Tamba Hali and the defense are attacking opposing quarterbacks with a fervor they haven't shown in several seasons.
At 5-3, the Kansas City Chiefs are already way ahead of where they were in each of the past three seasons. The influx of the young talent acquired in this year's draft class, coupled with the veteran leadership of players like Thomas Jones, Mike Vrabel and Derrick Johnson has turned the Chiefs into one of the hardest-working teams in the NFL.
In addition, head coach Todd Haley and his all-star cast of coordinators in Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel have done an excellent job of preparing this team week-in and week-out. While some questionable fourth-down playcalls have gone a long way in driving some fans bonkers, they've also gone a long way in earning the respect of his players and giving them a sense of confidence that has been key to their success through the first eight games of the 2010 season.
Last season, the Chiefs’ offensive line was worse than all but five other teams in the NFL at protecting the quarterback, as they allowed 45 sacks to opposing pass rushers.
Through eight games this year, the Chiefs have allowed just 11 sacks, good for second-best in the league behind the Indianapolis Colts. While the team’s line play has improved, and the addition of former Colt Ryan Lilja has provided a boost, the unit has benefited from the leadership of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and better decision-making by quarterback Matt Cassel.
Going into the season, it appeared the Chiefs were going to have a solid one-two punch in wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers. While Bowe has played well, catching seven touchdowns in the season’s first eight games, Chambers has been virtually invisible in the Chiefs’ offense.
After averaging 16.9 yards on 36 catches as a Chiefs last season, many expected more of the same from Chambers this year. However, with just eight catches and barely over 10 yards per catch this season, Chambers is at risk of losing his job.
Veteran Terrance Copper has shown that he’s a better blocker in the running game than Chambers, and rookie free agent Verran Tucker has done something with his single catch last week that Chambers has yet to do this year—score a touchdown.
Perhaps the smartest thing coach Todd Haley has done this season is his decision to continue to split carries in the running game between both Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. Jones, in addition to being a veteran leader whose work ethic has spread throughout the locker room, has been as steady as any back in the game with 4.2 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns, and just 1 fumble on the season.
Charles remains the team’s gamebreaker, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and being a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Combined, Jones and Charles lead the best rushing offense in the NFL, and are wearing out opposing defenses.
Coach Haley may well need to check himself into the coaching equivalent of Gamblers Anonymous at the end of the season given his propensity to go for it on fourth down. The Chiefs have kept the offense on the field 12 times this season on fourth down, converting half of those opportunities for first downs. Of the four teams who have gone on fourth down as often or more than the Chiefs, none of them have a winning record.
And while Haley should consider himself fortunate that his team continues to win, his worst decision to-date was not a fourth down call, but rather his choice to open the game against the Colts with an onside kick that failed. The result was a short field for Peyton Manning that he quickly took advantage of, stealing the momentum in a game that the Chiefs were talented enough to win and didn’t.
The best play of the Chiefs season took place in the team’s opening Monday Night victory over division rival San Diego, and you likely already know what play I’m talking about.
Rookie Dexter McCluster, sent onto the field to spell a tired Javier Arenas on a second quarter punt return, didn’t just give his team a commanding 21-7 lead on his return for a touchdown, but he set the team record by running it back 94 yards.
After seven games of playing well on special teams, the Chiefs had their first major blunder last week against Oakland. The blunder, a 94 yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Raiders’ Jacoby Ford to open the second-half. The return not only got the Raiders on the scoreboard after a horrendous first-half offensively, but it created a shift in momentum and supply the team with the confidence to grab a 23-20 overtime victory over the Chiefs.
After a relatively slow start, rookie safety Eric Berry has played well and is proving to be well worth the first round pick the Chiefs spent on him in April’s draft. Berry is second on the team in solo tackles and is a co-leader on the defense with two interceptions.
While it would be tempting to point to one of the Chiefs’ running backs for team MVP honors, it’s a defensive player that has had the greatest impact in making this team successful through eight games. That player, linebacker Derrick Johnson, has done nothing but lead a unit that has made significant strides and is amongst the league leaders in stopping the run and scoring defense.
Johnson has earned himself a five-year contract extension by leading the team in tackles, and proving that he can be a quarterback’s worst nightmare when he drops back into coverage as part of the team’s nickel and dime units.