Historically, the AFC has produced defensive units of legendary magnitude. Nicknames such as the "Steel Curtain" and "Gang Green" signify ghosts of football past that imposed wills with a barbaric tenacity.
Arrowhead Stadium used to be synonymous with the word "defense." It was the stomping grounds of renowned icons, ranging from the ill-intentioned Willie Lanier to the electrifying Derrick Thomas.
But tides began to shift at the turn of the century, and the first waves of the Chiefs defense were consistently bullied. Opponents' rushing attacks graduated to onslaughts and stampeded through the Kansas City line like it was 12:01am on Black Friday. Throughout the '60s, opposing franchises cringed as Bobby Bell left bells rung; the favor was returned as the Chiefs front seven served as a doormat throughout the Dick Vermeil era.
The Arrowhead faithful grew increasingly nostalgic with each passing year.
Fast-forward to 2010: Out with the old, in with the new. Romeo Crennel invigorated Kansas City's lambasted defense. The familiar 4-3 scheme flipped to a 3-4, and the intricate philosophy was simplified.
But where does the front seven currently rank in its conference?
The answer: somewhere in the middle.
Compared to their AFC counterparts in 2011, the Chiefs weren't statistically dominant in any major defensive category. The secondary, despite the absence of Eric Berry, proved to be the unit's largest contributor—opposing quarterbacks averaged a measly 79.1 rating.
Of the 16 AFC teams, where does the Chiefs front seven rank?
However, while the two initial fronts have made strides under Crennel's supervision, they're still not within shouting distance of those at the mountain peak.
Defensively, the Chiefs allowed 4.2 yards per carry (9th in the AFC). Compared to the aforementioned predecessors of recent past, Kansas City's frontline performed admirably.
Although that gaping hole has been effectively plugged, another leak has simultaneously sprung: pass rush. Only the Tennessee Titans amassed less sacks than Kansas City's 29—14 of which belonged to Tamba Hali. Then-rookie Justin Houston presented the only additional (mild) threat by accounting for 5.5.
Defensive ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson were drenched with praise after the Chiefs plucked the pair from LSU. However, the two have only combined for an unfathomable six career sacks. If the tandem mirrors past production in 2012, any remaining apologists should invest in padded walls.
First-round pick Dontari Poe has been justifiably encircled by skepticism. This fall, the defensive tackle will stand in the midst of crossfire as a battle of tangibles vs. intangibles ensues. Considering Kansas City's flawed history in drafting defensive linemen, a successful rookie season for Poe—the riskiest pick of GM Scott Pioli's tenure—will raise eyebrows and scratch heads.
The seven's strength resides in the linebacking corps. The Pro Bowl-caliber talent of Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali sufficiently compensates for the line's mediocrity. Justin Houston's rookie campaign oozed with promise, and the former University of Georgia standout should only progress in upcoming years.
Several factors should impact the collective production of this year's defensive core. Eric Berry—arguably the defense's biggest playmaker—will escape the confines of the sidelines and return to action. His presence, alone, should fortify the middle of the field and provide another blitzing threat.
Excluding Dwayne Bowe and Dexter McCluster, all of Kansas City's most prominent offensive weapons missed substantial time in 2011. Three-and-outs were a recurring theme that plagued a wounded, staggering offense. As a result, defenders clocked into work more than they had initially expected. A reloaded offensive arsenal will undoubtedly benefit both sides of the ball.
While unfortunate injuries victimized the team last season, 2012's front seven will likely avoid the same unlucky fate. Alongside the guidance of revered guru Romeo Crennel, Kansas City's defense has steadily climbed toward the conference's top echelon.
With the healthy return of extraordinarily talented, playmaking lone wolves, Kansas City's first line of defense should distance itself from the middle of the AFC pack.