KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In the moments just after the Chiefs victory over the Broncos last Sunday, Andy Reid capsulized his team’s winning performance in three words.
“Defense, defense, defense,” Reid said in explaining the Chiefs 29-13 victory. The defensive effort forced five interceptions, six quarterback sacks and did not allow a Denver point on the scoreboard in the first 55 minutes of the game.
Over the last month, Reid could have started all his postgame comments with “defense, defense, defense.”
Starting with a loss to Minnesota on October 18, through victories over Pittsburgh, Detroit and Denver, it’s been the Chiefs defense that’s powering the team’s turnaround in the division and conference standings.
And, the defense will play the biggest part in whether the Chiefs can win enough games in the final seven to make the playoffs. More victories will come if the defense continues its improvement, something that Reid says is possible and necessary.
“There are individual things that we can all get better at,” said Reid. “You’re never satisfied and you’ve never perfected the things (you do) all the way down until you retire. Then you become an expert.”
The so-called experts predicted success for the Chiefs in the 2015 season due to their defense. That’s what made the unit’s inconsistent start hard to comprehend, both outside the team and within the building.
As they opened the season, the on-field performance did not match expectations. The Chiefs allowed Denver in the first game between the teams and then Chicago to make successful fourth quarter comebacks. The defense gave up 448 yards to Green Bay in a Monday night game and then 445 yards to Cincinnati the next Sunday (both teams scored five offensive touchdowns.)
Even in the season opener against Houston that was a Chiefs’victory, the Chiefs gave up a 100-yard receiving game to wide receiver Nate Washington (six catches for 105 yards.) That’s 25 percent of the yards Washington has put up over the season’s first nine games.
“We didn’t play good today and it showed,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said after Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers threw five touchdown passes against the Chiefs. “It’s still early and we’re not in panic mode. But if we want to do good down the stretch, we’re going to have to play a lot better against really good teams.”
That the defense was slow out of the chute should not have been a surprise for anyone. They started the season with Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito coming back from ruptured Achilles suffered in the 2014 opener. Safety Eric Berry was returning after his fight with Hodgkin lymphoma. Nose tackle Dontari Poe missed the entire preseason after July back surgery. Cornerback Sean Smith did not play in the first three games because of an NFL suspension. Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters was quickly inserted in the starting lineup. Ron Parker became a starter at safety, after playing most of his career at cornerback.
“We had some challenges early in the season,” said Johnson. “But then, just about every team in the league does. You just have to keep working and solve your problems.”
In the second half against Minnesota, the pieces started to fall together and the defensive play has improved week-by-week. After the Cincinnati game, they were ranked 29th in yards allowed and were tied for last in the league in points given up. From those lows, they’ve been steadily moving forward:
• Yards allowed ranking: 29th, 26th, 22th, 20th, 16th and 13th this week.
• Points allowed ranking: tied at 31st, tied at 29th, 24th, 18th, 15th, and this week No. 14.
In the season’s first five games when they were 1-4, the Chiefs gave up 13 touchdowns, had two interceptions and 11 sacks. In the last four games with a 3-1 record, the defense has given up five touchdowns, with 11 interceptions and 15 sacks.
That production changed the dynamic within the 2015 Chiefs and has given them a chance to escape the 1-5 hole that they dug over the season’s first six weeks.
“In the beginning there were stretches where we played really well,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Whether we didn’t finish a game or whatever, we didn’t maintain it.
“Over this period of time, I really credit the players and assistant coaches of drilling down in practice and preparation has allowed us to maintain a high level … they’ve been able to keep ramping this up and if that continues, we’ll have a chance.”
In preparing for this Sunday’s game, San Diego head coach Mike McCoy has watched the tapes of the Chiefs defensive improvement over the last month.
“It’s not the last month; it’s historically what they’ve done,” McCoy told the Kansas City media on Wednesday. “They are very well-coached, with a lot of great players, Pro Bowl players year in and year out. They’re good against the run, good against the pass; a very talented bunch.”
After the early season questions were answered, the defense settled itself and one factor in that was their familiarity with each other; Peters is the only new face that came into the picture.
“We’ve been around each other for a long time and we practice hard, we communicate, we go out to eat together, we play video games together, we just lean on each other and trust each other,” said Berry. “We’ve got a great feel for each other. Like I know what Ron (Parker) is going to do when he’s out there. I know what Sean (Smith) is going to do. I know what Husain (Abdullah) is going to do. They feel the same way about me. Those reps and that chemistry is very big when it comes to being on the field.”
Outside linebacker Justin Houston agreed with Berry that the key has been communication.
“When you’ve got everyone out there talking, on the same page, that’s the biggest thing,” said the linebacker. “When you’re out there blowing calls, people on different pages, thinking different things, it throws everything off.”
Only one of their final opponents in the last seven weeks has a winning record at this time, Buffalo at 5-4. They have six games against top 12 NFL passing attacks, with San Diego twice (1), Oakland twice (6), Baltimore (9) and Cleveland (12). The Bills have the No. 2 running game in the league right now.
If the defense can stay on the same page, and duplicate that level of performance they’ll have a strong chance to play football well into January.
“We know we can give us a good chance to win if we play the way we’re supposed to play,” Houston said of the defense. “We know what we are and we know what we’ve been. It was a couple a games we didn’t show our play like we wanted to. But now I think we’re doing a good job communicating, talking and having fun out there.”
Chiefs beat writer Herbie Teope contributed to this report.