Something's Got To Give

The Achilles heel of Dick Vermeil's Chiefs was their inability to stop opposing passers. Here and there, they were able to stop the run, but what truly stopped those teams from being a contender was the wide-open passing lanes that enemy quarterbacks enjoyed during those five years.

From 2001 to 2005, the Chiefs gave up the most passing yards in the league twice, were in the bottom five for two more years, and had one deceptive 13th-place finish by the 2001 team. The 2001 team had a huge turnover problem. This tendency disguised the statistical weakness of the defense by giving up a short field on a regular basis.

The team surrendered so many big plays that frustrated fans named the starting cornerbacks "Toasty and Crispy." Rather than fearing third-and-long, opposing offenses routinely rang up big plays against the Chiefs' futile pass defense.

Since those dark days, the Chiefs have rebuilt the secondary by adding former Pro-Bowlers Ty Law, Patrick Surtain and Sammy Knight through free-agency (strong safety Greg Wesley is the only holdover). Those renovations gave the team a starting secondary with more career interceptions than any unit in the league.

The results have been outstanding.

The team is seventh overall in pass yards surrendered, a massive improvement from the "Toasty and Crispy" days. The most telling statistic is the paltry 6.63 yards per pass attempt by opposing offenses. To put this in perspective, the 2005 defense surrendered 6.91 and the terrible 2004 team gave up a whopping 8.53. Third-and-long is no longer party time for opponents.

On Sunday, however, the Chiefs face the best passing offense they have seen all year. Rams quarterback Marc Bulger has been phenomenal with a 101.4 rating and an even more impressive 12-to-1 touchdown/interception ratio. He's supported by high-flying receivers Torry Holt (42 catches, 574 yards) and Isaac Bruce (32-493), holdovers from the "Greatest Show on Turf" days, and capable pass-catching back Steven Jackson (28-279). Kevin Curtis (18-197) is a fine third receiver who could start for many teams in this league. One new addition has been second-round draft choice Joe Klopfenstein (8-121), who has shown more ability than most Rams' tight-ends from the recent past.

Overall, the Rams average 256.2 passing yards per game (fourth in the NFL), have 12 touchdown passes (seventh) and have thrown just one interception all year.

The Rams are the only team in the NFL that can claim to be in the same class with the Peyton Manning/Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne juggernaut in Indianapolis. The only real weakness in St. Louis' passing game is their tendency to surrender sacks (22).

The ability of Tamba Hali and Jared Allen to get heat on the passer without the aid of crowd noise will be a huge factor in this game. The other key will be how well the Chiefs handle the Rams' three and four-receiver sets. In those situations, the Chiefs have played Lenny Walls on the outside with Patrick Surtain in the slot. Walls on Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt is a mismatch the Rams are sure to exploit. Getting Benny Sapp back in the lineup would be a huge plus for the Chiefs, because not only can he man the slot, he is also outstanding on the corner blitz. If Hali and Allen get stoned by St. Louis' offensive tackles, Gunther Cunningham had better design some creative blitzes to pressure Bulger, or it will be a very long day for Kansas City.

Today's game will turn on how well the Chiefs can stop this passing attack. If the Chiefs can slow down Bulger, they will be able to bring Larry Johnson into play against the Rams' weak run defense (134.9 yards per game and a terrible 4.8 yards per carry). If not, the Chiefs will be in a shootout they will have a difficult time winning on the road, especially against a team that does not turn the ball over.

But if the secondary has a strong showing today, this team is likely to be a threat in the playoffs.

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