Week 12 - Issues Surrounding The Chiefs

This week Michael is wondering if Derrick Johnson is all he's cracked up to be, and just why the Chiefs ran the ball so little last week.

Is the Chiefs defense actually better with backups all over the field?

Two weeks ago, while on the road against the San Diego Chargers and their top 10 scoring offense, the injury-riddled Chiefs forced two turnovers and only surrendered 20 points. Even last week against New Orleans, who have the league's best offense by a wide margin, the Chiefs forced a turnover and only let the Saints put 30 on the board.

While "holding" a team to 30 points is never cause for celebration, that defensive performance looks downright dominant when compared to the effort seen last Sunday against Buffalo.

Perhaps the worst part about the Bills' sudden and unexpected offensive explosion was the fact that the defense had finally gotten healthier. Three starters – Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers – returned to the lineup on Sunday after missing most, if not all, of the prior two games.

I've spoken at length about Hali previously, and Flowers has been playing well in his rookie season, so let's take a moment to focus on Johnson. Do you remember back before the season, when one of the more frequently asked questions was, "When are the Chiefs going to get DJ locked up with a contract extension?"

Maybe it's just me, but I'm not hearing that question asked with too much frequency anymore.

With the overall poor play of the front seven, it's difficult to point fingers at any one player. After all, it's hard for a player to stand out if those around him aren't doing their jobs. The Chiefs' linebacker corps is a glaring weakness that has to be addressed in the offseason. Between the overall lack of a pass rush and the linebackers and defensive linemen not playing their gaps correctly, it's a situation that has the potential to make everyone involved look bad.

As a first-round pick, though, Johnson was expected to overcome those sorts of things. He's supposed to be one of the players the Chiefs' defense can lean on. When things break down, he's a guy who's supposed to step up and make things happen.

But the fact remains that Johnson was about as visible against Buffalo as he was against the Chargers and Saints, and he didn't play in either of those games. In fact, other than one standout performance against Denver, Johnson hasn't done anything to write home about this entire year.

I can almost guarantee you that as Herm Edwards and Gunther Cunningham spent the offseason envisioning the rebuilding effort they had in store with their young, Jared Allen-less defense, they pictured Johnson blossoming into a defensive leader, making the younger players around him better, and establishing himself as a building block for years to come. Instead, with fewer parts around him, his progression appears to be moving in the wrong direction.

If the defensive line stiffens up and Johnson gets more talent around him at linebacker, he may someday fulfill that Pro Bowl potential we always seem to hear about when training camp rolls around. But any hopes of him becoming a transcendent player – the type who can rise up and make plays regardless of what's going on around him – appear to have been dashed.

At this point, Johnson appears to be an above-average NFL linebacker. No more, no less. It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs view the situation as they look to extend his contract.

As much as Chan Gailey deserves praise for the Chiefs' new spread attack, it's time to raise the issue of questionable playcalling.

I'm not the only person who wondered why the Chiefs ran a bootleg during their two-point conversion attempt against San Diego when, just three plays earlier, the Chargers had snuffed out a similar Tyler Thigpen rollout.

And while the debut of the "pistol" I-Gun formation against the Saints was an interesting innovation, turning every goal line possession into a fade route practice session for Dwayne Bowe seemed a little odd. Admittedly, it did lead to two touchdowns, but the Chiefs also settled for two field goals after similar attempts at getting the ball to Bowe failed.

But those examples may be nothing more than nit-picking. On Sunday, however, I thought the offensive playcalling was particularly strange.

At the beginning of the second quarter, with the Chiefs trailing 10-7, Larry Johnson busted off a 63-yard run to the goal line. The Chiefs scored and went up 14-10. On their next possession, with the score remaining the same, Johnson had a 26-yard run erased by a questionable holding penalty.

Had that play stood, the Chiefs would have amassed just under 90 rushing yards in only two plays. And the run negated by the penalty was only the third rushing play Gailey had called in the game.

Thanks to the holding call, the Chiefs punted on that series and the score was 14-13 when they got the ball back. Then, after a 29-yard pass to Bowe, Thigpen threw a pick-six that put the Chiefs down 20-14.

As I watched Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin running the other way with Thigpen's pass, I immediately thought, "Why are they throwing so much?"

The offense did come out and run the ball on the first play after Thigpen's interception, but quickly went back to throwing. As the game got away from the Chiefs, the rushing attack had to be shelved. Johnson ended the game with 81 yards on just seven carries.

Still, when the score was close in the first half, the Chiefs' run game looked dominant. Both Johnson and Jamaal Charles finished with an average of better than 10 yards per carry. Why would such a promising element of the game go ignored like that?

The decision is even more unusual when you consider that Thigpen didn't look especially sharp on Sunday. Even before he began turning the ball over, Thigpen misfired on a few early passes, nearly threw an interception on the first series, and – in what's becoming a troublesome trend – badly underthrew wide open receivers.

On the Chiefs' opening touchdown drive, Charles got so far ahead of Kawika Mitchell that he should have been able to moonwalk his way into the endzone. Instead, he had to come to a complete stop to catch the ball, and then put a curl move on Mitchell that allowed him to score. Later in the game, on Thigpen's touchdown pass to Mark Bradley, the ball was so underthrown that the pass could have resulted in another interception had the defender not fallen down.

Thigpen seems to be so worried about overthrowing open receivers that he's not putting enough on the ball. Hopefully, that's a problem he can correct. And even though his outing against Buffalo was rough, it's a promising sign that the Chiefs were still able to move the ball and score points. Thigpen didn't struggle because the defense "figured out" the Chiefs' new attack.

Still, with a quarterback who didn't look too crisp early in the game, and a running attack that was busting off big yards, Gailey's decision to throw the ball on almost every play stands out as a pretty questionable decision from Sunday's game.

With the Chiefs sitting at 1-10, these kinds of things aren't analyzed nearly as much as they would be during a winning season. But that doesn't mean they should be ignored. Is Gailey not making adjustments? Is he relying too heavily on what he devised before the game, rather than reacting to what happens as the action unfolds?

It's just something to keep an eye on as the season draws to a close.

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