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Chiefs 2011 preview

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About the Author

Recent posts by Eli Kaberon

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Posted Sept. 01, 2011 @ 11:17 a.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

The Chiefs climbed out of the AFC West basement and ascended all the way to the penthouse in 2010, winning the division for the first time in seven seasons. Now comes the difficult task of duplicating that feat this season with higher expectations and an unexpected coaching adjustment.

A pair of players emerged as stars during the worst-to-first season, one on each side of the ball. RB Jamaal Charles was technically the team's second-string runner, but he emerged as a top talent, gaining more than six yards per carry while also proving to be a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Defensively, it was OLB Tamba Hali who came into his own, leading the AFC in sacks with 14½ and proving to be a dynamic player in Kansas City's 3-4 scheme.

Charles and Hali will have to perform at a high level again this season if the team wants to remain atop the division. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is gone after one year with the team, opting to take the same job at the University of Florida. In his place is veteran Bill Muir, as well as former Redskins head coach Jim Zorn, who was hired as the team's QB coach. Those two, along with head coach Todd Haley, will navigate the offense, while Romeo Crennel still oversees the "D."

The Chiefs won 10 games total between 2007-09, then won that same amount last season. In order to stay in the division penthouse with double-digit victories again, Haley's team will need more stars to emerge.

 

OFFENSE

Year One of the Todd Haley/Matt Cassel era in Kansas City proved to be far from successful. The Chiefs' offense in 2009 was awful thanks to an inconsistent passing game that featured no dominant receiver and a rushing attack that gained yards but rarely found the endzone. In Year Two, both of those things changed. Cassel cut down on his interceptions while increasing completion percentage, touchdowns and yards, and the running game was the NFL's best. Now in Year Three, each area will look to improve again, though it might be difficult behind a patchwork offensive line.

Quarterbacks: Not even emergency surgery late in the 2010 season could slow down starter Matt Cassel. He had to miss one game and was limited in practice because of an appendectomy in early December, but he recovered in time to carry Kansas City to the playoffs. Cassel's arm strength and decision making never will be confused with his former teammate Tom Brady, but he is capable enough to make plays despite a below-average line blocking in front of him. He threw 27 touchdown passes and seven interceptions in '10 and posted passer ratings of 100 or better in seven of his 15 starts. Cassel really seemed comfortable in Charlie Weis' offense, and having his third coordinator in three seasons with K.C. might affect him. However, Bill Muir's scheme is expected to be similar enough to Weis' that it won't be a major adjustment. Fifth-round rookie Ricky Stanzi is projected to be Cassel's top backup. Like many rookie QBs, Stanzi needs to improve his field awareness, but the well-built signalcaller has the intangibles to be an NFL starter.

Running backs: When GM Scott Pioli signed RB Thomas Jones in March of 2010, nobody expected the move would vault the team to the top of the league's rushing standings. Jones, who will be 33 when this season begins, proved to be a worthy addition, not only as a runner, but also as a mentor to 24-year-old Jamaal Charles. Together, the two backs combined for 2,363 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, helping the K.C. ground game emerge as the NFL's best. Jones, who started 10 regular-season games as well as the playoff loss to the Ravens, is the more physical of the two, using his one-cut style to gash defenses that overpursue his initial angle. He also can gain yards after contact and doesn't seem to be wearing down despite his advanced age. The faster and more agile Charles started the other six games, using his superior vision to find open field and his breakaway speed to outrun slower defenders. At 5-11, 199 pounds, Charles lacks ideal size, but he plays bigger and showed no fear in running between the tackles. Charles is also the better receiver of the two, while Jones excels in pass blocking. Having two No. 1 backs allows both runners to stay fresh throughout a game and a season, and also keeps defenses on their toes having to prepare for both players. The team added FB Le'Ron McClain in free agency, giving them another physical runner and smart blocker. Rookie FB Shane Bannon will have to make his mark on special teams to see playing time.

Receivers: The receivers did not play particularly well in 2010, though there were two exceptions. WR Dwayne Bowe confirmed his place as the team's top target and rookie TE Tony Moeaki proved his worth as a third-round draft pick. Outside of that, however, the group of pass catchers was mostly forgettable and a huge area of concern heading into '11, a reason the position was addressed in the draft and free agency. Bowe is a physical player on the outside who knows how to use his body to his advantage. The receiver has the trust of his QB (133 targets last year), though consistency is still an issue. Lining up across from Bowe could be first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin, a tall and fast receiver in the same mold as Bowe. The rookie is not a great downfield blocker, but he will make an instant impact in the passing game. He may start the season at the bottom of the depth chart due to a confrontation and subsequent injury that occurred in training camp. In the slot will be former Cardinal Steve Breaston, whom the team signed to a five-year contract early in free agency. Todd Haley was Breaston's receivers coach in Arizona for two years, and the Michigan product's speed and athleticism should allow him to fit perfectly as the team's deep threat. Second-year pro Dexter McCluster, who showed a knack for big plays during his rookie campaign, will have a variety of roles this season. McCluster is too small to be an every-down receiver and isn't the route runner Breaston is, but he can knife through defenses with blazing speed and open up throws underneath. He'll line up wide and also in the backfield this season. At tight end, the duo of Moeaki and Leonard Pope is a good one. Moeaki is an athletic target with soft hands that should improve with experience. Pope is mainly a blocker who assists a subpar offensive line.

