Issues Surrounding The Chiefs: Week 2

Michael Ash examines a quarterback controversy with a different flavor and the progression of KC's run defense in this week's edition of Issues Surrounding The Chiefs.

This week's "quarterback controversy" seems largely contrived.

Todd Haley certainly didn't help the cause by being so forthcoming during his Tuesday press conference, but he was only responding to the questions asked – questions that were apparently being raised because of a theory floated by former Chief Bill Maas on local Kansas City radio.

Since Haley did his best to end the discussion Thursday, let's shift away from the topic of Matt Cassel vs. Brodie Croyle and talk about a quarterback controversy of a different sort - Cassel vs. Mark Sanchez.

With the obvious disclaimer that it's much, much too early to draw definitive conclusions about either player, Sanchez is off to a solid start in New York – 435 passing yards, two touchdowns, a 90.1 quarterback rating .

The Jets, who finished 9-7 a year ago, are more talented than the Chiefs, haven't protected Sanchez the way rookie quarterbacks often are. While it would be incredibly easy for the Jets to ease him in slowly, relying on their defense and running game, they came out with a Week 1 game plan that saw Sanchez throw 31 passes.

Following the 2008 season, Warpaint Illustrated featured several editorials concerning the Chiefs' need for a quarterback. That topic wasn't well-received by those who thought Tyler Thigpen had already proven himself worthy of the job.

Prior to the draft, even after the Chiefs had acquired Cassel from the Patriots, I wrote a column supporting the idea of the Chiefs still drafting Sanchez in case Cassel didn't live up to expectations. After all, there's nothing more important to a team than having a franchise quarterback. But that idea went over about as well as the notion of replacing Thigpen.

The Chiefs, of course, didn't take Sanchez in April's draft, and weren't the only team to pass on him. The Rams had the draft's second pick, and with 32 year-old Marc Bulger and former Raven Kyle Boller as their top two quarterbacks, surely there are some in St. Louis watching Sanchez and wondering, "what if?"

Likewise, the Seahawks – led by oft-injured 34 year-old Matt Hasselbeck – picked fourth and were heavily rumored to have interest in Sanchez. But it may have simply been a smoke screen, as they chose to take linebacker Aaron Curry instead. I've even seen it suggested that after the uninspiring play of Brady Quinn thus far, the Cleveland Browns – who allowed the Jets to move up and take Sanchez – should have a case of trader's remorse.

Unlike the teams we just mentioned, though, the Chiefs had their minds made up well before the draft. Just after the Chiefs acquired their new quarterback, I wrote:

By trading for Cassel when the Chiefs were in position to draft a top-rated quarterback, our new general manager hasn't wasted any time putting himself in the line of fire. . . . Pioli is telling us that Cassel is better than Tyler Thigpen. More importantly, he's telling us that no matter how good Matt Stafford or Mark Sanchez may turn out to be, Cassel will be better.

Again, we're a long way from knowing if Sanchez will actually prove to be a top-flight quarterback. Matt Leinart looked like a can't-miss superstar in his first outings against the Chiefs and Bears a few seasons ago. Aside from nearly leading his team to victory, he also threw two touchdown passes in the first quarter of both games, the first rookie to ever accomplish that feat in the first two starts of his career. But over the course of the season, Leinart only threw multiple touchdowns in one other game, showing that hot starts don't always last.

We're also an extremely long way from drawing any conclusions about Cassel. But if Sanchez continues playing the way he has, it's going to be an interesting story to follow throughout the season and beyond.


Is Kansas City's run defense better than we think?

As noted here a few weeks ago, Kansas City's rush defense only surrendered an average of 3.1 yards per carry during the preseason. If it held up, a mark like that would rank the Chiefs among the league's best run-stopping units.

Many are quick to dismiss preseason stats, and with good reason, but we can't ignore that the stats from the 2008 preseason proved to be a sign of things to come for the Chiefs' defense. After allowing 4.9 yards per carry during the four exhibition games, the average allowed during the regular season was 5.0 – a difference of only one-tenth of a yard.

In this year's season opener, the Chiefs' allowed a poor 4.8 yards-per-carry average. But as we covered last week, it was a tale of two halves. Before halftime, the Chiefs held the Ravens to 3.3 yards per carry – right in line with their preseason numbers. In the second half, things fell apart, with the average rising to 5.6.

Did the run defense get worse as the game wore on because the sputtering offense left Chiefs' defenders on the field too long? Or did the run defense look good early because the Ravens came out passing and weren't focused on establishing a ground game?

The answer may have been a little clearer after the matchup with Oakland.

The Raiders officially rushed for just 67 yards on the day, a drastic turnaround from the 300-yard explosion they put up in Arrowhead a year ago. Removing the sack and scrambling yardage for JaMarcus Russell, who lost three yards in total, the Chiefs allowed 70 yards on 22 rushing attempts. That's an average of 3.1 yards per carry – a number that, again, is right in line with their preseason stats and their first half against Baltimore.

Based on that data, we could draw ever closer to the conclusion that the Chiefs actually have a legitimate run defense. That would mean the poor second half against the Ravens was indeed due to a worn-down, tired out squad.

But, once again, there's a caveat that needs to be examined.

For reasons known only to the Raiders' brain trust, Oakland didn't focus on their running game throughout Sunday's contest. Instead, they were content to repeatedly put the ball in Russell's hands, who responded by only completing seven of his 24 pass attempts.

If you saw the Raiders' season opener against San Diego, you saw them start off the game with a clear focus on running the ball. On their first two drives alone, they rushed for more yardage than they achieved throughout four quarters against the Chiefs.

Their bizarre strategy from Sunday makes it difficult to properly evaluate what we saw, leading to the same question we had coming out of Baltimore. Like the Ravens in the first half, if the Raiders had actually focused on running the ball during the game, would the Chiefs still have held them to such a low output? Or would they have eventually started giving up the big runs that plagued them a season ago?

It doesn't seem like we'll get an answer to that question until the Chiefs face a team that's determined to get their ground game going.

But in the meantime, after the 300-yard disaster we saw last year, the Chiefs shutting down the run under any circumstance has to be a silver lining in what was otherwise a disappointing afternoon.

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