The 7-0 Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten team and could use a victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs are one game ahead of the Denver Broncos in the AFC West race, and following a Nov. 3 game against the Bills in Buffalo, their schedule takes a decidedly more difficult turn.
The Browns rallied from an 0-2 start to win three consecutive games, but after losing quarterback Brian Hoyer for the season with a knee injury, they’ve lost two straight, allowing 31 points in each loss.
ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Browns reporter Pat McManamon discuss Sunday’s game.
Teicher: Browns coach Rob Chudzinski announced Wednesday Jason Campbell will take over for Brandon Weeden at quarterback. This is the third time in four weeks that the Chiefs will face an opponent starting a different quarterback than the week before. Against an aggressive defense that gets after the passer and creates turnovers like Kansas City’s, will the Browns benefit from a change to Campbell?
McManamon: In this case, the Browns might be better off pondering the single wing, because neither Campbell nor Weeden is especially adept at avoiding the rush. In many ways, this is the worst possible matchup for the Browns' quarterbacks. One hasn't played, and the other's confidence is lacking in a big way. Campbell is probably a little more mobile than Weeden, but that's because Weeden is more like the Statue of Liberty. The way the Browns are at quarterback, there's no reason to think the Chiefs won't add significantly to their sack total.
While we're discussing sacks and the Chiefs' defense, Adam, what is the key to that sacking onslaught this season? Is it players, new players, new scheme, speed, a combination of all or something different? Did you see this coming?
Teicher: I can’t say I saw this coming, but they had the pieces to have a strong pass rush. They just needed better direction, and they’re getting that from Bob Sutton, their new defensive coordinator. They’re creative with their blitzes but are getting pressure even when they send four or fewer players after the quarterback. The Chiefs have 35 sacks, and 24 have come when rushing four or fewer players. The key is nose tackle Dontari Poe, who is generating a nice, consistent push up the middle. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are good edge pass-rushers, but the Chiefs have a lot of other guys capable of putting pressure on the quarterback. Neither inside linebacker Derrick Johnson nor strong safety Eric Berry blitz a lot, but they’re effective when they do.
Statistically, the Browns look like they’re playing good defense -- solid against the rush, opposing quarterbacks not lighting it up against them. So how is it they’re allowing a little under 30 points over their past three games?
McManamon: File this under the old "numbers can be deceiving" category. It's tough to say a team that has given up 24, 31 and 31 points in the past three weeks is playing good defense because points allowed is the single most important defensive statistic. The Browns' main problem is third downs. They can't get off the field. Overall, the Browns are tied with Seattle for the league lead in yards per play (4.5), but they are 29th in third downs (opponents converting 45.3 percent). Because of that, the Browns have 492 defensive snaps, fourth highest in the league. That's what happens when a team's offense is struggling and its defense can't get off the field.
Speaking of deceiving, Alex Smith completes 58 percent of his throws, 28th in the league. His yards per attempt ranks 29th (6.28). How are the Chiefs undefeated at this point with their quarterback so low in these important numbers?
Teicher: That speaks to the strength of their defense. Defense has carried the Chiefs through these seven games, and offense has just been along for the ride. But for the Chiefs to remain undefeated much longer or go deep into the playoffs, those numbers have to improve. That’s where the potential growth in Kansas City’s offense lies, particularly with Smith’s completion percentage. Smith doesn’t throw a lot of passes way beyond the line of scrimmage, so his percentage should be much higher. He’s certainly capable. He completed 70 percent for the San Francisco 49ers last year. Receivers aren’t dropping a high percentage of passes. Protection has been a problem at times. He has had to unload before he’s ready on a number of attempts. Another problem has been the inability of receivers to consistently get open.
Willis McGahee leads the Browns in rushing but is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. Does he have anything left at this point in his career, and can the Browns take some pressure off their quarterback Sunday by having a consistent running game against a defense that, despite the numbers, has played well against the run?
McManamon: Not really on both counts. McGahee gives what he has, but there's a reason he was available to sign when the Browns traded Trent Richardson. McGahee has little speed; Norv Turner joked he could go outside as long as he starts inside. But he can burrow for 3 or 4 yards if he has to. The problem is how much he can play. He had 26 carries against Buffalo but just 21 the past two games combined. He hasn't averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry in a game this season. The other options are stretches: Chris Ogbonnaya's value is in pass protection, and Fozzy Whittaker is ... well ... Fozzy Whittaker. The Browns had their reasons for trading Richardson, but their lack of a legitimate running game will cost them as the season continues.
The Browns have had a revolving door with their coach. Why do you think Andy Reid's voice is being heard so well in Kansas City?
Teicher: He walked in the door with some impressive credentials, better than those of any Chiefs coach since Dick Vermeil and just two players remain from Vermeil's time in Kansas City. So Reid immediately had everyone’s attention. The other thing was that so many of the players were ready to be led in a positive direction. They were tired of losing and tired of people within the organization having different agendas and pulling in different directions. They were ready to buy into something positive. It helped Reid that the Chiefs had an easy early-season schedule and took advantage of it. I wonder how this would have gone had the Chiefs started losing games to some lousy teams right away.