- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Friday evening, somewhere between 6:30 and 8:30, during the Chiefs-Vikings scrimmage in Mankato, Minn., Gunther Cunningham says he finally saw the proverbial light come on for Kansas City's defense.
"I saw something different in the players' eyes for the first time since I've been back," says Cunningham, entering his third season as Chiefs defensive coordinator. "A confidence, a growth, that intangible thing that you as a coordinator see more than anyone else. I hope what I saw was the making of a real, solid, defensive football team."
K.C.'s D has been seen as soft for several years, having not cracked the league's top 20 in least yards allowed the past five seasons. Meanwhile, the Chiefs' offense has finished in the top five five years in a row, including first the past two seasons. That imbalance resulted in just one playoff game in Dick Vermeil's five-year tenure.
With an aging offense that already has seen both offensive tackles retire this offseason, the Chiefs' defense will need to pull its weight if Kansas City is to pull off its first Super Bowl run in more than three decades.
Most of the pieces are indeed in place for the Chiefs' defense to experience the kind of transformation Indianapolis' did last year.
Cunningham was the defense's major offseason acquisition in 2004. He helped it finish 31st, down from 29th the year before, more proof that schemes tend to be more effective when they feature good players. In '05, Kansas City imported via free agency linebacker Kendrell Bell and safety Sammy Knight, traded for Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain and drafted linebacker Derrick Johnson in the first round. But it didn't come together overnight, and the Chiefs came in 25th (seventh against the run).
This year, the Chiefs went defense again in the first round, selecting defensive end Tamba Hali. They also acquired another corner from the AFC East, former Patriot and Jet Ty Law. Yet perhaps the most important addition to the defense was again not a player but a coach: head coach Herman Edwards.
The Chiefs are using Edwards' version of the "Tampa 2" scheme as their base defense. Kansas City should be able to generate pressure off the edges with Hali and Jared Allen. The big question up front is: Who are the big guys in the middle going to be? First-round disappointment Ryan Sims and free agent pickup Ron Edwards are running with the first teamers for the moment.
Edwards says this corps of linebackers is the fastest he's coached. Johnson could have a big year, having gained experience by starting every game as a rookie. Cunningham says Johnson has become a better blitzer and possesses a better understanding of coverages. The secondary has a chance to be special, with Knight and Greg Wesley (Chiefs people say he's having a really good camp) joining the tandem of Pro Bowl corners.
From the "Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks" Dept.: Edwards wants Law (who played at 218 pounds last year but is down to 205) and Madison to use what's called "hard hands" and be even more physical with the outside receivers in this Cover 2 defense than they've been in their careers, whereas before they'd "soft jam," read and run with the receivers.
As a unit, the Chiefs are going to run to the ball better than they have and play better team defense, a hallmark of the Tampa 2 scheme. One of the lasting images of last season was the Giants' Tiki Barber breaking tackle after tackle on his way to gaining 220 yards rushing against K.C. If the Chiefs play the Tampa 2 properly, that kind of thing shouldn't happen again. There shouldn't be as many one-on-one tackling situations because everyone is taught to fly to the football and how to tackle based on where their help is.
The idea is to have the players do less reading and reacting and more attacking. Kansas City will mix up its coverages, sure, and the Chiefs will pull out some exotic blitzes every now and again, but for the most part they're going to keep it simple and be fundamentally sound.
"We've got to be better on execution," Edwards says. "Use our talent and let our talent run to the ball."
Much the same way the offense has been in place, the Chiefs' communication on D also should be better after two seasons under Cunningham.
"People think you can just put a unit together and play ball, but the best defenses, if you look throughout the league, have been together for two, three years," Knight says.
This is easily the most talent on defense the Chiefs have had in several years. When Cunningham returned, he points out, the Chiefs had three starters who were first-day picks. Kansas City has sent one defensive player (free safety Jerome Woods in 2003) to the Pro Bowl this decade.
But to be fair, the defense has had help being bad.
Besides changing the scheme on defense, Edwards is in the process of changing the mind-set on offense. Don't worry. Kansas City's high-powered offense, now under the direction of former O-line coach Mike Solari, isn't going to bring back "Marty (as in, Schottenheimer) Ball." Edwards says he doesn't want to be conservative. But to make the playoffs, he says, the offense must play smarter. He's spent a lot of time so far talking to the team about playing together, something team staff members say was, frankly, missing under Vermeil.
Kansas City wasn't just imbalanced in the rankings but also in its approach. Vermeil was such an offensive-minded coach, practice time was even skewed toward that side of the ball. The defense often was reduced to scout team status. On game days, the offense, because it was so aggressive, would often put the defense in difficult situations. The Chiefs continued throwing even when they had big leads. That stops the clock unnecessarily and gives opponents extra possessions. Kansas City's habit of keeping its foot on the gas, so to speak, probably was a combination of not having faith in the defense's ability to protect a lead and a love affair with statistics.
Here's the key number in Edwards' mind: While true the Chiefs have won their last 18 games at Arrowhead Stadium, they're 3-9 on the road in December/January since 2001.
"I know one thing," says Edwards, who guided the Jets to three playoff appearances, "the way you control the game on the road is to play good defense and run the ball on offense. It takes the crowd out of the game. You don't win on the road, you're not going to be a consistent playoff team."
The challenge facing Edwards is a lot like the circumstances his friend Tony Dungy encountered when he took over the Colts. Dungy had to rebuild the defense there, but in the meantime he adapted to the personnel he had on offense. He didn't start playing "Buc Ball" again, nor will Edwards, he says. But when Kansas City gets in a position where it can control the clock or even run out the clock, that's what the Chiefs will do (emphasis on run).
"People say I'm going to be conservative," Edwards said. "Well, I've never been involved with an offense like this. I'm not going to be 'Conservative Joe' and blow up a good offense. I'm not going to shut it down. I still want to be exciting. But we have to play together."
Cunningham, the former Chiefs head coach, has seen some dark days for Kansas City's defense. Now he sees it all coming together. Might the watershed for the Chiefs' defense have occurred in an otherwise mostly meaningless training camp scrimmage?
"For the first time," Cunningham says, "I don't see the Kansas City Chiefs' defense as whipping boys."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.