Chiefs Mid-Term Report Card: Defense

In part two of our three part series, we grade out the Chiefs defense at the midway point of the season. One thing is certain, they're not the '32 Defense' any longer.

They lead the NFL with 27 takeaways through eight games and that's a byproduct of defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. The much maligned coach finally has some talent to work with and with a strong second half, the Chiefs get crack the Top 15 in total defense.

Defensive Backs (A-)
For the first time since Kevin Ross and Albert Lewis patrolled the defensive backfield for the Chiefs in the mid 90's, Kansas City has two potential All-Pro cornerbacks in Eric Warfield and Dexter McCleon. Warfield had the best game of his career on Sunday with two interceptions and a sack against the Bills last Sunday night. Warfield has come along way and now adds the ability to blitz the cornerback to his repertoire. Warfield still tends to back-off receivers but his bump and run coverage the last two weeks has been impressive to say the least.

Dexter McCleon has solidified the other corner with his stellar play. McCleon, the free agent from St. Louis, leads the team in interceptions with five. Opposing offenses spend a considerable time game planning to try and take advantage of McCleon's lack of height. He has not backed down from the challenge each week and continues to make play after play in the secondary. McCleon had to out battle William Bartee for the job and even with the injury to Bartee, McCleon would have won the starting job based on his pre-season performance.

Speaking of Bartee, the Chiefs are very excited he saw his first action in the nickel package against the Bills. Bartee has talent and the speed but has simply been unable to find the ball in defending the pass. It's nothing more than learning where to position himself when the ball is in the air. Bartee can be very effective in covering the slot receiver and he has the ability to blitz the quarterback. Now that Bartee is back the Chiefs can take their time in developing rookie Julian Battle.

Battle has tremendous tools and ability and could become a starter next year or certainly be in a position to give the Chiefs an option as the third cornerback if the Chiefs do not sign Bartee, who will be a free agent after this season. The further development of Battle will only help the Chiefs defense. Opposing offenses will start implementing more four wide receiver sets and the Chiefs want to keep Jerome Woods back in the secondary.

Woods has been the star of the defense. He's already converted two interceptions into touchdowns for the defense. His touchdown against the Packers ignited the Chiefs come from behind victory in Green Bay. Woods, a year recovered from his broken leg, is on pace to have his best all around season. If not for Woods patrolling center field, the Chiefs would not be undefeated.

Woods has had help in the secondary; Greg Wesley is a fierce hitter and also has a nose for making plays. Wesley always seems to know where to be on the field. Last year with Woods out, Wesley had to step up and make big plays. His goal line hit against the Raiders saved the game. But what makes him so versatile is his ability to support the run and blitz the quarterback. The Chiefs safeties are much more active this year in their new simplified defensive schemes. Wesley has more freedom this year.

Another player having his best season is safety Shaunard Harts. He's not nearly as heralded as Woods and Wesley but he has made the most of his opportunities. He's already picked off two passes and recovered a fumble. If Wesley who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season does not re-sign with the Chiefs, Harts will be the started next year.

But the most unheralded performer on defense is Chiefs assistant backfield coach Vernon Dean. Dean a two time Super Bowl winning cornerback, has been instrumental in the development of the secondary and getting them to play at a higher level. He's been able to correct the technique issues that have plagued the Chiefs defensive backfield in years past.

Linebackers (A)
The most heralded free agent acquisition of the year for the Chiefs has been Shawn Barber. Since the day he signed his free agent contract in March, Barber has become the Chiefs defensive leader. He's tied with Scott Fajita and Greg Wesley with 58 tackles. He is a tireless worker on the field and his motor never stops. He's added three sacks and an interception to his 2003 resume at the halfway point. Thanks to his bone-jarring hits against Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, Barber was a one man wrecking crew in that game.

But the biggest surprise has been Scott Fujita. The former fifth round 2002 draft pick has exceeded everyone's expectations. He has also erased the memory of Donnie Edwards. Fujita is faster, stronger and able to take on defensive lineman. What separates Fajita from the other linebackers is his speed. He's tied for the team lead in sacks and tackles. His maturity can be attributed to a tremendous work ethic and off-season preparation. He's also been able to take the lead of Barber.

