There was no confusing the 2003 Chiefs with the Packers teams of the 60s or the 70s' Steel Curtain. Buck Buchanan and Willie Lanier were long gone, and if defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham could manage to force a punt or two a game, it was a nice surprise.
In 2012, the defense in America’s Heartland will be expected to be so much more.
After a 2011 season where Romeo Crennel’s unit carried the team like LeBron carried Cleveland, this autumn could bring a historically stifling defense to Arrowhead Stadium. But how do the Chiefs field a unit that is the class of the NFL?
In layman’s terms, they’re freaking stacked.
Last season was a testament to both the talent level present and Crennel’s ability to coach a defense, as they were charged with compensating for a feeble 31st-ranked offense. Finishing 11th in total defense, the Red and Gold Defenders were an imposing force throughout most of the season.
Even more impressive? They did it without Eric Berry and a true nose tackle, both of which the Chiefs now have.
Without Berry, Kansas City still boasted the sixth-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Returning veterans like 2010 fifth-round surprise safety Kendrick Lewis and the vastly underrated corner Brandon Flowers will now be reunited with the transcendent talent of Berry to form arguably the most talented backfield gang since defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas took the field at old Municipal Stadium with Johnny Robinson and Jim Marsalis.
Despite losing Brandon Carr, who left to play in Jerry Jones’ Dallas Death Star, the backfield depth is superior to what it has been the last few years.
As I stated in a previous article, the astute signing of Stanford Routt is at the very least a lateral move talent-wise in replacing Carr. Without the pressure of being a primary corner on a struggling defense, expect to see him return to the form he saw playing behind Nnamdi Asomugha. The transition will be smooth, and the flags will stay snugly in the pockets of referees.
Third corner Javier Arenas and dependable backup Travis Daniels round out what looks to be a deep outside while the versatile De’Quan Menzie and veteran Abram Elam will ensure Sabby Piscitelli and Donald Washington never sniff the field again.
And the talent doesn't stop once you hit the front seven. In fact, it gets arguably better.
The linebacking corps in Kansas City has been filled with some of the best in NFL history, but the group in 2012 may push to be the best in Chiefs history.
Taking the torch from Derrick Thomas, Tamba Hali has become one of the league’s top terrors coming off the edge. The only trouble with Hali over the past three seasons was there wasn't two of him.
Despite racking up 35 sacks in that time, the Kansas City pass rush was still anemic as the Chiefs searched for the Neil Smith to their Thomas. And they may have found him in Justin Houston, who came on late in 2011 to contribute 5.5 sacks and give Hali much-needed help.
The class of the linebackers, though, is the magnificent Derrick Johnson.
After flirting with the bust label early in his career, an extended stay in Todd Haley’s doghouse and tutelage under Crennel has allowed him to blossom into All-Pro.
With 131 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and nine passes defended in 2011, he is the unquestioned anchor and has placed himself in the elite tier of inside linebackers. With under-appreciated blue-collar thumper Jovan Belcher clearing the way for him, Johnson is a pigskin-seeking missile that is capable of changing game momentum single-handedly.
Finally, we come to easily the most criticized aspect of Kansas City’s defense—the hogs up front.
The Chiefs have now invested three first-round picks into a line that has come under fire for not living up to the impact that top-10 picks are expected to have. But for what they’re expected to do in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense, they’re among the best at what they do.
In the kind of defense the Chiefs run, Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson are the twin engines that make the defense run so smoothly. According to Pro Football Focus, the LSU duo are two of the best run-stuffing defensive ends in the NFL. They may not have individual success, but you only need to look a few steps behind them to see the fruits of their labors, as Hali and Johnson have found exceptional success because of the big boys.
Because of the two-gap system the Crennel-led defenses are famous for, the former Tiger Twosome are more responsible for freeing up the linebackers than penetrating into opposing backfields.
Given the body of work of their defensive teammates have put together working behind them, Dorsey and Jackson’s effectiveness should speak for itself.
Finally, after hearing the moaning and gnashing of teeth for a legitimate noseguard from fans for years, Scott Pioli finally granted their wish and took Dontari Poe 11th overall this year.
And, of course, fans weren't at all happy about it.
But the moaning and gnashing will more than likely be for naught. If Poe can be better than Kelly Gregg or Ron Edwards, the Kansas City defense is already vastly better. All the Chiefs need the Memphis Monster to be his rookie year is a physically dominant presence that won’t be pushed backwards and draw double-teams. If he can do that, he will have already accomplished more than any nose tackle in the Pioli era and contribute immediately.
Other factors will certainly play into Kansas City’s chances to be the class of the NFL’s defenses this year. Will injuries derail them again? Can Romeo Crennel handle the duties of a head coach and defensive coordinator, or will this be Cleveland all over again for him? Will the new players gel at all?
It’s undeniable the City of Fountains is overflowing with defensive talent in 2012. They have the potential to be the top defense in the NFL in 2012—all that’s left is to take the field and see if it actually happens.