The Chiefs are no longer the sack leaders of the NFL.
Shut out in sacks in their last two games, the Chiefs, with 36 sacks in 10 games this season, are now second to the Buffalo Bills, who sacked New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith four times last Sunday and have 37 in 11 games.
“That can change in one game, you know,” outside linebacker Tamba Hali said of the Chiefs’ regaining the lead in the sack race.
But if the Chiefs are going to resume their assault on quarterbacks in the final six games of the season, the responsibility for getting to the quarterback won’t lie just with pass rushers such as Hali, who has nine sacks and fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston, who has 11.
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The secondary also plays a role by creating coverage sacks, even against quarterbacks such as Denver’s Peyton Manning, who got rid of the ball quickly last week, and San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who figures to do the same on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
“It works hand in hand,” free safety Kendrick Lewis said. “We look out for each other. The secondary has to cover, the linebackers have to rush. If we can get tight coverage, it (forces) him to hold the ball.
“Just because this one game with Denver we didn’t get a sack Manning has a good offensive line in front of him. He’s doing a good job of getting the ball out of his hands fast and getting his playmakers the ball. That’s why his success rate has been up.
“People are catching on that we have some dominant pass rushers they’re starting to key onto it they throw screens to slow us down, there are all kinds of things that are part of it.”
Rivers, playing in a new offensive system, has been sacked just 19 times this season, the fourth-fewest in the NFL, after absorbing 49 sacks last year.
As a result, he’s having one of the most efficient seasons of his career. Rivers leads the NFL with a 70.9 completion percentage, which is within range of the league record 71.2 set by Drew Brees in 2011 and nearly seven points better than Rivers’ career mark of 64.3 percent. And he’s thrown 19 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions.
“Watching film, you can see he’s playing his best,” Lewis said. “He’s not making the decisions he used to make, trying to force throws and trusting his arm he’s on top of his game ”
So how will the secondary force Rivers into the clutches of Chiefs pass rushers?
“Sometimes you have to play tighter coverage,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, “and sometimes you have to go the opposite way. Sometimes you have to play with more people in coverage (and fewer rushing).
“You have to say we’re not going to get there, and instead of normal rushes or any kind of max rushes, you say ‘We’re going to have limited rushes and say we are going to put more people in coverage.’ We play pretty tight, style-wise. Sometimes we don’t get them covered exactly as tight as we’d like, sometimes they win, and we just have to hope that we win more than they do in those situations.”
The key, Sutton said, is to force punts, whether it’s by getting sacks or incompletions. Though the Chiefs didn’t sack or intercept Manning, they held the Broncos to six of 16 on third downs, or 38 percent, compared to their league-leading 48 percent converting third downs.
“If you look at our coverage overall, it’s been good,” Sutton said. “We’re among the top teams in completion percentage (54.2 percent, first) and passer rating (70.8, second) There is a realistic factor there. If he wants to throw it, it really doesn’t matter if five are coming, six are coming or four are coming. If he wants to get rid of the ball, he can do that.
“The more people we can put in coverage, the different ways we can affect who he can throw to. One of the things we have wanted from the beginning is flexibility in our system. We don’t want to be a one-trick pony. We have to adjust every week to different quarterbacks, different systems ”
Rivers, who has been sacked eight times in the last three games, realizes he has to vary his approach, especially against the Chiefs.
“You can’t stand back there and hold the ball for a long time,” Rivers said. “It’s a double-edged sword. If you think you’re going to throw it quick all the time, that’s a heck of a secondary that’s covering you. It’s not like you’re going to have guys running wide open.
“A great pass rush can save you if you’re not playing great coverage, and great coverage can help you get sacks. I don’t think these guys have a problem in either area. They don’t have a problem covering you, and they don’t have a problem rushing you. So that’s a dangerous combination.”
Lewis said the secondary takes just as much pride from contributing to a sack as the rushers do in reaching the quarterback.
“After a sack, Tamba, and Houston and (nose tackle) Dontari Poe come to us and say, ‘Good job, he didn’t have time to find a receiver downfield, you guys were locked up,’’’ Lewis said. “And we congratulate them when they get a sack and take the pressure off us.”