When Cris Collinsworth watched the Chiefs terrorize Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor, sacking him nine times last week, one word kept popping into his mind.
“I kept saying, ‘Wow,’” said Collinsworth, analyst for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
“When they decide to go get the quarterback, it’s a little frightening.”
The Chiefs’ defense has been ransacking and pillaging passers at a record pace during their 6-0 start, and the Wows and Oohs and Ahhs can be heard around the league.
Houston coach Gary Kubiak, who will throw first-year quarterback Case Keenum into his first NFL start this afternoon against the Chiefs at raucous Arrowhead Stadium, knows what he’s going against.
“When they get nine sacks in one game, it’s kind of hard to say, ‘We’ve got to block that guy,’” Kubiak said. “That’s what’s so impressive. Production comes from everywhere. Not one or two places.”
Indeed, the sacks are coming from linebackers, linemen and defensive backs. Outside linebacker Justin Houston leads with 9 1/2 sacks; fellow outside linebacker Tamba Hali has 6 1/2; nose tackle Dontari Poe has 4 1/2; and in all, 10 different Chiefs have had at least a half sack.
So far, the Chiefs have a league-leading 30 sacks and are on pace to collect 80, which would shatter the NFL-record 72 by the 1984 Chicago Bears.
And in just six games, the Chiefs already are halfway toward obliterating the franchise-record 60 sacks set by the 1990 Chiefs, who were led by Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas, who had 20 that year, and Neil Smith, who had 9 1/2.
The most amazing part of the Chiefs’ sack story is that just five years ago they set an NFL record for fewest sacks in a season, with 10.
Their 30 sacks are three more than the Chiefs had all of last year, and they are sacking the quarterback, if not hitting or hurrying him, once every 8 1/2 pass plays.
“Kansas City has kind of snuck up on everybody,” said former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, an analyst for NBC. “But they have had some great defensive players. The problem in the past was the offense was turning it over so much, they were never ahead in games.
“Now, you’re getting to see what this defense can do. The pass rush in Arrowhead, with the noise when you get ahead, and if a team has to throw, and the tackles can’t hear the snap count, and they have to go on a silent count, there are a lot of things that go in the Chiefs’ favor.”
Sacking the quarterback has always been a signature of Chiefs defenses.
Hall of Fame tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp and unsung ends Jerry Mays and Aaron Brown spearheaded units that led the AFL in sacks in 1960, 1965 and 1969 before they were kept as an official statistic.
Then came the tandem of Art Still and Mike Bell, who helped the Chiefs break the 50-sack barrier in 1984, two years after sacks became an official stat.
Thomas, Smith and the Marty Schottenheimer-coached defenses of the 1990s raised sacking the quarterback at Arrowhead to an art form when 11 different players contributed to setting the current club record of 60 sacks in 1990.
Even more recently, Jared Allen, playing opposite Hali, led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in 2007 before he was traded to Minnesota. Hali was a one-man band in 2010 with an AFC-leading 14 1/2 and 12 in 2011, and Houston had a breakout season in 2012, his second year, with 10.
“The organization does a great job of finding guys who are relentless types of players who come in and love to get after the quarterback,” Hali said, “and surround(ing) those players with phenomenal athletes.”
Former Chiefs nose tackle Bill Maas, who had five sacks as a rookie on the 50-sack team in 1984 and 5 1/2 sacks for the 60-sack team in 1990, said Poe is the difference-maker in the 2013 version.
“The difference I see over the last four, five, six years with the Chiefs is they’ve had no pocket push at all,” Maas said. “They had some pressures, Hali got some numbers for a few years, but they had no one to push that pocket. They changed nose tackles and defensive tackles year after year after year, but Dontari is now that guy. There’s a reason they don’t take him out of the game.
“He can play the nose like it’s meant to be played, push the line of scrimmage back, keep the linebackers free, and when they go to a (nickel) sub package, he’s quick enough and slippery enough to push that pocket.”
Poe sometimes is the only down lineman in obvious passing downs. Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, who was the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator during 1989-91, compares Poe’s role to that of nose tackle Dan Saleaumua, who had seven sacks for the 1990 Chiefs.
“I always go back to if Derrick didn’t have a Dan Saleaumua coming inside, he and Neil are not the same, because quarterbacks can feel comfortable stepping up into the pocket,” said Cowher, now an analyst for “The NFL Today” on CBS. “Right now, there’s nowhere to step up.
