TAMPA, Fla. —For all the talk about how the Chiefs will finish games, coach Todd Haley is, at least for now, concerned with how his team starts. The Chiefs' opening half in last week's preseason loss at Atlanta began poorly, to say the least. The defense had trouble stopping the Falcons' rush offense, and the Chiefs' offense failed to get a first down in its first two possessions — three-and-out on its opening possession and a Matt Cassel fumble on the next.
That's not the way Haley saw things coming together, and he said this past week that he hopes tonight's preseason game at Tampa Bay will be different.
"The guys just need to be ready for the start of the game," he said. "Tempo was a big issue. It wasn't about being ready; they were prepared. I think everybody was ready to go for the game, but I think the initial, 'Here we go, this is the first real game' — and I just think the tempo caught some guys off guard."
That came despite Haley's attempt to manipulate things to energize — or at least test — the defense. The Chiefs won the opening coin toss, and Haley elected to defer possession to begin the second half. He said later that the idea was to give the defense a chance to establish itself early and try to take control of the momentum.
That idea backfired. Falcons running back Michael Turner had no trouble with the Chiefs' front seven, and neither did fullback Jason Snelling. Even when Chiefs defenders got past Atlanta's offensive line, the Falcons kept gaining yards; Snelling gained five yards on a play in the first quarter after he was initially surrounded in the backfield.
It was that kind of evening for the Chiefs in the Georgia Dome, and it was reminiscent of so many contests in last year's 4-12 season — and that's something they would just as soon forget.
"That's why I think next week you'll see an adjustment," Haley said. "Everybody will have a little better idea of what to expect. I think that occurred, once they got their feet under them. I saw some good things from a lot of defensive players that makes me feel like we're making progress."
Haley indicated that he'd like to see more comfort from Cassel, too. The coach chided his quarterback this past week for two sacks and a fumble that, Haley said, was avoidable. The plays pushed the offense back, and kicker Ryan Succop missed his two field-goal attempts, both at 53 yards.
The Chiefs have worked during the offseason and training camp to prepare Cassel for his second season in Kansas City — and to remove as many obstacles as possible. Haley hired coordinator Charlie Weis to work with Cassel, and the team also improved its offensive line, re-signed receiver Chris Chambers and drafted versatile playmaker Dexter McCluster.
Cassel is, of course, one of this season's most significant barometers for success. If he's good, then the Chiefs could be, too. If he's not, the team could again be in trouble. The Chiefs would likely feel better about their outlook if Cassel appears more comfortable tonight at Raymond James Stadium, where he — and the rest of the starters — are expected to play more than the brief appearances they made last week at Atlanta.
"It's a work in progress," said Cassel, who completed six of eight passes last week, but none for more than six yards. "We're continuing to work hard each and every day; we're still grinding.
"The offensive unit, we're just going to keep working and trying to get better and better each week."
Haley said early last week that the coaching staff would spend much of the Chiefs' final week of training camp emphasizing the need to start well against the Buccaneers. Haley has said he understands that the time to prepare is running out; he has jokingly said that he would take more than four preseason games to get his young team ready for the regular season.
Now, the Chiefs get another chance to begin with authority. Haley said he hopes it goes better than it did at the Georgia Dome, when the Chiefs didn't score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
"That was a test," Haley said of the Atlanta game. "We just have to be ready for that tempo and physicality of the game right out of the gate as opposed to waiting five, six, seven, eight plays."