KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Todd Haley and his staff sat through an encore viewing of the Chiefs' 31-3 loss Sunday to the previously winless Miami Dolphins, watching quarterback Matt Moore stand in the pocket and, again and again, find open receivers.
It was a big game for Moore, who wasn't sacked and was rarely pressured by the Chiefs. It was the first game since Moore became the Dolphins' starter five weeks earlier that he wasn't sacked at least three times.
"The guy played really well and we didn't," Haley said. "We obviously didn't make it any harder on him by not creating pressure."
Sunday's loss might have been new — it was the Chiefs' first since the season's third week — but the absence of a pass rush was not. The team's nine sacks are the NFL's lowest total, and the most discouraging thing about it is that this wasn't supposed to be a weakness. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali was following a Pro Bowl season in which he led the AFC with 14 1/2 sacks, defensive end Wallace Gilberry was emerging as a solid pass-rusher, and rookie linebacker Justin Houston had a high upside. Help was supposed to have arrived for Hali, and quarterbacks weren't supposed to have it so easy at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Instead, Hali has six of those nine sacks, and Gilberry, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg each have one.
Houston's slow development is perhaps the most troubling concern. He was a third-round pick in April, but he was seen as a first-round talent whose draft stock suffered after he allegedly failed drug test at the NFL combine. The Chiefs selected him, and he was a potential steal in the third round .
Through eight games and three starts, Houston has zero sacks. He and Andy Studebaker have been unable to provide Hali much help, and offenses frequently double-team Hali as a result.
Neil Smith, the former Chiefs defensive end whose 86 1/2 career sacks are second in franchise history, said it's too early to begin worrying about Houston or the team's long-term pass rush. He said it sometimes takes young players upward of three to five years to reach their potential.
"It definitely takes about that long," Smith said Tuesday, "where you can really see a guy blossom."
Smith should know, although it didn't take him quite so long. He was the second overall pick in 1988, and although he switched from tackle to end and suffered several injuries that first sea son, his 2 1/2 sacks were still seen as a disappointment. It wasn't until the Chiefs drafted Derrick Thomas the next year that Smith's numbers began to rise, and he and Thomas became one of the NFL's best pass-rushing tandems. In their first five seasons together, Smith and Thomas combined for a staggering 119 1/2 sacks.
"There wouldn't be a Michael Jordan if there wasn't Scottie Pippen," Smith said of getting help from Thomas.
After a few seasons together, Smith and Thomas were consistently producing double-digit sack totals.
"It took me a good three years, going into my fourth year, where I could feel like I was developing that confidence," Smith said. "When I hit that fifth year, I felt like I was unstoppable."
But those days, Smith said, were different. Houston plays within a strict Chiefs defense in which players are instructed to hold their assignments, even if it means passing up a big play. Smith said that, after all, of Thomas' 10 sacks in his rookie season, probably eight of those came on plays in which Thomas' assignment was to drop into coverage.
Teams are more specialized now, too. Today's NFL defenses have specific packages for each down, distance and situation. In the 3-4 scheme, linebackers sub in and out frequently; only a few p layers remain on the field for every play. Sunday against Miami, for instance, Hali played 41 snaps compared with Houston's 13.
"Times are different now," Smith said.
What hasn't changed is that teams still require a dependable pass rush to tip a game's balance. The Chiefs have lacked that much of this season. Haley said that wasn't the only problem the game film revealed, but as the Chiefs advance into the second half of their season, it has clearly been one of the more significant ones.
"It was hard for me after watching all three phases to pick out and find things that were glaringly — that there was an area where I said, 'Boy if we would have just rushed the passer better ,' " Haley said. "It was overall. We just got outplayed and outcoached, and we need to do a better job if we expect to be in this."