Chiefs to gamble on defense
Can Kansas City trust Bob Sutton, its second-year defensive coordinator?
First the Kansas City Chiefs surprised most people by selecting Auburn defensive end Dee Ford in the first round of the NFL draft. Then last Friday, they made their second stunning move of the offseason with the release of Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers.
There's an undeniable statement in these decisions, one that goes far beyond talent and money. The message the Chiefs are sending these days -- and it's a serious gamble from this vantage point -- is that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton really has the goods to take this unit to the next level.
This is an approach that would be easier to digest if the Chiefs had been lights-out defensively for an entire season. Instead, they were the league's top unit for nine games and then one of its most baffling for the final eight, including their 45-44 playoff loss at Indianapolis. At one point, the 63-year-old Sutton was the kind of assistant that teams rave about: the unheralded, behind-the-scenes guy who finally shines in his big opportunity.
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Today, he's more of a mystery. We simply don't know if he's the mastermind who helped the Chiefs allow 12.3 points through the first nine weeks of 2013 or the guy who lorded over a unit that allowed 29.8 points a game over the final eight games.
This is an important discussion to have in Kansas City, because the Chiefs clearly are defining their approach to this coming season. They're going to steal a page from the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl-winning playbook and let their defense carry the day. Their offense has enough sizable questions -- particularly within the receiving corps and the offensive line -- that it might suffer after averaging nearly 27 points a game last season.
The defense, on the other hand, is stocked with first-round picks and Pro Bowl talent, so much so that head coach Andy Reid has to be thinking great things can happen on that side of the football.
The problem with that belief is that Kansas City now has some noteworthy flaws on the back end of its defense. Flowers may have struggled with inconsistency last season -- and with a $10.5 million salary cap number, he likely was too expensive for a team that prefers bigger cornerbacks -- but he was the most talented and experienced player it had at that position. The team now will ask Sean Smith to play at a higher level while hoping second-year veteran Marcus Cooper can make substantial strides this offseason. There are other players competing for spots but the bottom line here is obvious: The secondary is in shambles less than two months from the start of training camp.
That's a frightening reality, because that secondary was a mess late last season and Sutton did little to counter that problem. Most optimists like to explain the Chiefs' defensive decline in 2013 by pointing to second-half injuries to Pro Bowl outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Without that pass rushing duo, a team that led the league in sacks mounted very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The reality is that Sutton deserves ample blame for a unit that allowed a variety of passers to shred it last November and December.
Sutton didn't make many successful adjustments to the attacking schemes that helped Kansas City open the season with a nine-game winning streak. He kept putting his cornerbacks in man coverage, and they repeatedly failed when given that challenge. One reason general manager John Dorsey and Reid lost faith in Flowers is because he couldn't thrive in the press coverage schemes they favored. It's worth noting that nearly every other defensive back also looked lost the longer the season went on.
Sutton's unwillingness to change in the face of obvious setbacks should've left Chiefs fans with an uneasy feeling. That same concern should be there today, especially when examining the Kansas City secondary. It's not as if they're going to find a big cover cornerback worth signing at this point of the offseason. There's a reason why players like Seattle Pro Bowler Richard Sherman are so hard to find in the first place.
That means Sutton must be at his best from the moment this season kicks off. Nobody knew much about him last year because he'd been a longtime assistant who had never had the opportunity to be a coordinator. Now he's a man who has two Pro Bowl pass-rushers at his disposal, a Pro Bowl nose tackle (Dontari Poe) and a talented rookie in Ford, one who already has impressed with his quickness in OTA sessions. Few teams in the league can match that much firepower in the trenches.
That beefed-up front seven might be enough to return the Chiefs to where they were in the first half of 2013, but it's hard for this writer to bet on that. That success last season had plenty to do with the competition. Kansas City spent most of its first nine games facing an assortment of quarterbacks who either weren't playing well, weren't very good or had been thrust into starting roles because of injuries to starters. Everything changed as soon as stars such as Denver's Peyton Manning, San Diego's Philip Rivers and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck showed up on the schedule.
The Chiefs aren't likely to create so much pressure that teams won't be able to exploit a weak secondary from time to time. They're also going to face more quarterbacks this season who will challenge those defensive backs in various ways. Along with true pocket passers such as Manning, Rivers and New England's Tom Brady, Kansas City also will see scramblers in San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. Sutton had better have more ideas for dealing with those players than just the belief that his pass-rushers will continually win the day.
The other scary aspect of all this is Reid's history with defensive coordinators. When Reid had the brilliant Jim Johnson running his defense in Philadelphia, the Eagles annually fielded a dominant unit as they finished in the top 10 in scoring defense in seven of Reid's first 10 seasons.
When Johnson resigned in May 2009 (and died soon after), Reid turned the defense over to Sean McDermott and later Juan Castillo, with the numbers declining drastically (the Eagles finished lower than 20th in scoring defense three out of Reid's last four years in Philadelphia). The Castillo era was especially disastrous, since Reid gave the job to a man who had been an offensive assistant for the previous 16 years; he ultimately fired him midway through the 2012 season.
What we learned about Reid late in his Eagles tenure was that he leaned heavily on Johnson's savvy and wisdom. The head coach, like many brilliant offensive minds, gave his defensive coordinator the autonomy to do as he saw fit with that unit. That's a great luxury when a coach has one of the best coordinators in football. It's a different story when that same coach is putting his trust in a man who is still settling into the job, as Reid discovered with Castillo.
This season we will see if Sutton deserves that much faith. The Chiefs have made it clear that they want bigger cornerbacks along with explosive pass-rushers in abundance. What's harder to know is whether this defense is as good as it looked in the first half of last season or as mediocre as it became in the second.
That answer ultimately comes down to whether Sutton really is the right man for this job.