Sometimes it is hard to see improvement because the results look the same. However, six games into the Chiefs 2009 season, one thing is becoming apparent: the Chiefs defense is steadily improving and is already substantially better than the 2008 Chiefs defense.
You may wonder how one can say this about a group than ranks in below the 23rd percentile in most defensive statistics. Much of the reason is that the Chiefs 2008 defense was arguably – in some ways – the worst defensive group in the history of the NFL. This was certainly the case in terms of sacks, where, lest anyone forget, the Chiefs set the NFL record for futility with only 10.
Now, quietly, the Chiefs stand only 1 sack away from tying that mark in only the 6th game of the season. Granted, a pace for 24 sacks is hardly anything to right home about, but it is a 240% improvement over last season. Of particular importance is the fact that the move of Tamba Hali from defensive end to outside linebacker is paying dividends. Hali has already matched his sack total from last season with 3, has one less forced fumble (with two) and is on a pace for more tackles, as well.
There is more good news as well. The Chiefs actually rank 4th in the NFL in completion percentage allowed at 55.2%. Only the Bills, Saints and Jets are better than the Chiefs in this regard. This is an enormous improvement over 2008, when the Chiefs ranked 27th in the NFL surrendering a 66.7% completion percentage. The Chiefs opponents quarterback rating allowed has also improved (although only slightly) from 91.1 to 90.1, however, this statistic is a little misleading. Part of the reason for this is that the Chiefs have improved from 28th to 22nd in touchdowns allowed (an improvement from 3.1 TD's per game to 2.5 TD's per game), but have allowed more TD's passing. This has inflated the passer rating of the Chiefs opponents. In addition, one place that the 2008 Chiefs were more efficient was in making interceptions, intercepting 2.5% of opponent's passes, while the 2009 Chiefs have intercepted only 1.5%. However, as anyone who has watched the Chiefs understands, this may be attributed simply to dropped potential interceptions, rather than fundamentally poor play of the defense. Frankly, throw in a couple of dropped interception against the Raiders and everyone might be viewing the entire Chiefs 2009 season through a different lense.
So, the Chiefs pass defense has improved, but what the Chiefs defense against the run? In 2008, the Chiefs ranked 30th in the NFL allowing an average of 5.0 yards per rush. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs defense also ranked 30th in rushing yards allowed, giving up an alarming 158.9 yards per game. In 2009, while still not what anyone would consider a stalwart crew, this unit is better allowing a 24th ranked average of 4.5 yards per carry and 130.3 yards per game, which is good enough for a 25th ranking and an improvement of fully 28+ yards per game over last season.
Perhaps one of the biggest improvements is in 3rd down conversion percentage. In 2008, the Chiefs ranked dead last (tied with the Colts) by allowing opponents to convert a whopping 47% of their 3rd downs. Conversely, in 2009, the Chiefs rank a respectable 16th (tied with the Tennessee Titans) allowing opponents to convert a much improved 38% of their 3rd downs. This is a huge statistic and until I saw it I even scarcely remembered how frustrating 2008 was when the Chiefs seemingly could never seem to get their opponents of the field. In the case of the 2009 Chiefs I haven't had this feeling nearly as often.
The payoff for improved defensive play comes in two places; yards and points. Here, the Chiefs are improved as well. In terms of yards, the Chiefs have improved slightly, from surrendering 393 yards per game in 2008, to 379 yards per game in 2009. However, the bigger payoff has come in terms of points allowed. The 2008 Chiefs ranked 29th in the NFL, giving up 27.5 points per game, however, the 2009 Chiefs are ranked 24th and are allowing over a field goal less at 24.0 points per contest. Consider, as well that the Chiefs have faced the 2nd, 6th and 7th ranked offenses in the NFL in the first three weeks and you really start to get a picture of a Chiefs defense that has improved. While going against lesser opponents in the 23rd and last ranked Redskins and Raiders, the Chiefs defense has been downright dominant, allowing a total of only 16 points and an average of only 215 yards per game.
Stepping away from the statistics for a moment, allows for an even sunnier appraisal of the Chiefs situation on defense. You may ask why. This is because of the story that the statistics don't tell. The 2008 Chiefs defense was a unit that had spent the previous four seasons under the same defensive coordinator and at least the past three in ostensibly the same system. Granted this group was greatly impacted by the departure of all-pro defensive end Jared Allen, but this a fact that the 2009 Chiefs have had to contend with as well.
On the other hand, the 2009 Chiefs are acclimating to a brand new system and defensive alignment in converting to a 3-4. As a result, there is likely to be large improvement as the season goes on and the learning curve sets in. For the first time, in a long time, you get the feeling that this Chiefs defense is a player or two away from being something really special. Additionally, the Chiefs coaching staff seems to be coaching players on techniques and several players seem to be making monumental strides from week to week. It is clear that players like Tamba Hali and Glenn Dorsey are much better than they were in the preseason and there is no reason to expect that they won't continue to improve.
This week, the Chiefs get their first look at a more average offense. The San Diego Chargers rank 14th in the NFL and have injuries on the offensive line. This should present a good test for the Chiefs young defense and should give us a further look into how much this unit is different from its 2008 predecessors. If the Chiefs can hold the Chargers to well under their averages of 24.8 points per game and 341 yards, it will show that this group really has come a long way.