NFP: Chiefs' defensive approach perplexing

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QUOTE: "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind."

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), speech at Harvard University, Sept. 6, 1943

FROM KENT BABB OF THE KC STAR:"… [Coach Todd Haley] said he's also confident that outside linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes) will attend this weekend's minicamp, the Chiefs' first mandatory workouts. Vrabel hasn't attended any of the voluntary practices, and he wasn't there during Monday morning's session. Neither was Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters(notes), who has asked out of Kansas City. Running back Larry Johnson(notes) attended and participated after missing the last session open to reporters."

I'm very curious to evaluate the Kansas City Chiefs' defense this year. They have some pieces on defense and are hoping that defensive linemen Glenn Dorsey(notes) and Tyson Jackson(notes) can make a huge difference. With Clancy Pendergast in Arizona last year, they ran so many schemes from week to week, that they never found any consistency. They could create turnovers, but they could also give up the big play.

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Pendergast's challenge is bigger than what he faced in Super Bowl XLIII.

(John Bazemore/AP Photo)

Scott Pioli, the new GM and king of K.C., was around Bill Belichick since the early 1990s. His educational upbringing in football focuses on being fundamentally sound, using the same techniques repeatedly and having a team that limits mental mistakes. When I heard the Chiefs hired Pendergast, who worked with head coach Haley in Arizona, I was slightly surprised. When they named him defensive coordinator, I was shocked. Shocked because the way the Cardinals played defense last year was not in any way like the Patriots have played in the past. Yes, I know the Patriots are very creative on third down, but they can play down after down of the same front and coverage. Their versatility lies in their ability to shift fronts and change their look, but their fundamentals stay the same. This is not a knock on Pendergast; the shock lies in the fact that two diametrically different philosophies have come together.

The Chiefs struggled to get any pressure on the passer last season, finishing with just 10 sacks. Now, with Pendergast calling the defense, they'll put pressure on the passer from their scheme, but at what cost? The starting corners were drafted to be zone, Tampa 2 corners, so the more the scheme forces them to play man to man, the larger the risk for allowing big plays.

Linebacker remains a huge concern for the Chiefs as they move from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Last year, they struggled at linebacker when they were playing the 4-3. So as they've added another 'backer to the field, in spite of adding Mike Vrabel and Zack Thomas, they still lack the speed to make plays in the 3-4 defense. The 3-4 allows the coverage schemes to change quickly, allows the adjustments to happen against the one-back sets that have become prevalent in the NFL. However, it's very vulnerable when team speed is lacking.

The moment the Chiefs changed defensive schemes there had to be an expectation that some of the prior personnel pieces would not fit adequately in the new system. Many coaches' first instincts when this happens are to add more schemes. More scheme is what got the Cardinals in trouble last year on defense as they tried to cover up for their lack of talent in some areas – which worked at times but often allowed big plays. The Cardinals ranked 30th in the NFL in points allowed the last eight weeks, as well as allowing a quarterback rating of 96.9. If the Chiefs go the more-scheme route, they will be in the bottom of the league in defense. If they play base defense, they may be ranked in the bottom of the league, but they will make teams work to score and will not give away points. They need to be very effective in the red area, something the Cardinals struggled at last year, ranking 28th in the NFL. (Footnote here: As bad as the Cards' defense was in terms of numbers, the ability to create turnovers saved them, along with a great offense.)

The Chiefs are in a transitional state, so there aren't many expectations for overall improvement on defense, which is a good thing. The Chiefs should lay down a foundation of solid fundamental defense, resisting the temptation to scheme each week. When Tom Landry first took over the Cowboys, he brought with him a complex scheme of defense that he developed with the Giants. The scheme required certain style of players to fit the system. However, since the Cowboys were an expansion team, they had to take any player available. Someone once asked Coach Landry, "Why don't you run a different scheme to help your talent instead of forcing this system on them?" He replied, "Because once we get the right players, the foundation will have been installed – which is the most critical aspect."

Pendergast now has a chance to install the kind of defense he wants, with smaller expectations, so that he can lay the right foundation as he acquires the players that fit. For me, it will be interesting to see if he can maintain the discipline to his system or start scheming.

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