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November 1, 2013

Chiefs Q&A: Pass protection, defending Denver and more

This week's installment of The Star’s Chiefs mailbag covers a wide swath of topics, ranging from the state of the offensive line to the Chiefs’ looming matchup against Denver. We’ll start with some leftover questions from my live chat on Tuesday, so if you missed that, be sure to read the transcript here.

This week's installment of The Star’s Chiefs mailbag covers a wide swath of topics, ranging from the state of the offensive line to the Chiefs’ looming matchup against Denver. But we’ll start with some leftover questions from my live chat on Tuesday, so if you missed that, be sure to read the transcript here.

Guest: Any concerns that despite Alex Smith entering the Cleveland game having the current longest active streak in the NFL among QB's w/o a TD that he can be successful in the playoffs?

Yes, I have some concerns. I like quarterbacks that don't make mistakes, but in today's NFL, I need a guy that can make plays, too. Smith's scrambling ability is definitely a weapon, but you have to be able to connect on some big plays downfield to win in the playoffs. This is worth a story at some point.

Guest: Despite being the NFL's only remaining unbeaten team do you think among the media and others that the (reason the) Chiefs are not getting any or much at all in the way of national exposure is because many find them fraudulent as an 8-0 team? Especially seeing that at 8-0 the Chiefs are far from being the NFL's best team which is what that record would indicate?

There may be some of that, but the biggest reasons for the disrespect are middling offense and the size of the market. If you take this exact team and swap it out with the New York Jets, ESPN would create an entire network dedicated solely to Jets coverage. And they'd still inexplicably be the lead on SportsCenter every day, too.

SteveMiller31: Really enjoying your coverage of the Chiefs, TP. How would you compare covering an NFL team (Chiefs) to covering major college football (Mizzou)?

Thanks. Covering the NFL is a little easier in some ways, thanks to NFL Game Rewind and all the stats they provide you. When I was covering Mizzou, I had to record every game and jot down player participation notes myself, which was time consuming and probably not as accurate as the info the NFL provides me.

On the other hand, the Chiefs beat is more competitive and I'm exposed to much more scrutiny, both fair and unfair. But as anyone who has seen me knows, I'm a big boy and can take it.

SteveMiller31: The Chiefs boast one of the best defenses in the league, anchored by an incredible linebacking corps. Thankfully, we haven't needed Nico Johnson to contribute. But I'm wondering how his development is coming along. Thanks.

His development was certainly hampered by the high ankle sprain he suffered in the preseason. By all accounts he's healthy now, but he's never seriously challenged Akeem Jordan for the starting inside linebacker job since then. I expect Nico to get a long look at the position next year, though. Jordan has been good but he's on a one-year deal, and the Chiefs could probably use the money it will take to re-sign him elsewhere.

Craig: Thanks for taking questions... Do you think Marcus Cooper will ever have a dual role as DB and WR?

Nope. I think the Chiefs want Cooper to focus solely on developing as a cornerback. He's only played the position for a few years now and isn't nearly polished enough to consider giving him the Deion Sanders treatment, which has been afforded to exactly two players in my lifetime – Primetime and Champ Bailey. Am I missing anyone?

SteveMiller31: The team has to develop some RB depth behind Jamaal, and I'm not really seeing much from the guys on the roster. Are Davis or Gray the answer, or might the team be drafting a RB again next year?

Steve Miller has got all the questions today. Knile Davis has the best chance of emerging as the top backup. I wrote a ton about it today.

SteveMiller31: Has Flowers fully recovered from his injuries? Wondering if his move inside is partially to keep from exposing him to more explosive WRs on the outside.

I think B. Flowers is still a little banged up. But I think his move inside has more to do with the emergence of Marcus Cooper and the looming showdown against this guy.

SteveMiller31: Interested in your rating of S. Smith's play at CB. Love his size, but it seems like he gets beat too often.

To be fair, Smith was playing out of his mind before the Houston game. Before he joined the Chiefs, he had a reputation as a guy whose attention drifts. But I'd say his recent “struggles” have more to do with the talents of DeAndre Hopkins (a first-round pick) and Josh Gordon (a first-round talent) than anything.

Jeff from Woodbury, MN: First off Terez, you're doing a great job reporting on the Chiefs. As a journalist, I really appreciate your insight and writing. Now to the question. After eight games, the offense has shown sparks and the defense has been stout. As a whole, do you think the Chiefs are playing down to their opponents with all of these close games against .500 teams and below or do you think there is another level they can rise to?

