Chiefs need to use defensive talent the right way

The Chiefs' defense last season showed that having talent is one thing but finding the best way to use it is what's really important.

Updated: September 2, 2005, 5:20 PM ET
By KC Joyner | ESPN Insider
If you are a 30-something sports fan like me, you probably remember the Montreal Expos of the late '70s and early '80s, or the New England Patriots of that same era. Both those teams were simply loaded with talent, yet at the end of their respective runs, they had no championships to show for it. These teams are clear examples that it isn't just the acquisition of talent that is important. It is also how you integrate that talent into your system.

Take the 2004 Kansas City Chiefs, for example. They were coming off a 13-3 campaign but had been shellacked by the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game. Their defense was completely incapable of even slowing down the Colts, and it led the Chiefs to make some radical changes in their defensive philosophy. They fired Greg Robinson, their defensive coordinator who coached a bend-but-don't-break scheme, and replaced him with Gunther Cunningham, a coach who never saw a blitz he didn't like.

Cunningham's blitz-heavy scheme worked well at times, as evidenced by the Chiefs' ranking seventh best in both the bad decision and weighted bad decision metrics. The bad decision metric is a measurement I use to determine the frequency in which a defense forces a quarterback to make mistakes. Weighted bad decisions measures the gravity of those mistakes. On that basis alone, Cunningham's scheme was working, but the overall level of play of the Chiefs' defense made it clear that something wasn't working. The problem for Cunningham was that his scheme didn't match the skill sets of the players on his roster. I'll give you a specific example of this: Dexter McCleon.

One of the metrics I measure is how far off a receiver a cornerback is at the snap. A cornerback can be 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9 or more yards off. These coverage splits can mean many things, but they are good indicators of how tight or loose a defensive coordinator plays his coverages. One- and 3-yard splits indicate a cornerback wants to play a receiver tight. Five-yard splits are standard coverage splits. Seven- or 9-yard splits usually indicate either loose coverage or a scheme under which the cornerback is playing an outside position in a zone coverage scheme. McCleon does have certain coverage skills, but playing tight on a receiver isn't something he does very well. The numbers indicate he especially struggles when playing tight against deep passes.

Opposing teams threw 24 deep passes against McCleon in 2004. They completed 10 of these for 299 yards and 2 touchdowns. That is a 41.7 percent completion rate on deep passes, which ranked McCleon 62nd in the league in that metric (out of 87 qualifiers). If that wasn't bad enough, five of those 24 were passes that could have been completed if not for bad passes and/or dropped passes. In addition, McCleon also had one pass interference penalty on a deep pass. The 24 deep passes thrown in his direction ranked McCleon tied for the 16th highest total among cornerbacks in that category, which means teams knew they could beat him this way.

The most telling stat in all of this is how often McCleon played 7 yards off. You would think that if one of your players was being beaten deep at a percentage that placed him in the bottom third of the league that you might want to consider playing him further off the line. The Chiefs would have none of that, as McCleon didn't play 7 yards off on any of the deep passes.

Now, you might point out that maybe McCleon was playing 7 yards off and the other teams didn't throw at him, but I would point out two things. First, when a cornerback plays 7 yards off, the opponent's answer to this is almost always to throw a quick hitch or a hitch route at him. These routes are very short, with quick passes that are designed to be thrown under a cornerback playing soft. McCleon had zero quick hitch passes thrown at him and only six hitch passes out of 69 total passes thrown his way. If McCleon had been playing 7 yards off more often, I would expect to see much higher amounts of those types of passes. The second thing I would point out is that, according to my counts, McCleon had a total of three passes thrown at him when he played 7 yards off. Both of these are proof that McCleon simply didn't play 7 yards off very often.

The point to all of this isn't to knock McCleon's overall coverage skills. McCleon still ranked tied for the 20th-best overall completion percentage of any qualifying cornerback, so he does have talent. And it isn't as though McCleon is the only Kansas City cornerback who is out of place, as Eric Warfield also has trouble with the tight man coverage scheme. The point is that the 2004 Chiefs had some personnel-scheme compatibility issues.

It is a coach's job to find the best ways to use his player's skills, but the Chiefs' misuse of their players' talents last year is one of the best examples of these compatibility issues. Kansas City has been playing more zone coverage this preseason, so maybe it's finally making the proper adjustments. Having talent is one thing. Finding the best way to use it, well, that is what separates good organizations from the best organizations. We'll soon know which of those categories the Chiefs are in.

KC Joyner, aka The Football Scientist, has a Web site at http://thefootballscientist.com. He is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider.


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