Chiefs Run Defense Dramatically Improved

There were a lot of developments at Arrowhead stadium tonight as the Kansas City Chiefs played the Seattle Seahawks. Trent Green developed a potential foot problem . . . Kicker Lawrence Tynes may have kept his job with no competition having to be brought in . . . Linebacker Kendrell Bell still hasn't played . . . Running back Larry Johnson out-ran Seahawks speedster Marcus Trufant for a 97-yard touchdown. Which 15 players will be cut on Tuesday? Take your pick on which is the top story.

However, the most important development of the evening for many of us was how well the first-team rush defense would hold up against the high-powered Seahawks rushing attack, led by Pro Bowl running back Shaun Alexander. The Chiefs defenders were tremendous, holding arguably one of the top three backs in the game to a paltry 2.5 yards per carry and, more importantly, less than one yard a carry in the first half. Alexander was only one yard shy of winning the rushing title last season, so the Chiefs faced a Seattle team that is among the best in the NFL at running the ball. Tonight's contest was certainly the toughest test the re-vamped Chiefs defense will face before the regular season begins September 11th.

The Seahawks also boast two pro-bowlers on the offensive line in left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson, another incredibly tough test for defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, tackle Lional Dalton, and linebackers Kawika Mitchell and Keyaron Fox, who played in place of Kendrell Bell. The 2004 Chiefs defense was dead last against the run in the AFC, and finished 31st in the league versus the run. Last year the Chiefs finished 12th in the league defending the pass, but that statistic is misleading because teams don't have to pass if they can run at will.

Stopping the run is the first thing the Chiefs defense must do if they hope to prevent teams from scoring and keeping the ball away from the Chiefs high-powered offense. It has been said that if the Chiefs defense could just be "middle of the pack", or rated in the top 15 in overall defense, the team would have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. Tonight the defense proved that progress is being made.

The Chiefs forced the Seahawks to throw the ball. Then they didn't put enough pressure on the quarterback, giving the Seahawks success through the air. But this is still the preseason. Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham rarely blitzed and didn't throw many wrinkles at the Seahawks. When there are no reasons to stay vanilla, there are things the Chiefs can do to stop the air attack that we didn't see tonight. Who knows if they will be enough, but pulling out all the stops and playing linebacker Kendrell Bell will make a big difference.

Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander had 12 carries for 23 yards, (less than two yards a carry), with a long run of 11 yards. No big runs allowed! The Chiefs ran for 215 yards, the Seahawks for 69. If you took away Alexander's 11 yard run that he had in the third quarter, he would have had 12 yards on 11 carries. The second half really doesn't matter at all, though, so the first half stats are all we should consider when evaluating the defense. Cornerback Patrick Surtain was out of the game, and Ashley Ambrose took his place at the beginning of the third quarter. This made a bigger difference in the run game than many people believe. In fact, Alexander's numbers at halftime were nine carries for seven yards. Stopping Seahawks fullback Mack Strong on third and short to force a punt on their third series of the game was a huge accomplishment, too. The Seahawks were held to three plays and punted on two of their first three possessions. That is just amazing, especially when compared to last year's defense.

The Seahawks were having such a hard time running the ball against our first team that they stopped trying. After the game, Coach Vermeil said, "It's a good feeling when a good running team decides not to run anymore." Safety Sammy Knight was the defensive player of the game, racking up seven tackles with one assist, and showed Kansas City fans why NFL gurus constantly say Knight is a smart player. Knight was all over the field tonight and is beginning to remind me of former Chief great, Deron Cherry. Knight isn't a great "paper" guy, meaning he isn't faster or stronger than a lot of guys at his position, but his experience and "field smarts" are very evident. It's no coincidence that Knight has created more turnovers than any other player this decade. He is the team's best blitzer, a ferocious tackler and is an "on the field" coach . . . much like Cherry was.