Thanks Jeff, the check is in the mail. I don’t think they’re playing down to their opponents, but I think there's another level they can rise to, particularly if the offense shows improvement down the stretch. This can't be the best we'll see from Dwayne Bowe this year, and I'd be surprised if Knile Davis wasn't contributing more by the end of the year. Speaking of Bowe...

Jared: What's the key to getting Bowe more involved catching the ball?

The best way would be for Donnie Avery to emerge as a consistent, every-game threat so teams have to play Bowe more honest. But for that to happen, Alex Smith needs to take a few more shots downfield, which is far from a certainty. Plus, as our columnist Sam Mellinger once put it, Bowe seems perhaps 9/10ths as explosive as he’s been in the past. But he's only 29, so there's always a chance he finds than missing 1/10th later on the season.

Chuck Dilley: As a Chiefs fan I consider this season a bonus, we are a young team building for the future. We really weren't supposed to win this early, so let us just enjoy it. Do you agree?

I'm not a Chiefs fan, but yes Chuck, I agree. Last year was a nightmare, this year is a dream. I've been a football fan all my life and never seen my hometown team (the cursed Detroit Lions) start 8-0. Stop complaining and enjoy it.

Pat: You think those named would view (a trade) as punishment?"

In my chat Tuesday, I received approximately 1,442 questions about potential trades, and I essentially said that while the Chiefs could do something, it would be tough to demote receivers like Avery and Dexter McCluster or tight ends like Anthony Fasano and Sean McGrath when the team is 8-0. I'm certain none of those guys would have complained publicly (the locker room is too strong for that). But the chances of upsetting the locker-room chemistry at all wasn’t worth taking unless you essentially pulled off a steal of a trade. Those are hard to come by in the NFL.

S. Chief: Terez, I worry about this game in Buffalo. Chiefs historically have not played well up there, including the AFC Championship game with Joe Montana. Do you think they can pull this one out with a banged-up Bills team?

Yes, but for the reasons you cited, I could easily see it being a loss. I predicted them to win, but I don't feel great about it.

Do you believe that Derrick Johnson should get Defensive Player of the Year?

No. Derrick has been terrific this year and he leads the NFL's best defense in tackles. But he needs a few more signature moments and there are some other terrific candidates out there (like Justin Houston, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, etc.).

Laurence Park: I think we have seen all of Denver's playbook as they put up record breaking offense numbers which provides more info for our defense who I believe is the class of the League. Our offense uses the NFL rule that states you must score only one point more than the other team and have been able to withhold offensive potential as a result. Your thoughts?

Haha, good one.

SteveMiller31: The run blocking has been noticeably worse that last year. Charles is taking a beating on a lot of one and two yard runs with very few holes opening up. Any chance this improves?

It's 50/50. On one hand, these guys are only going to take more punishment as the season goes on, which obviously weakens them physically. On the other hand, the more a unit gets to work together, the more coordinated they become. Offenses often improve as the season goes on due to the repetition it takes to execute at a high level.

Goose: Is it too early to be looking at potential draft picks? WR, OL, maybe a HB?

It's never too early to start looking at the draft! I think the Chiefs would be best served by taking the best player available, especially at the end of the first round, where talented guys always seem to be ripe for the taking. But specifically, I'd expect them to look at defensive end and free safety (where Tyson Jackson and Kendrick Lewis are free agents) and receiver (where they could really use another downfield threat).

Cy Kosis: Does getting beat 1-on-1 boil down to speed?

This is in response to a question about the pass protection, where I said guys were getting beat 1 on 1 up front. It boils down to strength and technique. Technique can always be improved, but after a guy's second or third year, I'm not sure how much strength a guy can add. The good news is that Eric Fisher and Donald Stephenson, two recent top picks that have struggled some this year, are still young enough to improve in both areas.

JJ: One of the things that baffles me is that last year, the Chiefs ran the ball better, even when teams knew they were going to do it because the passing game sucked. Granted, they had Lilja and Winston instead of Hudson and Fisher. Did those changes downgrade the line THAT much?

If you believe in Pro Football Focus' numbers (and I do), then yes. Ryan Lilja finished last season with a plus-14.6 grade, while Winston finished with a plus-15. Both were terrific at run blocking too, as Lilja boasted a ridiculous plus-15.4 grade while Winston checked in at plus-8.8. Compare that to Fisher, who has a grade of negative-17.9 overall and negative-7.9 as a run blocker and Hudson, who has largely been average with a negative-0.3 grade overall and negative-2.9 in the running game. It's a huge difference, especially when Branden Albert, Jeff Allen and Jon Asamoah are playing as well or better than they did last year.

Guest: What's the word on Sanders Commings' return to the team?

