Behind Enemy Lines: Kansas City Chiefs

In an offseason edition of Behind Enemy Lines, we check in on the Kansas City Chiefs with team expert Nick Athan. Coming off a second-place finish in the AFC West, the Chiefs appear ready to challenge for divisional supremacy. From the defense's rise to respectability to the offense's quest to add another dimension, here is everything Chargers fans need to know about their rivals from the Midwest.

Why are the Chiefs so eager to rush Brodie Croyle into the starting line-up? What have they seen from the second-year signal caller that makes them think he can pull a Philip Rivers and excel from the get-go?

Athan: I've spent a lot of time with Herm Edwards on this topic and the entire coaching staff believes deep down that he's the best candidate to lead them into the future. The fact that the AFC West is filled with younger quarterbacks like Rivers in San Diego, Jay Cutler in Denver and presumably JaMarcus Russell in Oakland had something to do with the Chiefs desire to put Brodie Croyle under the fire.

It's interesting that even though Croyle has only thrown a few passes in the NFL, he has the entire respect of his teammates. They all are in unison over their praise and his ability to lead. That extends not just on offense but on defense. I truly believe that he'll have stretches that will remind people of what Phillip Rivers did a year ago and he'll have stretches where he reminds people of Todd Blackledge, but at the end of the season the Chiefs will know what they have in Croyle and that's the main reason he's going to get his shot ahead of veteran quarterback Damon Huard.

With young players like Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Bernard Pollard coming into their own, are the Chiefs ready to become an upper-echelon defensive team?

Athan: I think the Chiefs -- who rose from the 28th-worst defense in the NFL in 2005 to 16th in 2006 -- can make a leap into the top-10 this season. That was unthinkable until Edwards and Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham cleaned house before last season of lazy coaches and old veteran defensive players who had lost more than a step. This defense has a terrific blend of youth and age. In the secondary the defense is anchored by cornerbacks Ty Law and Patrick Surtain, who will team up with a pair of second-year safeties, Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page.

What's exciting is the fact that the Chiefs were able to steal linebacker Donnie Edwards away from the Chargers and convince Napoleon Harris not to sign a contract with his old coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay in the offseason. With Derrick Johnson, Harris and Edwards, I think the Chiefs have the second-best linebacking crew in the AFC West behind San Diego. Up front, the Chiefs drafted two interior defensive linemen who could presumably start midway through the season. Turk McBride (Tennessee, second round) and Tank Tyler (North Carolina State, third round) have been impressive in OTA's and Mini-Camp.

The only thing this defense needs to do is be able to sack the quarterback. Hali was great last year and finished strong despite the fact he hit the rookie wall in Week Nine. Jared Allen will sit out the first four games so McBride and Jimmy Wilkerson will provide the rush until Allen gets back on the field. All in all, with great speed in the back-seven this defense should once again be able to stockpile turnovers.

Most rookie receivers take a season or two to get acclimated to playing on the pro level. Is first-round pick Dwayne Bowe showing any signs of being the rare variety of player who can take some pressure off Larry Johnson and the running game right out of the gates?

Athan: After Dwayne Bowe's initial rookie workout that began with him being 45 minutes late to practice, a chip on his shoulder that could have eclipsed the sun, and the fact he dropped virtualy every pass thrown to him in his first day on the job, the media were unimpressed to say the least. But as the veterans filtered in -- especially as his LSU Alumni and fellow wide receiver Eddie Kennison got a hold of him -- Bowe was lights out. He has the ability to not only start opposite the aforementioned Kennison but be a key contributor for this team.

The primary reason the Chiefs drafted Bowe was because he can catch the ball over the middle in short-yardage situations. So often a year ago, Chiefs receivers couldn't catch cradle the ball on third down. In last year's playoff loss to the Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts, the Chiefs receivers didn't catch a third-down pass to move the chains until the third quarter. Bowe made JaMarcus Russell look even better than he was last season as he often corralled one errant pass after another. He'll end up in my opinion as the best wide receiver to come out of the 2007 draft class.

Do cornerbacks Ty Law and Patrick Surtain have anything left in the tank? Or are these two too old and slow to anchor the pass defense for a playoff-caliber team?

Athan: They are middle-aged in NFL years, but if you ask Colts quarterback Peyton Manning if Ty Law has anything left, he'll tell you absolutely. In last year's playoff game between the two teams, Law picked off Manning twice and looks like he can go another couple of seasons. Law is still one of the top corners in the NFL.

As for Patrick Surtain, he had a great 2005 campaign but last year he fell victim to the fact the Chiefs could NOT put any pressure on the quarterback. He's far better playing underneath the receiver than striding with him down the field. The Chiefs really want him to cover the slot receiver but the team really has no other options at corner so he'll play the outside again. But this year he'll have a pair of fast and physical safeties in Page and Pollard so that should prolong the careers of Surtain and Law. Still, with so much change at linebacker and the defensive line, these veterans should be able to take more chances than they did a year ago and that should help this team fight for a playoff spot in December.

The Chiefs signed a pair of former Chargers this offseason: Donnie Edwards and Damion McIntosh. What did Kansas City see in these two that made them targets in free agency and how do you feel they fit in?

Athan: McIntosh seems to me to be a guy who just goes about his business. He's definitely an upgrade from Jordan Black, who struggled for the most part a year ago protecting his quarterbacks at left tackle. The problem with anyone who anchors that part of the offensive line is that the comparisons to Willie Roaf won't soon be forgotten around these parts until someone can prevent an opposing defensive end from killing the Chiefs quarterback. Last year, Trent Green missed eight games because of a severe concussion because he had to leave the crumbling pocket so often. Ironically, one of those games came later in the year when the Chiefs played the Dolphins in Miami. It was that game where McIntosh shut down defensive end Jared Allen and that caught the eye of President/General Manager Carl Peterson who made McIntosh the team's first free-agent acquisition. Thus far he has fit in very well with his new teammates. Time will tell if he can be half as good as Roaf.

But Donnie Edwards is another story altogether. The biggest blunder in team history was letting Edwards walk to San Diego five years ago. It was a no-brainer that he would return. In fact, I saw Edwards in December and he told me that Kansas City was always home and if the chance to come back was possible he'd jump on it. When the Chargers cut the heart and soul of their defense, Kansas City quietly worked out a deal. Since rejoining the city that loved him so much he's been all smiles. He may have played in this league a long time but he has the instincts of a mountain lion. He'll make Derrick Johnson twice the linebacker he is now because the Chiefs deficiencies at the position nearly stalled Johnson's career.

Now, with Edwards and Napoleon Harris on the same line, Johnson can once again use his speed that has only been apparent from time to time. Edwards was the biggest acquisition of the offseason by Kansas City. He is already one of the most popular guys on defense and early on has established himself as the unit's leader. The Chargers will feel the impact of his loss and they'll see it twice this season as Edwards has already circled the two games the Chiefs and Chargers will play against each other.


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