Offensive linemen: Even though it paved the way for the NFL's top rushing attack, Kansas City's offensive line is still a major area of weakness. The unit has individual talent but lacks the toughness and skill that the league's premier front fives have. OLG Brian Waters was considered the top talent on the line, but the team released him following the lockout. In his place will be second-year pro Jon Asamoah, who suited up for every game his rookie season but received only one start. Asamoah is more athletic than Waters, but the team will miss the veteran's brute strength and wide array of knowledge. OLT Branden Albert is a talented player who seems to be playing out of position. Entering his fourth season, Albert has been solid on the left side of the line, though he could be more dominant at right tackle. In order for the Chiefs to make that switch, they'd need an athletic player to protect Cassel's blind side. Ex-Ravens OT Jared Gaither was signed, but he missed all of 2010 with a back injury and his health is unknown. C Casey Wiegmann should start initially in the middle, but look for rookie Rodney Hudson to earn the job at some point. The second-round pick is a smart, fundamentally sound player whose greatest knock is his lack of size. The right side of the line is an even greater question mark. Either Ryan O'Callaghan or Barry Richardson will man right tackle; neither is exceptionally quick or powerful, and the position is considered the greatest weakness on the entire line. ORG Ryan Lilja is always a health concern because of his history of knee injuries, but he has proven to be a good run blocker in recent years.

 

DEFENSE

Bringing in former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel to coach the defense turned out to be a fantastic move for the Chiefs. Crennel, who is more famously known as the coordinator for the Patriots' three Super Bowl-champion teams in the early-2000s, is a brilliant teacher of the 3-4 and helped Kansas City's unit improve from the moment he arrived. K.C. finished 11th in points allowed per game in '10, up from 29th in '09. Since 2005, the team has spent five of its eight first-round picks on defensive players, and all five are contributors to the team's upswing.

Defensive linemen: The Chiefs' three starting linemen combined for a grand total of five sacks in 2010, yet still made enough of an impact for the group to be considered a strength of the team. Former first-round picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson are the ends in the 3-4 defense. Dorsey is the larger of the two and is the prototypical five-technique, with the size and agility to push around opposing linemen and make plays around the line. He has shown to be much more consistent thus far in his pro career than his former LSU teammate Jackson, who has flashed his ability but has yet to put it all together. Instincts and recognition have been a problem, though the coaching staff is hoping another year of familiarity with the defense will elevate his game. Playing between the two is Kelly Gregg, a veteran with good quickness and great knowledge of the 3-4. He replaces Ron Edwards at nose tackle. Reserve ends Wallace Gilberry and Allen Bailey also will see playing time. Gilberry (seven sacks in '10) is a strong pass rusher, and Bailey, the team's third-round pick, has tremendous strength and is hardworking. Fellow rookie Jerrell Powe, a nose tackle, could become a valuable run stuffer backing up Gregg.

Linebackers: By the midway point of the 2010 season, opponents knew that OLB Tamba Hali was going to come after their quarterback with explosive power as soon as the ball was snapped. Time and time again, however, he proved there was nothing that could be done to stop him. Hali finished the season with 14½ sacks, including 6½ after the start of December. Hali added two sacks in the playoff game. The former defensive end is well-built and has fantastic speed, making him a tough matchup for most left tackles and fullbacks. Romeo Crennel would love to see rookie Justin Houston emerge as a complement to Hali by providing a rush from the left side of the defense. Houston has terrific burst at the snap and is a sure tackler. However, he gave an inconsistent effort in college and must overcome his underachiever traits by consistently playing hard. OLB Andy Studebaker is a sure open-field tackler and will start opposite Hali, though he lacks the speed to become a 3-4 rush linebacker. The ILB duo of Derrick Johnson and Jovan Belcher is solid but far from spectacular. Johnson, a converted outside linebacker, led the team in tackles a year ago and has good instincts for the position. He is a lock to start. Though athletic, Belcher is undersized and needs to improve his strength. He will be pushed by backup Demorrio Williams. Second-year OLB Cameron Sheffield, who missed all of his rookie season with a neck injury, will supply pass rush off the bench.

Defensive backs: The heart of the defense is last year's first-round pick, SS Eric Berry. An athletic and instinctive player who will only improve as he gains a better grasp of NFL offenses, Berry showed a knack for big plays during his rookie season, earning a Pro Bowl nod. He's fast, has great football intelligence and is set to be one of the NFL's premier safeties. FS Kendrick Lewis, who was taken in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, also proved to be a smart selection. Though he was burned deep at times, Lewis is solid in pass coverage and should continue to improve. Lacking ideal size at 5-foot-9, CB Brandon Flowers plays much bigger than he is listed. A physical player who has a bit of an attitude, Flowers is dynamic when the ball is in the air, having defended 50 passes in his first three seasons. CB Brandon Carr is durable and a good open-field tackler, though he lacks Flowers' on-ball presence. The team opted for size in this year's draft, selecting 6-foot-1 Jalil Brown. His greatest immediate contribution should come on special teams, though his toughness and ball skills will be useful against multiple-WR offenses. Second-year CB Javier Arenas has quickness and an ability to read a quarterback, making up for a lack of size and strength. Veteran safeties Jon McGraw and Sabby Piscitelli add depth.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ever since Dante Hall left following the 2006 season, the Chiefs have been searching for an impact player in the return game. In '10, they found a pair of them in draft picks Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster. The duo split duties on kickoff returns, and Arenas was the primary run-back man on punts, helping the team finish third in the NFL in punt-return yards. Both are dynamic threats who opponents need to game-plan against. P Dustin Colquitt has a huge leg and can be a tremendous asset to the defense. PK Ryan Succop regressed from his terrific '09 rookie season but still is solid. 

 

SUMMARY

Even the most optimistic of Chiefs fans didn't foresee 10 wins and an AFC West title last season. Now expectations have increased, and it will be up to the entire organization to meet them again. With a solid core based around stars Eric Berry, Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles and Tamba Hali, the team looks like it has the ability to improve in the coming seasons. Still, last year's success has brought on a tougher schedule, which includes three prime-time games, making a second consecutive playoff no guarantee despite the improved roster.

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