Conventional wisdom suggests that defenses are built from front to back, but the Kansas Chiefs are attempting to revive their dismal defense by restoring the proud tradition of their secondary.
From the Emmitt Thomas-led units of the late 1960's to the star-studded crews of the 90s that featured Pro Bowlers Albert Lewis, Kevin Ross, Deron Cherry, James Hasty and Dale Carter, the Chiefs have always excelled when their secondary led the way.
Last season, however, the Chiefs' secondary greatly contributed to the team's defensive woes. The unit was repeatedly victimized by the big play, and an inability to stop the deep ball resulted in the 22nd-ranked pass defense.
The Chiefs allowed the third-highest total of completions of 40 yards or more (16), and surrendered 25 passing touchdowns, which tied for 20th in the league. With the secondary unable to keep the ball from flying over their heads, the Chiefs finished 29th in scoring defense with a whopping average of 26.5 points per game.
Given the ineptitude of the defense as a whole, coach Todd Haley replaced coordinator Clancy Pendergast with Romeo Crennel during the offseason.
Crennel, who sat out the 2009 season after being fired by the Cleveland Browns following a 24-40 stint as their coach, comes to Kansas City with an excellent reputation as a defensive coordinator after serving as Bill Belichick's right-hand man in New England.
Known for using a clever blend of coverage and pressures, Crennel's system is deeply rooted in a "quarter-quarter-half" cover scheme that has the ability to suffocate offenses if executed properly.
The field is split into quarters with the strong corner (typically the left corner because most offenses tilt right) and the strong safety each responsible for covering a quarter of the field. On the weak-side, the boundary corner and free safety play a half-field coverage to create a double team on the split end (X-receiver). With the corner playing a "cloud" technique (corner is aligned three-to-five yards off the receiver forcing an inside release on all routes to ensure that the safety is able to stay on top of the receiver down the field) to disrupt the release of the receiver, the scheme can make it difficult for the quarterback to find open receivers.
In Kansas City, Crennel has the pieces in the secondary to enjoy tremendous success utilizing a system that puts all of the pressure on the strong corner and strong safety.
Brandon Flowers, the team's starting left corner, is a promising young player with the skills to develop into a star. Though he entered the league regarded as too short (five-foot-nine) and slow to be an elite corner, Flowers has proved his detractors wrong by routinely locking down the opposition's top receiver. He is physical and tenacious, and makes it tough on wideouts to create separation out of their break. With impressive ball skills to boot (his five interceptions led the team last season), Flowers has the ability to handle the one-on-one matchups that fall on the shoulders of the strong corner.
Eric Berry, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, possesses the versatility to become a difference-maker at strong safety. As a big hitter with corner-like cover skills, Berry can function as the eighth-defender in the box on run downs, while also taking on the challenge of covering tight ends or slot receivers in passing situations. In addition, his sneaky rush skills will allow Crennel to use him as blitzer off the edge in select packages.
While some have criticized the Chiefs for using their first-round pick on a defensive back instead of addressing their pass rush, the need for a hybrid player of Berry's pedigree is a requirement for Crennel's scheme, and his presence could lead to a defensive revival.
Though the Chiefs' secondary will ultimately be the key, Crennel must also find a way to get more production from his front seven.
In looking for ways to juice up a pass rush that only generated 22 sacks a season ago, he will have to devise a game plan that creates favorable matchups for Tamba Hali. The fifth-year pro led the team with 8.5 sacks, and has the speed to wreak havoc off the edges. With another year under his belt as an outside linebacker, Hali could post double-digit sack totals for the first time in his career.
Crennel would have an easier time creating favorable situations for Hali and others if the defensive line could do a better job against the run on early downs. Last season, opponents rushed for 4.7 yards a carry, and the duo of Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey failed to create enough negative plays to put opponents in long yardage situations.
Dorsey, who struggled making the transition from 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 defensive end, is critical to the success of their run defense with his quickness and athleticism. Though he lacks the ideal length to play the position, the scheme can be tweaked in a way to get him into spots where he can become a force. If he can create any kind of disruption on a consistent basis, the pass rush and secondary will ultimately benefit.
Given the Chiefs' 6-35 record over the past 41 games, the team's decision to overhaul its woeful defense is hardly surprising, but relying on the secondary to spark the turnaround is an ode to defensive tradition in Kansas City.
Haley and Co. are taking a nostalgic view towards rebuilding the Chiefs. Time will soon tell if the reflective approach will yield more wins.