KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Two games into his NFL career, Kendrick Lewis took over as the starting free safety for the Chiefs.
Lewis, a fifth-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, was expected to provide much-needed depth for a depleted secondary, but he quickly proved indispensable for new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s unit.
Some could argue that Lewis has been the most important Chief from his draft class.
After cracking the starting lineup for the eventual AFC West champions as a rookie, Lewis, because of injury, missed four games and didn’t start in another. The Chiefs went 1-4 in those games.
“He’s definitely the general of the defense,” cornerback Brandon Flowers said. “He gets everybody lined up and makes it easy on everybody with the calls.”
Flowers and 2010 first-round pick Eric Berry, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, remain the stars in the Chiefs’ secondary, but it’s Lewis, who started all 16 games last year, that holds the group together.
And it’s his absence — Lewis missed the season’s first five games after suffering a separated shoulder in the preseason — that was felt acutely in a secondary that has been roasted during the Chiefs’ 1-5 start.
On the surface, things might seem fine.
The Chiefs rank 12th in pass defense, allowing only 224.5 yards per game, but dig deeper and the façade crumbles.
The Chiefsallow more yards per pass attempt (8.9) than any other NFL defense, and opposing quarterbacks have a robust 106.5 passer rating.
Only Tennessee has a worse opponent passer rating (107.9) than the Chiefs, who have allowed 13 passing touchdowns and managed only four interceptions.
“Kendrick is a good player for us who did a good job last year,” said Crennel, who took over as head coach this season after two seasons as Todd Haley’s defensive coordinator. “He has a good command of the secondary, and he’s a great communicator back there. So when we lost him, we did lose some communication initially.”
Lewis, a New Orleans native, sees the game with a quarterback’s eye. He played the position in high school before switching to defense full-time at Mississippi.
That experience continues to influence his film study and game acumen, making him an integral piece in getting the Chiefs into the proper coverage and, in some cases, disguising the coverage to fool opposing quarterbacks.
“As a quarterback, you’ve got to know how defenses are going to attack you,” Lewis said. “With that knowledge, being on the other side of the ball now, I know what’s going through a quarterback’s mind when he sees this coverage or a certain type of safety rotation.”
Lewis’ replacement, Abram Elam, didn’t bring the same nuance to the position and possibly contributed to some of veteran cornerback Stanford Routt’s struggles adjusting to Crennel’s scheme.
“When Abe came in, Abe didn’t know the system, and he had to learn the system and gain the trust of the players on the back end with him,” Crennel said. “Abe did a nice job, but Kendrick has that little extra.”
Lewis’ return to the lineup at Tampa Bay last week may have been overshadowed by the fact that Josh Freeman lit up the Chiefs in second half of a 38-10 blowout, but Lewis was able to knock some rust off. And this week’s bye is allowing the first-string secondary to get more reps together in practice for the first time since training camp.
“Now, we’re in a position where we have to stand back, regroup and just attack the second half of the season,” Lewis said. “… Some things didn’t go our way the first half of the season. I don’t know if it’s bad luck or karma. It could be anything, but all I know is we’ve got to fix it whatever it is.”
Having Lewis healthy can’t hurt.
“Every day that goes by, the chemistry is going to jell more and more, because he wasn’t even allowed to practice,” Flowers said. “Just having him back will do nothing but help our defense.”