First Quarter Grades: Linebackers

There is no doubt the Chiefs have more talent at the linebacker position this year than at any point in recent memory. But the middle of the Kansas City defense has been hamstrung by the coaching staff's inability to use their strength. That being their awesome speed.

Mike Nugent - Big things were expected of the Kansas City Chiefs linebackers this season. With the addition of high profile free agent linebacker Kendrell Bell, drafting Derrick Johnson and the rapid development of Kawika Mitchell and Keyaron Fox, the Chiefs had reason to be excited about the upcoming season. The Chiefs came out of the gate running start with big wins over the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, but then sputtered with embarrassing losses to the Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles.

So far, the linebackers as a unit haven't been the explosive component of the defense we all expected. There are some bright spots, though. Mitchell looks to be developing into the middle linebacker defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham wants him to be. Johnson, although he's had some growing pains, will be a force once he's gets fully acclimated to the pro game. The improved speed of the linebacking corps is evident whenever they take the field.

There have also been some disappointments. Fox, who was supposed to be a major part of the Chiefs defensive scheme, has been out with a knee injury. Bell, the centerpiece of the defensive front seven, hasn't been the impact player that he is expected to be. Cunningham's defensive philosophy is built on aggressive, sure-tackling linebacker play, and other than the first six or eight quarters of football, that hasn't been seen. The Chiefs linebackers are playing aggressively, but certain components, like the blitz packages, for the most part have been ineffective. At times, the linebackers have slipped into bad habits of the pass, like arm tackling and what appears to be a lack of assignment discipline. This has led to some big plays by opposing teams.

The lack of consistent pressure up front erodes some of the back seven's effectiveness to be sure, but still it is disappointing to see the linebackers regularly fooled by misdirection plays or overpowered at the point of attack. It's disappointing to see, because it's evident that the linebackers as a unit are stronger than the Chiefs have been in several years. The play of the linebackers must improve if the Chiefs are going to make a serious playoff run in head coach Dick Vermeil's last season with the Chiefs.

Nick Athan - Where's the speed? Kendrell Bell is fast, Kawika Mitchell can run and there is no question that Derrick Johnson can make plays all over the field. But how come the Chiefs are not using that speed. The linebackers are the center of the defense. In training camp they were flying around the ball. But in the regular season they're not being used properly and that's very perplexing.

Yes the lack of pressure on the quarterback from the defensive line has been a factor. But that's why you have fast linebackers. They can compensate for that lack of pass rush. Cunningham has to change how he uses his linebackers. Bell seems to be sitting back waiting to make plays instead of going after the ball like he did in Pittsburgh. But he also seems unsure on the field and let's hope after the bye week we see that mean streak that made him a tackling machine for the Steelers.

Mitchell has been solid but he needs to be even more aggressive. Johnson has been solid but he's a rookie. Still they are not using his speed either. They need to bring Johnson up to the line of scrimmage and let him chase down the quarterback more than they are right now. Cunningham has to use the strength of the team and he needs to let them fly. He's holding them back right now.

The injury to Fox has hurt but Kris Griffin can play in this league. Kansas City should have all four linebackers on the field at the same time to absorb the lack of play from the defensive line. He needs to let Bell, Mitchell, Johnson and Griffin start flying to the ball down after down. Until he does that; he'll be wasting their talents.