Under his tutelage, cornerback Benny Sapp has developed into a blitz specialist as well. But Sapp doesn't have Knight's ability to disguise his blitzes just yet. On one play in the first quarter, Sapp misjudged Seahawk quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's cadence and Hasselbeck was able to audible at the line to keep RB Alexander in the backfield and block Sapp out of the play. Still, Knight is the kind of veteran that makes all his teammates play better. Sapp and Derrick Johnson will develop much more quickly with Knight on the team. This was apparent watching the team on a daily basis during training camp up in the north woods.

Middle linebacker Kawika Mitchell had his best showing of the 2005 season, as did Lional Dalton and fellow defensive tackle Ryan Sims. We finally got a look at defensive end Carlos Hall, one of the four primary off-season acquisitions not counting the draft. If Hall can play in the regular season like he did tonight, the Chiefs are loaded at defensive end. Coach Vermeil wasn't too happy that Hall took himself out of the game nursing a minor injury, but he actually bull-rushed five-time Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones back into Alexander, who fell down allowing Ryan Sims to tag him for a tackle for loss. Hall is known as a pass rusher, having led all rookies with eight sacks his first year in the league with Tennessee.

If that sounds familiar, it's because Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen achieved that same honor last season with nine sacks. That's a whale of a defensive end rotation - Jared Allen, Eric Hicks, Jimmy Wilkerson and Carlos Hall. Chiefs fans will not have to rely on rush-ends like Vonnie Holliday and Gary Stills in 2005. There is finally depth at the position that is as good as any team in the league.

Of course, there are some concerns. Cornerback Patrick Surtain had a rough night, allowing a 36-yard touchdown by losing the football in the lights, and he allowed more completions in one half than he probably has in any recent whole game. Surtain showed his frustration by almost beheading Seahawks wide receiver D.J. Hackett on a slant route on a second down play late in the first half. Unfortunately, on the very next play, Surtain let Seahawks wide receiver Jeremy Urban run past him, perhaps thinking he had deep help or was in zone coverage. Regardless of his reasoning, the result was a 27-yard completion to the 11 yard line on third down. A stop there would have forced a punt; instead, the Seahawks went on to kick a field goal with no time left on the clock in the first half. That is frustrating because the Chiefs were in Hackett's head much like wide receiver Samie Parker got in Viking cornerback David Mackin's head last week. Hackett was called for offensive pass interference against Sammy Knight out of frustration from being blanketed by Knight, who isn't supposed to be fast enough to do that.

There were some frustrations tonight for sure, but teams aren't going to be able to make a living on throwing at Surtain, so I doubt that is going to be a problem. The Chiefs did hold the Seahawks out of the end zone on that drive and, for the second game in a row, had the lead at halftime when the starters were done for the night. Cornerback Dexter McCleon wasn't picked on repeatedly as some expected. And how about this point Chiefs fans? No one complained about the tackling! I didn't hear it mentioned once all night for the first time in over a year. It seemed like the first guy who made contact actually made the tackle, didn't it? No missed tackles all night. That's a heck of an improvement right there.

All in all, I wouldn't trade the frustrations I feel right now for the ones I felt from our defense for most of last year. Now that's improvement. Did I mention that was Shaun Alexander that was getting stuffed by Gunthers' men tonight? Whoaaa Yeahh!! … uh hum, … sorry.

This defense is improved. When Gunther Cunningham can take all the vanilla out of the game plan and Kendrell Bell can play, there will be more improvement. When this defense has four games under its belt and begins to hit mid-season form, good things will happen. This wasn't some junior varsity team whose running game the Chiefs stuffed tonight. The Chiefs played Trent Green for only two series, replaced him with a guy who watched last week's games from his couch and should have had a bigger lead than they did. That is nothing short of extremely promising. There were two objectives for this year. First, bring in the players to make this a top 15 defense. Second, if the defense is improved, the offense will do the rest to take the Chiefs all the way to the Super Bowl.

We have every reason to believe that the front office has done exactly what everyone asked them to do - bring in the players to make this a top 15 defense. Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson has done that. We witnessed a top 15, even a top 10 defense in the first half these last two weeks. Will that be enough to take the Chiefs to a Super Bowl? Well, who knows, but, barring injury, this team has a chance to complete the other half of the objective. And that's more than the Chiefs have had in some time.

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