Mighty Mike Maslowski has been solid. The Chiefs all-time single season leader in tackles has solidified the middle linebacker position. Maslowski was forced to play the outside position last year but he does not have the speed. But this year, Maslowski has helped the team stop the run. Maslowski plays mostly on running downs and when he's in the game, the Chiefs defense averages only three yards per rushing attempt. When Maslowski is on the bench, opponents rush for nearly six yards per carry.

But Maslowski was injured in the Buffalo victory and rookie Kawika Mitchell will get significant playing time the next two weeks. The second round draft pick has been battling hamstring injuries this year but there is no question he has the ability and talent to play in the NFL. Another developing player has been former Kansas State Wildcat Monte Biesel. He's spelled both Fajita and Barber and he continues to grow as a player. He should get significant time the next eight weeks.

Defensive Line (B)
The grade should be higher. Yes they are part of the defense that leads the NFL with 27 turnovers but this line has yet to have a dominating game. Free agent defensive end Vonnie Holliday had a great start to his season with thee sacks on opening day against the San Diego Chargers. But he's only had one sack since that game while battling a groin injury suffered in the Baltimore Ravens game. Holliday has not performed well against the run. Several times he's been in position to stop running backs for short gains. Playing the outside end position he has to seal the end to avoid runners from cutting back and gaining huge chunks of yards. Holliday needs to make more of those tackles.

His line mate Eric Hicks has three sacks and continues to give maximum effort on every play. Hicks has a motor that never quits and the Chiefs hope that he can return to double digit sacks status like he has in years past. He also is outstanding stopping the run. With Holliday struggling at times, former arena leaguer R-Kal Truluck might just be the pass sacking answer the Chiefs have tried to solve since the untimely death of Derrick Thomas.

Truluck recorded his first solo sack of the season and the Chiefs expect that he'll get even better as the second half of the season unfolds. Truluck has the outside speed and now the power to quickly get around offensive tackles. He also has the advantage of working against Willie Roaf in practice every day and that should make him a better player. In addition, Gary Stills has recorded two sacks and he also has the speed to get to the quarterback. His play against the Ravens was critical in keeping the Baltimore offense from scoring more points. Stills has the speed but not the strength to get to the passer. But when he's patient and given a seem to the quarterback, can close quickly.

Last years first round draft pick Ryan Sims has played exceptional at the tackle position. Thanks to his own maturity and the leadership provide by Vonnie Holliday, Sims is reaching the potential that Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil knew he had in him when they traded up to get him in the 2002 draft. Sims has an interception and three sacks this year. He is forced to take on double teams on every play but uses his tremendous strength and power to wreak havoc in the defensive backfield. He should have a monster second half against some weaker NFL teams and be primed to step up his play in the post season.

But Sims is not alone; John Browning is having his beat season as a Chief. The often injured Browning has elevated his game and been the primary reason that Sims has done so well. Browning has been stellar against the run. The stop he made on Clinton Portis on third and goal against Denver, allowed the Chiefs to keep the game in striking distance. If the Broncos had scored a touchdown, the Chiefs likely would have lost the game.

Another surprise has been sixth round draft pick Jimmy Wilkerson. The former Sooner has lined up at end and tackle. He has the ability to be one of the Chiefs best defensive linemen. Like Hicks, he has a non-stop motor. He came to the Chiefs a little undersized but has added twenty pounds of bulk since training camp. Wilkerson's development the final eight games of the season will be a huge bonus in the post season. The Chiefs like to move their defensive lineman in and out of the game and Wilkerson has added to that flexibility.

In summary, the Chiefs defense has exceeded expectations. They've come along way since last year but they need to correct their inability to stop teams with premier running games. They give up twice as many yards on defense on the ground in the second half and they often play a soft zone when they have large leads. This skews their overall numbers and the Chiefs appear to have learned from their mistake in Oakland.

Against the Raiders they allowed back-up quarterback Marquez Tuiasosopo to pass for 200 yards in the fourth quarter by playing their prevent defense. The Chiefs appeared to have learned their lesson and with a big lead against the Bills, went for the jugular. With a certain playoff spot and AFC West title in hand at the midway point, the Kansas City defense needs to destroy teams. They need this mentality to secure home field advantage because NFL teams can always find a weakness if given the opportunity.

If the Chiefs want to win in January and get to the Super Bowl, the defense has to play better and be even more aggressive than they were against the Bills.

Tomorrow we will review the special teams.


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