The Chiefs have until next Wednesday to promote him to the active roster or put him on long-term injured reserve. It's unclear how much they think he can help, though I suspect he might have a hard time cracking a secondary that features plenty of veteran experience. Dunta Robinson can’t even get on the field for goodness sake.

Guest: This may be a bit premature but do you have a tentative prediction for KC's final record?

To me, the Chiefs have the look of a 12-4 team that loses before the AFC Championship Game. If the offense makes significant strides, the ceiling rises.

MICHAELSHAW: I think the performance of the O-line on passing downs is a concern. Care to comment?

Yep. Albert, Asamoah and Hudson have been fine but Allen has been beaten a few times and the right tackle position remains a liability. Fisher will get better there...the question is whether he can do it before next season.

Kyle: Have you been able to take a look at Buffalo yet? What kind of problems will they give the Chiefs?

I know Thad Lewis is Buffalo's like, eighth-string quarterback, but I kinda like the guy. I thought he was a player, even at Duke. He has a good arm and seems to make decent decisions. I also really like C.J. Spiller (if he plays), and the defense. The front seven is loaded. Defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are studs, while outside linebackers Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson can rush the quarterback. Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso has been fantastic, too, and safety Jairus Byrd is one of the league's best centerfielders. I picked the Chiefs to win but again, I don't feel great about it.

Guest: In the past 3 weeks, not counting last Sunday, it seems as though Smith has become less accurate than earlier in the season and having more indecision. That is seen in holding the ball too long and getting sacked more. Do you agree, and if so, any thoughts on the reasons?

I agree, but I attribute this to facing a couple of terrific defensive fronts. Like I wrote last week, the Browns had a silently intimidating pass rush, one that was ranked eighth in the league in sacks entering the game. Still, the line needs to be better, in general. Despite his scrambling ability, Alex Smith has been sacked 24 times this year, the fifth-most of anyone in the NFL. He's also thrown the ball 289 times (the ninth-most in the NFL).

Caleb: Terez, how many pro bowlers do you see the Chiefs having if the voting were held today? I'm thinking six sounds about right.

Hmm. I think Derrick Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are locks. Dontari Poe is certainly deserving, and his chances probably went up with Geno Atkins' unfortunate injury last night. Safety Eric Berry is worthy, too, and if fullback Anthony Sherman keeps it up, he could be the AFC's starting fullback. Throw in a special teams guy, as Mellinger noted, and in my opinion the Chiefs could have even more than six. But six is a safe number.

John: As a Chiefs fan since the beginning (like '63), can this team – with they way they are playing – get to the Super Bowl and win it?

Sure. I just don't think it's likely unless the offense improves.

Guest: I am afraid our defense will struggle when we go up against a QB who is able to get the ball out quickly before our ends can get to him. It will expose our secondary more. Jason Campbell was able to have some success with it.

Yeah, there's something to this. With Peyton Manning, the ball is going to be coming out quick. That's why that matchup will be so intriguing, though I wonder if Denver's receivers will be able to get the separation they need against the Chiefs' big cornerbacks. Plus, K.C. will have two weeks to prepare, which is plenty of time to throw in some new wrinkles.

Goose: With the Denver defense struggling, do you see any trick plays (like the fake spike to dive we saw last week) against Denver to catch them off guard? Or is that too juvenile against a team like that?

Andy Reid has a reputation for breaking out trick plays now and then, but with the way the offensive line is pass blocking, I doubt we'll see another flea-flicker (like the one that failed last week) any time soon.

MICHAELSHAW: I live in the Philly suburbs but didn't follow the Eagles that closely. Do you know Andy Reid's history following a bye week?

Winning in Denver in two weeks will be a chore, but this is something the Chiefs have in their favor. Dude is 13-1 in his career after a bye.

I do think there was some interest in Tony Gonzalez. But because of their record, they weren't gonna mess with the chemistry unless it was a heist. It's pretty obvious Atlanta wasn't gonna let that happen.

Maybe a little bit. I still think they can get more out of Bowe and there's a chance the o-line improves as the season goes on. Still, odds are what you see is what you get.

I think he's getting that chance...he plays in every game. But can he do anything with the chance? I don't know. He's got good speed but I remember him dropping a pass or two and I don't know if he's been creating separation, which was a problem in San Francisco.

The Chiefs don't start seriously discussing this sort of stuff until a player's career is over, but I'd think there's a pretty good chance for Brian Waters. Eleven years with the Chiefs, including five Pro Bowls and two all-pro seasons. That's a better resume than some players currently in there, including the most recent inductee, safety Gary Barbaro (seven years with the Chiefs, three Pro Bowls).

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