The Kansas City Chiefs have leaned on their defense to stay unbeaten in a National Football League season dominated by record-setting offense.
After tying for the NFL’s worst record last season at 2-14, the Chiefs are 8-0 going into this weekend’s game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, New York, allowing a league-low 12.2 points a game while shutting down opponents in the fourth quarter.
Kansas City’s defense has an NFL-best 36 sacks, nine more than in all 16 games a year ago. The Chiefs also have 10 interceptions after a league-low seven in 2012. The defensive resurgence under new coach Andy Reid has come as NFL clubs have scored a record 5,544 points and 614 touchdowns through the first eight weeks of the season.
“Andy Reid has duplicated what he did in Philadelphia,” said Brian Baldinger, an NFL Network analyst who played in the league for 11 seasons. “His first hire was defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Just like in Philadelphia, his first hire was Jim Johnson. He wanted somebody to take care of the defense.”
Kansas City’s offense has been steady and relatively mistake-free this season, tied for 13th in the 32-team league with an average of 24 points a game and the fourth-fewest turnovers in the NFL. The defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in any game so far, the fourth team since 1970 to do so and the first since the 1977 Atlanta Falcons.
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said credit goes to Reid, who led the Philadelphia Eagles to eight division championships in 14 seasons.
“The confidence level that he gives us, it’s remarkable,” Johnson, the team’s leading tackler, told reporters this week. “He came in during the offseason and everybody jumped in the boat, and we’ve been sailing ever since.”
Pass-rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have a combined 20 sacks for the Chiefs’ defense, which has been at its best in the fourth quarter.
When leading by seven points or less in the final quarter, Kansas City has allowed only 12 first downs and one field goal on 17 drives while forcing three interceptions, two fumbles and one turnover on downs. In their last four games, the Chiefs haven’t allowed a point on 13 fourth-quarter possessions in which opponents needed a touchdown to tie or take the lead.
While Reid, 55, gets much of the credit for the Chiefs’ turnaround, the hiring of Sutton, a former coach at Army and defensive assistant for the New York Jets, has proven to be one of Reid’s best moves since taking the reins in Kansas City.
Sutton, 62, kept the base alignment of the Chiefs’ defense the same, while incorporating blitzes employed by his former boss, Jets coach Rex Ryan. If opposing teams seek to spread Kansas City’s defense out, they face a pass rush led by Houston and Hali. If offenses focus on protecting the quarterback, the Chiefs have nose tackle Dontari Poe clogging the middle of the line and a secondary led by Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Berry and Brandon Flowers that’s allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in the league, Baldinger said.
“He has all of Rex’s principles about overloads and how to get a free hitter and how to play man,” Baldinger said. “So he’s got all the schemes and he’s got all the players to play the schemes.”
Ryan said this week that the best coaching jobs in the NFL this season have been by Sutton and Ryan’s brother, Rob, the New Orleans defensive coordinator he’ll face in two days when the Jets (4-4) host the Saints (6-1) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
While the Saints’ offense led by quarterback Drew Brees has the fifth-highest scoring average in the league, their defense has given up the fourth-fewest points in the NFL after ranking 30 out of 32 teams a year ago. Kansas City allowed the eighth-most points in 2012.
The Chiefs, who lead the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning by one game in the American Football Conference’s West Division, face questions even with their 8-0 start.
“Defensively they’ve got the best group in the AFC, but offensively they’ve yet to score more than 31 points in a game,” said former NFL receiver and ESPN analyst Tom Waddle. “The name of the game in this NFL is lighting up a scoreboard and they really haven’t been able to do that.”
The Chiefs also haven’t faced a team with a winning record. The combined mark of their first eight opponents is 20-41 and the Bills are 3-5. It’s one reason the Chiefs are still tied with the Green Bay Packers for the fifth-best odds of winning the Super Bowl at 10-1, behind the Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Saints and San Francisco 49ers, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook.
“The Chiefs can stockpile all these wins and that’s great, because maybe getting homefield can be the difference in the AFC this year,” Baldinger said. “But at some point you’ve got to develop your passing game and you’ve got to try to do more than win a game 20-17.”
After their Nov. 3 game in Buffalo, where Kansas City is a 3 1/2-point favorite, the Chiefs have an off-week before facing the Broncos, who are averaging an NFL-best 42.9 points a game, two times in a three-week period.
“The Chiefs are built for cold weather by the way they run the ball and play defense,” Baldinger said. “They’re built for January, but the only question remains, if they’re in a shootout can they win that. Denver will be a really good test for them and the league is dying to see what the NFL’s best defense does against the NFL’s best offense.”