Chiefs’ passing defense quietly improving

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Sep 14, 2014; Denver, CO; Chiefs cornerback Chris Owens (20) and strong safety Eric Berry (29) tackle Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 14, 2014; Denver, CO; Chiefs cornerback Chris Owens (20) and strong safety Eric Berry (29) tackle Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The big chunks of passing yards down the field haunting the Chiefs secondary during the second half of 2013 are for the most part absent through three games of the 2014 season.

And it’s difficult to find a 35-plus yard gain outside of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s 48-yard pass to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in Week 2 or Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker’s 39-yard pass to wide receiver Justin Hunter in Week 1.

The Chiefs finished the 2013 season ranked 25th against the pass, but have quietly improved to rank 11th in the league against the pass, allowing 223.7 yards per game.

“We’ve worked hard on it,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said Friday on eliminating big plays. “Some of it is what (defensive backs coach) Emmitt (Thomas) and (defensive assistant/secondary coach) Al (Harris) have down outside. They’ve done a good job with the techniques of the corners, that’s part of it. Part of it is how safeties enter plays.”

The Chiefs played without All-Pro strong safety Eric Berry (ankle) in Week 3, and also feature new starters in the secondary from last season.

Cornerbacks Marcus Cooper and Sean Smith return as starters. But Husain Abdullah took over at free safety, Chris Owens at nickel and Ron Parker’s versatility allows the Chiefs to use him at cornerback or safety, with the latter being at Berry’s spot.

“He still has to be a corner, too,” Sutton said of Parker, “so he’s kind of wearing both hats. But I think he’s done a good job.”

Sutton appeared pleased with the secondary’s growth in his press-man scheme, but knows each game presents a different obstacle.

“It’s a challenge every week because the way we play,” he said. “People still are going to take their shots down the field and you just have got to know how to battle those things. And if they hit one, the big thing is you just can’t go in that shell. As hard as it is to do, you’ve got to shake that baby off and go right back at it.”

Meanwhile, the Chiefs face New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, Monday night.

And Brady certainly qualifies as a quarterback willing to take shots down the field.

“He’s a really, really good football player,” Sutton said of Brady. “Very accurate as a quarterback, tough minded, has been outstanding in his career in the two minute drills.”

Still, the Patriots’ aerial attack is off to a slow start through three games, ranking 27th (196.3 yards passing per game) in the league.

The Chiefs could improve on its ranking if the pass defense manages to hold Brady in check.

NEXT MAN UP … AGAIN

Running back Joe McKnight suffered a ruptured Achilles during Thursday’s practice. He becomes the third Chiefs player to suffer that injury since inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito went down in Week 1.

McKnight’s absence will be felt on special teams where he held a role as a kickoff returner.

“We’re really upset for him because he was a year and a half without playing and coming out and having such success and doing a good job for me as a returner,” special teams coordinator Dave Toub said Friday. “It’s just a shame; I feel bad for him.”

McKnight saw 15 snaps on offense, mostly as a receiver out of the backfield, in Week 3 with Jamaal Charles (ankle) and rookie De’Anthony Thomas (hamstring) not playing. Second-year pro Knile Davis carried the load and third-year pro Cyrus Gray also contributed.

The trio combined for four touchdowns: McKnight had two receiving scores, while Davis and Gray each rushed for a score.

But the Chiefs are deep in the backfield even with the loss of McKnight.

“It’s fortunate that we still have depth at that position,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said Friday. “We’ll miss his talent. He’s going to be missed out there, and he gives you that depth.”

Charles and Thomas appear on track to return to the lineup in Week 4 barring a setback, as both put in limited practices two straight days.

Davis will likely resume returner duties if Charles is in the lineup Monday night.

LEN DAWSON RECOGNIZED

A special dedication ceremony took place Friday morning at Arrowhead Stadium to recognize Chiefs-great and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson.

The Missouri Department of Transportation named the bridge on East Stadium Drive crossing over Interstate 435 in Jackson County as the “Len Dawson Bridge” in honor of the Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

“Len’s contributions to the Chiefs, the Kansas City community and the game of professional football are innumerable,” Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said in a statement. “Between his record-setting career on the field and his success as a broadcaster off the field, Len Dawson has left an indelible mark on my family, this franchise and the entire Kansas City community. We are so proud that the Missouri Department of Transportation has recognized him with this honor.”

NOTES: Safety Eric Berry (ankle) missed a second straight day of practice Friday … Running backs Jamaal Charles (ankle) and De’Anthony Thomas (hamstring) put in a limited practice for a second straight day … The Chiefs added defensive lineman Vance Walker (shoulder) to the injury report Friday as a full participant.