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Chiefs’ inability to stop the pass is too big a playoff weakness

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, at 6:06 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, at 3:15 p.m.

After the Chiefs have lost in the playoffs and the obituaries of their season have been written, we will remember this team in two primary ways.

First, it’s the group that brought pride back to an organization that had lost its way, one of the great turnarounds in recent NFL history.

And second, it will be the team that kept alive the franchise’s 20-year drought of playoff wins because it could not stop the pass.

This season is such a wild ride, already. It started with the cloud of an embarrassing and shameful 2-14 team hanging overhead, then it picked up steam with a string of good breaks and overwhelming defense, and it’s now spinning its wheels uphill through the icy conditions of better competition.

What most people thought before the season was turned to fiction through the first nine games, and what many people thought through the first nine games has again been turned on its head by the last six.

Specifically, this is no longer a defense that fans should be confident with or a competent offense should be concerned with.

Even including a gift against an imploding team from Washington, the Chiefs are giving up 27.8 points per game since their bye week. They rank 21st in opponents’ yards per play (edging out No. 22 Jacksonville).

Their best cornerback from the first month or two of the season has been benched, and the results didn’t change. Their best cornerback from last year has been moved from the outside to the slot and now back to the outside, and the results didn’t change.

A defense that was the talk of the league through Halloween is now a liability against good quarterbacks, at a time when the Chiefs are unlikely to again face anything but a star quarterback.

The Chiefs’ four losses have clear similarities, starting with their inability to stop the pass.

In those losses, opposing quarterbacks completed 67 percent of their passes for an average of 340 yards with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. That’s a cumulative passer rating of 111.9. If you prefer ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating — it’s complicated, but it’s a scale of 0-100 with 50 being average — the Chiefs have given up QBRs of 66.5, 86.7, 97.2 and 55.5 in their losses.

In those losses, we saw Marcus Cooper bullied, Brandon Flowers beat, and Sean Smith complaining about penalties that were fairly called on him.

We’ve also seen circumstances that demand far more from the cornerbacks than should ever be asked — a neutered pass rush giving quarterbacks too much time and a lot of plays with only one safety deep to help.

Using Pro Football Focus’ numbers, almost without exception, the worst games for all three primary cornerbacks are the losses. Then again, the guys at the line of scrimmage aren’t doing their job, either: 6 1/2 sacks and 18.7 quarterback hits and hurries in the wins, compared to one-half sack and 13.2 hits and hurries in the losses.

Even watching video, without knowing assignments and schemes (and who is playing at less than full strength), dividing blame is a circular argument. Receivers are often open, at least in part, because the pass rush isn’t getting to the quarterback. The pass rush can’t get to the quarterback, at least in part, because receivers are open too quickly.

This week, Chiefs coach Andy Reid talked about how much of his team’s inability to stop the pass in the four losses is more on the pass rushers or pass defenders.

“I’d probably say there’s a combination of things,” he said. “The bottom line is we’re not having quite as much pressure on the quarterback. … Pressure and coverage kind of work together. Each (game) is a little different.

“You saw (against Indianapolis), we didn’t have guys covered. We’ve got to make sure we get that straight. … One breakdown, the quarterback sees it, there’s an issue. We need to make sure we get that better.”

You’ll notice there are separate bits of Reid’s answer that put the blame on the pass rush and the pass coverage.

There is enough blame to go around.

The expected return of Justin Houston will help, of course. Everything that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton wants to do is based on pressuring the quarterback, and even on a team with Tamba Hali, Houston is the best pass rusher.

But we’ve seen enough to know that Houston’s return will not be an instant and total fix. We’ve seen enough to know that the cornerbacks aren’t fast enough to keep up on deep routes, that they need more than one safety helping in the pass game, and that the coaches haven’t figured out how to properly defend against crossing routes.

The Chiefs have accomplished a lot this year. Jamaal Charles (offensive player of the year), Andy Reid (coach of the year) and John Dorsey (executive of the year) have strong cases for major postseason awards. The Chiefs should get at least five, and maybe as many as seven players in the Pro Bowl. They have grown from dysfunction to the playoffs, and that’s no small thing, even in the parity-driven NFL.

No matter what happens the rest of the way, this has been a successful and crucial season in the Chiefs regaining their fans’ trust.

But when the season ends with another playoff loss, the important thing will be to patch weaknesses in time to take advantage of the prime years for stars like Charles, Hali and Derrick Johnson.

Mostly, that means figuring out a way to stop the pass.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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