“Tamba Hali has always been a great effort guy, I’ve always loved him Justin Houston has shown a speed and natural pass-rush ability from the outside. He can really dip his shoulders, he can get to the corner but the biggest thing to me is they’ve got someone who can push the pocket. Poe can push it, (defensive end) Tyson Jackson could push it.”
That leaves offensive coordinators, quarterbacks and pass blockers in a bind.
“When I played with Art and Mike or Neil and Derrick, we knew the guy who gets the single block has to win,” Maas said. “Two of those three Dontari, Houston or Hali are going to get a double team, and you take your best matchup and go man with somebody. That (blocker) has had a miserable time.
“That’s the fun thing about watching this defense. I’m seeing poor offensive play around the league. I don’t know if that has to do with the collective-bargaining agreement and limited practices, but when you play this bunch, it becomes tough to match up, and then you mix in all the other variables — bringing corners, and safeties and (inside linebacker) Derrick Johnson, and it’s a nightmare.”
When Andy Reid took over as coach of the Chiefs in January, he inherited the components for a vicious pass rush. Hali, Houston, Johnson and strong safety Eric Berry were Pro Bowlers.
The Chiefs then signed free agent cornerback Sean Smith to pair with Brandon Flowers, providing two shutdown corners who could play the press coverage that forces quarterbacks to hold on to the ball an extra second.
“I knew they could rush the passer,” Reid said in a typical understatement.
Reid hired Bob Sutton as defensive coordinator from the New York Jets, and the Chiefs have responded to his aggressive, attacking defense, which is in sharp contrast to the keep-it-in-front-of-you, zone defenses of former coach Romeo Crennel.
“One of the key elements is you have a system, scheme or whatever you’d like to call it, but then you want to tilt it or move it toward the strength of your players,” Sutton said. “They’re all finding out that this can unfold in a lot of different ways, week to week, based on who we’re playing and what we’re dealing with.
“A lot of times we say somebody always has a hard job in this thing. Somebody has to do some of the dirty work and that changes sometimes by defenses, sometimes by games. They’ve all embraced that approach.”
Such was the case last week against Oakland, when Houston had just one sack but forced Pryor toward Hali’s clutches.
“Justin could have had a heck of a (sack) game,” Hali said, “but we knew about this quarterback, his scrambling ability to our left, his right, which allowed me to come off the edge and Houston to buy me some time to get there along with the rest of the defense.”
The big question is whether the Chiefs can keep this sack machine rolling to record dimensions. How soon might they break the club record of 60 and league mark of 72? Can they really reach 80? What about 90?
“It’s a pretty special group,” Dungy said. “I don’t think they’re going to stay at his pace. They’re not going to get nine every week, but this is not a team you want to be behind and have to throw against in the fourth quarter.”
After facing the Texans’ Keenum, the Chiefs will get another young quarterback in Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden next week at Arrowhead and inexperienced Thad Lewis the following week at Buffalo. They’ll get another crack at Pryor in Oakland; their first look at second-year man Robert Griffin III, whose scrambling could lead to sacks as Pryor did, at Washington; Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck at Arrowhead; and home-and-home series against San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Denver’s Peyton Manning, who has one of the quickest releases in NFL history.
There’s little doubt the noise level at Arrowhead, which last Sunday earned the distinction of “loudest crowd roar in a sports stadium,” according to Guinness, contributes greatly to the Chiefs’ ability to get sacks. But so far this season, they have recorded an even 15 sacks in three home games and 15 in three road games.
Former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards believes the team’s sack rate will slow down as teams make adjustments to Sutton’s schemes.
“Teams know they can’t get in third and 5 or more,” said Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. “If so, you’re going to see a lot of draws, a lot of screens, and people are going to say, ‘We can’t sit back there and throw it.’”
The sack records are not that important to the players.
“Can we break it?” Hali said. “I’m sure it’s possible. But our goal is not set on records. We set our goals based on wins. We haven’t had enough of those.”
Hali then cited what he called the most “staggering” statistic of all since he joined the team as its first-round draft pick in 2006.
Going into this year, Hali pointed out, the Chiefs won just 38 of 112 games in his first six seasons.
You think he’s counting sacks?
“To be getting the wins,” Hali said, “is way more fun than the sacks.”