Chiefs need defense to rise in 2004

The key for the Chiefs in 2004 is simple -- play better defense.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:52 AM ET
By Rick Dean | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Dick Vermeil, a head coach whose cup of optimism is always three-quarters full, doesn't hesitate to favorably compare his 2004 Chiefs to his '80 Philadelphia Eagles or '99 St. Louis Rams. "I've been around two Super Bowl teams - one that won and one that lost," he said. "I think this team, at this time of the year, is the best one I've ever been around."

Offensively, there are reasons for such optimism. The 13-3 Chiefs led the NFL in scoring the past two seasons and placed six returning offensive players and one returner in last season's Pro Bowl. The last time Vermeil coached such an offense, the Rams won him his first championship.

That's why all eyes are on Gunther Cunningham and the Chiefs' sorry defense this year. Ranked 29th overall last year -- up three spots from its dead-last finish in '02 -- the K.C. defense failed to stop Indianapolis on any significant drive in its one-and-done playoff appearance last January.

Cunningham, K.C.'s defensive coordinator from 1995-98, when the defense was dominating, returns from a three-year hiatus to try to recapture some of the lost glory and pride.

If he's not successful, the Chiefs will struggle with a killer schedule that has them hosting Indianapolis and defending conference champions Carolina and New England, while facing road contests at Denver (in the season opener) and Tennessee. This could well be one of Vermeil's best teams, but it may not finish with the record to verify it.

Quarterbacks: Trent Green is coming off his first Pro Bowl campaign during which he completed a career-high 63 percent of his passes for 24 TDs against only 12 interceptions. Amazingly durable after his career-threatening knee injury in '99, he's taken every significant snap in his three seasons in Kansas City. He was voted the team's MVP, the first quarterback so honored since '90. Backup Todd Collins has thrown only 22 passes the past three seasons. Third-stringer Damon Huard has NFL starting experience if needed. Grade: B-plus.

Running backs: After setting the NFL single-season record with 27 TDs (all rushing), Priest Holmes now wants more breakaway runs necessary for a 2,000-yard rushing season. With Holmes' rushing prowess comes team success; Baltimore was 7-0 and K.C. 12-7 when Holmes ran for 100 yards-plus. Not just an accomplished runner, his 1,976 receiving yards over the past three seasons is tops among NFL running backs. FB Tony Richardson joined Holmes in the Pro Bowl last year as one of the league's premier blocking backs with big-play potential as a runner or receiver. Backups Derrick Blaylock and Larry Johnson play sparingly, but Blaylock averaged five yards on his 22 carries in '03. Grade: A.

Receivers: Holmes was Green's favorite target last year with 74 catches. TE Tony Gonzalez was right behind with 71, including 10 that went for TDs. The team's wide receivers consequently don't get the ball as much (106 catches between starters Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton), and that may continue this year. Rookie TE Kris Wilson is a hybrid receiver who can get open from the line, the slot or the backfield. Kennison missed much of training camp with a wrist injury, and Morton was hobbled by an Achilles tendon injury that threatened his opening-day status, if not more. Third-year man Marc Boerigter, who scored eight TDs on only 20 catches as a rookie, has to step up after catching only 11 balls in '03, but he suffered a potentially serious knee injury in the third preseason game. Dante Hall is too valuable a return man to be more than an occasional receiver with big-play prospects. Undrafted rookie Richard Smith had a dynamite camp in the absence of the starters. Grade: B-minus.

Offensive linemen: After the same group had started 33 straight games, this team strength makes a change this year. Former Eagles OG John Welbourn replaces free-agent departee John Tait at right tackle. If he stays healthy, this line shouldn't miss a step. OLT Willie Roaf continues to play at a high level (nine Pro Bowls) at age 34 despite sore pins, but the Chiefs have nothing in reserve should he or Welbourn go down. Nine-time Pro Bowl OG Will Shields might have to play tackle in a worst-case scenario. C Casey Wiegmann played at a Pro Bowl level that went unrecognized last season. ORG Brian Waters is a superb in-space blocker. Backups are a major concern, though new addition Chris Bober has starting experience (Giants) at three positions. Second-year players Brett Williams and Jordan Black provide depth. Grade: A.

Defensive linemen: The key to stopping the run -- Cunningham's top priority -- will be K.C.'s D-line, which has more potential than production. DT Ryan Sims, after two unproductive seasons, must become a contributor in a system that will put him in position to do so. DT John Browning is steady but rarely spectacular. DE Eric Hicks had 14 sacks in 2000 under Cunningham and believes the coach's return will revitalize his career. DE Vonnie Holliday opened '03 with a three-sack game, then fell quiet. Nickel specialists R-Kal Truluck, Jimmy Wilkerson and Gary Stills are speedy edge rushers. Interior backup candidates Lionel Dalton, Junior Siavii and Eric Downing are rotational players on a good day. Grade: C-minus.

Linebackers: The Chiefs began to hemorrhage points after MLB Mike Maslowski went down with a knee injury in Week 10. Maslowski's ongoing knee problems threaten his playing future, meaning second-year replacement Kawika Mitchell has to be better. OLBs Scott Fujita and Shawn Barber have pass-rushing and playmaking abilities that might best be utilized in Cunningham's attack system. Monty Beisel is the best of the backups and could see action early. Grade: C-minus.

Defensive backs: FS Jerome Woods earned his first Pro Bowl appearance after returning two picks for TDs, but a hamstring injury severely limited his camp time. SS Greg Wesley had six picks last year and is a fierce run defender and blitzer. At corner, Dexter McCleon is capable (six picks in '03), but Eric Warfield runs hot and cold and is coming off back surgery. The nickel candidates, William Bartee and young Julian Battle, are unproven. Grade: C.

Special teams: Pro Bowl pick Hall remains the NFL's most dangerous returner. He had a record-tying four kick/punt returns for touchdowns in the first five games and one in the playoffs and could have easily had two or three others. His blocking unit is among the league's best at opening seams. PK Morten Andersen's diminishing range at age 44 made him vulnerable to young Lawrence Tynes in camp. P Jason Baker must improve after a 39.5-yard gross average and only a 33.2 net last year. Grade: B-plus.

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