.

Instead, the Chiefs hung 31 on a solid Jets defense and it wasn’t enough. Alex Smith threw for 350-plus yards and it wasn’t enough. Tyreek Hill went full demigod mode and it wasn’t enough. Because the defense couldn’t stop anything.

So ... what happened?

The popular answer is going to be to blame Bob Sutton.

That’s generally the reaction when a defense struggles: blame the coordinator. I’m not sure where I land on that at this point, though I noted earlier in the season that when I went back and watched the film, failures on defense were almost entirely execution-based rather than scheme-based. And given how Sutton has tinkered with the run defense enough to make it respectable, it’s hard for me to buy into the idea that he’s not willing to adjust when things are going poorly.

So what, then? What’s going on?

I sat there and thought about it for a while, and here’s the best theory I can come up with: the Chiefs have gotten old in a few key positions and haven’t found the young guys to step in yet (or aren’t giving them the opportunity to do so), and a single injury was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Maybe, just maybe, the Chiefs just aren’t as talented as we thought they were on defense.

Hear me out ... when we talk about the defense as it currently exists, we discuss, Justin Houston, Marcus Peters, Chris Jones, Derrick Johnson, Bennie Logan, Ron Parker, Allen Bailey, Nacho, Reggie Ragland, Steven Nelson, maybe Terrance Mitchell and Tamba Hali, or Dee Ford. You can also include Daniel Sorensen as a guy who gets plenty of time at this point.

A lot of how we view those players is based on what we expected coming into the year. And quite often, our expectations coming into a year are unrealistic. We always expect young players to improve, we never expect older players to regress, and we generally expect guys to bounce back from injury.

But instead of the good scenarios occurring for the Chiefs this year ... a number of bad things happened instead.

  1. Father Time finally caught up to Derrick Johnson, who went from an elite run stopper to, at best, an average player. And frankly, for much of the year until recently he was less than that.
  2. Tamba Hali has been an utter non-factor, as Father Time caught him as well.
  3. Chris Jones, after a marvelous rookie season in which he was elite for a rookie, has not only failed to take a step forward but has been LESS effective, as linemen seem to have caught on to his inability to shed and poor pad level. So a guy we were counting on to be a plus player hasn’t been.
  4. Marcus Peters hasn’t been as impactful, as most QBs shy away from him and he seems to be struggling with ... something that’s leading him to lose focus at times.
  5. Terrance Mitchell and Steven Nelson appear to have plateau’d as players, neither taking the step forward we were hoping to see (note that Nelson missed half the season).
  6. Allen Bailey has been who he is: a reliable player against the run who can occasionally get push, but nothing more.
  7. Daniel Sorensen has been exposed in an increased role as a guy who isn’t particularly good when asked to do more than just a little here and there.
  8. Bennie Logan has been a solid run stopper, but mostly nonexistent as a pass rusher.
  9. Nacho hasn’t been much more than he was last year, after a lot of hope and a fantastic preseason.
  10. Justin Houston has flashed dominance AT TIMES but has vanished during live viewing during others. Every time I watch the film he looks good. Very good, even. But between teams consistently gunning for him, his slightly odd role in the defense (as Sutton tries to use him to fill in gaps), and the appearance that he’s perhaps less explosive than he was (I’m still back and forth on this) and the best player on the defense can only do so much. Houston often looks like a man on an island.
  11. Dee Ford has been utterly, totally, non-existent due to injuries and (before that) relatively ineffective play.

In short ... none of the things we were counting on to see an elite defense (Ford being at his best, Hali chipping in, Jones taking a step forward, Nelson/Mitchell being solid depth guys, DJ returning to form) happened. And so the Chiefs are left with a talented-in-places-but-quite-flawed defensive roster.

And then we have Eric Berry.

I’ve developed a bit of a theory about Berry as time has gone on. The last time Berry missed significant time was in 2014, when he was diagnosed with cancer. During that season, the defense played quite well in his absence, which spawned the belief (for some) that Berry wasn’t quite as impactful as we’d all thought.

However, when I scan that roster, it becomes a little more clear what happened there. While Ron Parker remains the stalwart at the other safety spot, the two players who were forced to step into substantially larger roles in 2014 were ... Husain Abdullah and Kurt Coleman. Abdullah, of course, is a well-deserved fan favorite for his strong overall ability in all facets of the game (almost a Berry Lite, really). And Coleman, after a very strong 2014 season with the Chiefs, went on to the Panthers to have several very good seasons as a starter.

Though the Chiefs lost Berry, he was replaced by a pair of very good overall safeties. This season, that hasn’t been the case. Danny Sorensen, all due respect, ain’t no Husain Abdullah. He just isn’t.

In addition (and we’re getting back to the 2017 team here, I promise), that 2014 Chiefs defense featured Dontari Poe in his absolute best season (in 2014 he was a force), Justin Houston (still here, but striving alone it seems), Tamba Hali when he was still full-time Tamba Hali, Jaye Howard in his best overall season as a pro (in this guy’s opinion at least), Mike DeVito to provide solid veteran play, and Sean Smith before he was cooked. Again, this was in addition to a very strong safety trio even WITHOUT Berry.

Even though DJ was injured in 2014, that overall roster was simply more talented on defense than what the Chiefs have had this season. That’s hard to swallow, but I think it’s true.

I believe that we’ve seen a slight decline in talent over the last few years as key players (with incredibly crucial roles on this defense) like Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, and Dontari Poe have declined (DJ and Tamba), declined then left (2014 Poe), or just left (Abdullah and Coleman). And the Chiefs haven’t been able to adequately replace them at this point.

How does this relate to Berry and what I think may have doomed the defense this season? I think Eric Berry might have been the reason we didn’t QUITE notice the decline in talent the last two years, even when Houston got hurt (though Houston’s injury gave us a ready-made excuse for some falloff in defensive play).

What makes Berry unique is that he can do whatever you need him to do depending on the team you’re facing. He could line up in single-high, or as one of the 2-deep in cover 2, or as a robber, or as an inside linebacker (and not be a weakness, something that’s genuinely remarkable), or in man coverage against a great tight end, or even on the edge.

Depending on what specific weakness an opponent may want to pick on, Berry was a guy you could plug in to make that weakness be at least somewhat neutralized.

Well, Eric Berry ain’t walking through that door. And the Chiefs defense has been exposed on more than one occasion this season now, against both the pass and the run.

I don’t think it’s too late for this season’s team.

Some of those young guys COULD take that step forward (Chris Jones and the CBs in particular are desperately needed to step up), and maybe some of the old guard could find a bit more magic left (DJ, Tamba). But as of right now, only Houston and Peters are guys you could really call genuinely high-level players. That needs to change if the Chiefs want to challenge for a playoff spot, which is suddenly in enormous jeopardy.

Regardless of how this year ends, though, I think we’re seeing the end of one era for the Chiefs defense. Whether or not the next era begins smoothly OR features a rough rebuild (which would be very unfortunate to do during the last few years of Houston’s prime) will depend entirely on whether Brett Veach is able to add some talent, particularly at corner and in the pass rush.

Yes, Eric Berry returning next year will be an enormous boost. But if this year has taught us anything, it’s that having one guy patch too many holes is dangerous, especially in a league where you’re one injury away from being left without anyone to plug the leaks.

All things change. And the defense just isn’t what it used to be in Kansas City.

Josh McCown. Sheesh.