The stats have been ugly recently, but it's the losses that have bothered Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.
So when he learned that the Chiefs' once-vaunted defense ¯ you know, the one that was dominant during their 9-0 start this season ¯ has allowed over 400 yards in four consecutive games, Johnson was, well, somewhat taken aback.
“That's surprising,” Johnson said, “but we still count wins here. Sometimes your priorities can get skewed.”
To that end, at 9-3, it's true the Chiefs are still well-positioned to make the playoffs. But the depths to which the Chiefs' defense has fallen in recent weeks is captured by several other stats, including the following:
So what gives? For one, without offering excuses, Johnson pointed to the fact that the Chiefs have faced a Denver team that is widely regarded as an offensive juggernaut in two of the last three weeks, something even Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, who will face the Chiefs this Sunday, acknowledged.
“They are one of the top defenses in the league,” Griffin said. “Of course they’ve gone against the Broncos twice, and that skews rankings, but I don’t really pay attention to all of that stuff.”
However, it's Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's job to do that. And while he could also point to recent injuries to star outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, he preferred to point to the fact this is the NFL, and eventually, offenses can find weaknesses in even the stoutest defenses.
“You go through stretches, I think,” Sutton said. “We've played some really good football teams here. We've had some teams hit some big plays, which adds into a lot of things there that you don't want to give up. But from my perspective, I still see a lot of real positive things, things we can build on.
“To me, you kind of have to assess the whole season.”
In the short-term, however, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers have teamed up the last three weeks to complete 64 percent of their passes for eight touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of almost 373 yards. They've done it, primarily, with crossing routes, pick plays and the occasional deep ball, with the latter being made possible because of the Chiefs' floundering pass rush.
That said, many of the routes opponents have been calling with staggering success in recent weeks are patented ways of beating the press-man coverage the Chiefs so proudly crowed about earlier in the season, though Sutton says the Chiefs mix in more zone than you might think.
“To me, your system always has to be based on some flexibility,” Sutton said. “You don't try to become just a one-trick pony ... we're primarily a man team ¯ that's how we're built, that's what our system is built on ¯ but we probably play more zone than most people realize, whether it's true zones, fire zones, whatever.”
Yet none of it has worked very well recently. Manning and Rivers, of course, had plenty to do with that, though Washington coach Mike Shanahan has certainly noticed the speed with which teams have been getting the ball out against the Chiefs.
“You have to get rid of the ball quickly because they do put a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” Shanahan said.
Washington, however, has its own offensive style, one that should allow the Chiefs to play some different personnel on defense this week. Against the Broncos and Chargers, the Chiefs primarily ran their dime defense, with six defensive backs on the field.
But Washington, 3-9, loves to run the football ¯ it leads the league in yards per carry (5.0) and is seventh in rushing attempts, which means the Chiefs will likely get to use their base 3-4 personnel. Several players who have been somewhat marginalized in recent weeks, like inside linebacker Akeem Jordan and run-stuffing defensive ends Mike DeVito and Tyson Jackson, will likely see more action this week.
“It's nice,” Johnson said, “but at the same time, we're going back to (facing) the college-style offense. It poses some problems.”
The Chiefs learned this first-hand in Week 3, when they beat Philadelphia 26-16, despite allowing the Eagles to rack up 431 yards ¯ including a season-high 264 on the ground. Johnson said Washington runs a similar no-huddle spread that features some of the same packaged concepts ¯ or plays with built-in run-pass options ¯ the Eagles used to tear the Chiefs up on the ground.
Even still, Johnson expects Washington to try to exploit some of the same weaknesses the Broncos and Chargers did, and Sutton does too ¯ though he's confident the defense will start finding answers. When asked Thursday if he thinks it's realistic for the unit to eventually get back to its early-season form, he said it was ¯ ugly stats of the last few weeks and all.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Sutton said. “We have the same players and I think we'll get better ¯ I believe that. I think they're putting in the effort and the time and the things that we need.
“It's like anything in the National Football League, you know one thing: If something is hurting you, until you get it fixed, it's going to continue to hurt you. That's the nature of the beast here.”