Middle is Still a Question for Chiefs

When the tackling begins on the practice fields of River Falls Wisconsin next week, all eyes will be focused on the interior of the Chiefs new and revamped defense. With the success of the season hanging in the balance, Kansas City's recent first day draft picks must become something more than weak links.

As we look ahead to 2005 and consider the changes the Chiefs have made on defense, it would appear that their problems at outside linebacker and cornerback are fixed. However, now that Kansas City has become so strong on the perimeter it is likely that opposing offenses will now try to attack at them in the middle.

Although the Chiefs defense finished 12th overall against the run last season, they still managed to give up 4.6 yards per attempt which happened to be among the bottom seven in the league. The reason this wasn't glaringly obvious was that the Chiefs also happened to have the worst pass defense in the league (ranked 32nd in passing yards allowed). Thanks to their porous secondary; most offensive coordinators never bothered attacking the Chiefs with their running game. This could change however if the Chiefs aren't able to drastically improve the play at middle linebacker. Even the Chiefs themselves are concerned about the middle of their defense, if they weren't they wouldn't have made such a strong attempt to acquire both Ed Hartwell and Jeremiah Trotter in the off season.

Without question the Chiefs best middle linebacker is Mike Maslowski. What he happens to lack in pure athleticism is made up for with sound technique, natural instinct, and strong leadership. Unfortunately Maslowski hasn't played in a game since week ten of the 2003 season, one that would have put him on pace to record 128 tackles. Due to his long absence and the severity of his knee surgery, Maslowski will face an up hill battle in making the Chiefs final roster. If he can make it back however, middle linebacker will no longer be considered a liability in Kansas City. His ability to handle the duties as a starter will wind up being paramount for this team.

While filling in for Maslowski over the past two seasons, third year player Kawika Mitchell has been erratic to say the least. Though he finished strong in 2005 with 29 tackles in his last three games; his season as a whole was marred by inconsistency. At the moment Mitchell is penciled in as the starting middle linebacker but defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has very high standards for whoever plays that position. If Mitchell is unable to rise to the occasion; this might not only be his last chance as a starter but his last training camp as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Another player perceived to be in the mix at middle linebacker is Rich Scanlon, the 2005 defensive MVP of NFL Europe. Scanlon is a tackling machine and he proved as much with his campaign as a member of the Berlin Thunder. Unfortunately I have noticed that he has real difficulty in getting off blocks. The ability to shed blocks is a huge part of playing middle linebacker and if he allows himself to be pushed out of the middle the entire defense will cave. Because of that, I think Scanlon might be a better fit at outside linebacker where he doesn't have to face so much traffic running right at him. If I were to draw a comparison I would call him a Scott Fujita type with more upside.

Another middle linebacker candidate is rookie Boomer Grigsby. Grigsby, the Chiefs 5th round pick and I-AA standout from Illinois State has the most to gain from training camp. The coaches are already in love with his combination of intelligence, athleticism, and attitude but no one is really sure how well he will do when the hitting starts at the NFL level. He is a little undersized so he needs to come out of the gate and prove he can consistently shed the blocks of an NFL lineman while moving through traffic. Should he succeed at that he could wind up being the second string middle linebacker or even further at the top of the lineup for that matter playing side by side with the big boys.

The final player to consider at middle linebacker is a player I would call the x-factor at that position, Keyaron Fox. The second year player from Georgia Tech has been the starting left outside linebacker throughout off season workouts yet that will probably change once first round pick Derrick Johnson is signed. I would anticipate Johnson and Kendrell Bell each handling the duties at outside linebacker which in turn puts the coaching staff in a quandary in what to do with ultra athletic and rangy Fox.

It just so happens that we have seen Gunther Cunningham set this precedence before. Fox is an extremely similar player to Donnie Edwards who in 1996 replaced then fan favorite Tracy Simien as the starting middle linebacker. So, with that being said, it is not out of the realm of possibility that this could happen. It also enables the Chiefs to have their best three linebackers on the field at the same time.

Though I can't guarantee the coaching staff will even consider playing Fox on the inside it is something that is exciting when you consider the possibilities. For one, Fox is a sure tackler with good instincts. While at Georgia Tech he averaged 8.3 tackles per game in 45 games of which 35 were starts. He also finished his senior season with 155 tackles, 18 for losses, and 4 forced fumbles. If that isn't a strong resume for a middle linebacker I don't know what is.

Fox also happens to be phenomenal in pass coverage, something that Kansas City's middle linebackers were awful at in 2005. His pass defense skills are especially intriguing because it allows the defense to keep him on the field in nickel situations so its one less player they have to substitute. He is also athletic enough to back pedal from his middle linebacker position and play center field in a three deep zone or in shorter coverage he could show blitz only to pull back and jump the hot route underneath.

The defensive tackles also have to play well for the Chiefs to succeed but Lional Dalton and John Browning have already proven that they are capable of producing at a high level. Dalton is the perfect three-technique defensive tackle with a high motor and flawless technique. Browning on the other hand can play any position on the defensive line though until recently he has been used primarily at defensive tackle.

Junior Siavii is also another major factor in the middle. Due to his size and power he will often draw comparisons to John Henderson and Marcus Stroud when you speak of potential. If he happens to progress faster than anticipated it would obviously pay huge dividends for the defense.

Ryan Sims seems to be the last remaining question. Typically you will see him do something remarkable two or three times a game and then he'll disappear for long stretches at a time. The Chiefs obviously need him to become a more disruptive force in the middle of the field on a more consistent basis. If Sims can somehow become the player the Chiefs thought they drafted three years ago it would elevate this defense to new heights.

By reading the player evaluations above it is obvious that the Chiefs will have some difficult decisions to make when it comes to personnel and roster cuts. Still, with Curtis Martin, Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown, Willis McGahee, Rudy Johnson, and Corry Dillon all on the schedule, the coaching staff cannot afford to be wrong. What is even more frightening is that the running backs I just mentioned don't even include the backs in the Chiefs own division.

When it comes to the Raiders, stopping Lamont Jordan will be paramount to containing Randy Moss. The safeties will be needed for bracketing Moss in double coverage or dropping back in a cover two zone. This means the linebackers must contain Jordan on their own so the safeties can concentrate solely on their responsibilities over the top.

Although it isn't quite clear who their feature back will be the Denver Broncos are always a dangerous running team. If the defensive tackles and middle linebacker can handle Denver's inside runs it will allow the defensive ends and outside linebackers to concentrate on stopping the bootleg. If the interior of the defense fails then we are looking at another game where the outside of the defense is being sucked inside while the Broncos embarrass the Chiefs with their high school offense.

San Diego is particularly frightening because they not only have LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, and Keenan McCardell but they also have two young receivers who will surely make an impact in draft pick Vincent Jackson and NFL Europe superstar Ruvell Martin. Both Jackson and Martin are tall, rangy, and deceptively fast receivers (both are 6'4" and run 4.5 or better). Any team in the league that plans on stopping their offense will need both safeties concentrating solely on the passing game. Once again the burden will fall on the interior of defense and their ability to contain LaDainian Tomlinson.

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