The Chiefs’ practice on Thursday is not like any other for the team’s defensive players. It’s their day to play offense.
One of the assistant coaches throws a ball downfield, it’s intercepted by a linebacker or a defensive back, and … whoosh! … all 11 players hightail it for the end zone.
“Nobody says just the offense has to score,” said strong safety Eric Berry, who has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season, including a 47-yarder last week at Oakland. “It’s our mentality every week to score points however we can.”
Consequently, the Chiefs lead the NFL with 11 miscellaneous touchdowns — five interception returns and one fumble return on defense; and two punt returns, two kickoff returns and a recovered fumble on special teams.
The 11 miscellaneous touchdowns are two shy of the NFL record set by Seattle in 1998 and match the Chiefs’ franchise record set in 1992 and 1999. The Chiefs are also the first team in NFL history to score multiple touchdowns on interceptions, kickoff returns, punt returns and fumble returns in a season.
“We always say, the first objective is get the ball,” said defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “The second one is we want to score. Anytime you can take the ball back on defense is important, whether it’s three-and-out, or take it back by getting the ball.
“The next phase is you have to establish a mind-set that you’re not satisfied with just getting the ball. We don’t want to be satisfied with just getting a takeaway. … You want to think score.”
Indeed, of the Chiefs’ 48 touchdowns this season, 11 of them have been scored by either the defense or special teams
That helps explain that while the Chiefs rank 17th in the NFL in offense and 22nd in defense, they are third in scoring, averaging 28.5 points per game, and fourth in fewest points allowed at 18.2
The Chiefs, 11-3 going into today’s noon game at Arrowhead Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts, 9-5, have scored on defense or special teams in nine of their 14 games, and are 8-1 in those games. And they are one of just three teams in the NFL not to have given up a touchdown return or recovery.
All-time, the Chiefs are 103-27-2 in games in which they have scored a defensive touchdown, a winning percentage of 78.8 percent.
Little wonder the Chiefs spend so much time rehearsing the steps of returning interceptions for touchdowns.
“When we intercept in practice, we don’t want to just catch it and stop … ” Sutton said. “No, you’ve got to go up that sideline and the guys have to be hustling to build a wall. It turns into an offensive play.”
Once the ball is in the hands of a defensive player, he often reverts to his days as a high school or college running back or quarterback.
“They’d like to run all over the field,” Sutton said with a laugh. “Sometimes they do, unfortunately. It’s like a running play. They enjoy that part of it. They all think they should be and probably could be a running back. There’s a reason they’re on defense, usually.”
The Chiefs had a franchise-low 12 takeaways on six interceptions and six fumble recoveries and failed to score on a single defensive turnover in 2012.
The emphasis on creating turnovers was apparent this summer in Andy Reid’s first training camp when he had quarterbacks throw to defensive backs during drills. It provided the defensive backs a better feel for what a throw from an NFL quarterback feels like as opposed to an assistant coach.
“It’s smart to have those guys catch balls from quarterbacks,” said Chase Daniel, who as the scout-team quarterback faces the Chiefs’ starting defense in practice every day.
“They’re ball hawks. Our defensive backs have some of the best ball skills as a whole I’ve seen since I’ve been in this league for five years now. It shows on game day. “
So far this season, the Chiefs — after forcing seven turnovers at Oakland last week — are tied for third in the NFL with 20 interceptions, lead the league with 15 fumble recoveries and 35 total takeaways — and most important — lead in turnover differential with a plus-21.
That comes off last year’s league worst minus-24, for a one-year swing of plus 45.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who has thrown just nine interceptions in 496 attempts, this season, has taken notice.
“You talk about turnovers, they do a great job,” Luck said of the Chiefs. “Obviously the defensive backs … but then (linebacker) Derrick Johnson running around the middle getting his hands on balls and either tipping them up or intercepting them.”
Even when the Chiefs don’t return an interception or fumble for a touchdown, they’ve set up the offense with short fields.
“Our special teams and defense …” Daniel said. “Scoring 11 touchdowns is unbelievable. I wouldn’t say it takes pressure off us, but it allows us as an offense to execute what we do.”
The defense isn’t satisfied with its six defensive touchdowns.
“Eight touchdowns on defense was our goal,” said safety Quintin Demps. “This is about us trying to reach our goal every week.”
Demps has contributed one of the miscellaneous touchdowns with a 95-yard kickoff return at Washington on Dec. 8. Last week Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski, who has one of the best legs in the league, booted some ground balls and pooch kickoffs to negate Demps and Knile Davis, who had a 108-yard kickoff return for touchdown against Denver on Dec. 1.
Still, Demps nearly broke one for a touchdown, fielding a bouncing ball and returing the opening kickoff 50 yards, setting up the game-opening touchdown pass to Jamaal Charles.
“We were close (to returning touchdowns) on a couple,” said special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. “You have to be able to make them pay (for kicking short).
“You have to block ’em and create seams and have returners who are capable. Fortunately we have that situation here.”