The Chiefs’ defense has done enough to protect the leads provided by the league’s highest-scoring offense through the first three weeks of the season, but that formula figures to lose its potency sooner or later.
The defense’s performance, its personnel and the future of All-Pro safety Eric Berry were the primary sources of apprehension for ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Anthony “Booger” McFarland in a phone interview with The Star as he prepared to broadcast this week’s prime-time game between the Chiefs and AFC West-rival Denver Broncos.
“I understand Pat Mahomes is off to a good start,” McFarland said. “I’m not ready to crown him four games into his career, but he’s definitely playing well. Andy Reid is doing a great job of teaching him and creating plays, Eric Bieniemy and that whole staff is doing a phenomenal job. My concern for them is defense.”
The Chiefs have allowed an average of 474 yards per game and 30.7 points per game. While they have not trailed in any of their first three games, opposing offenses have passed for 362.7 yards per game.
Those numbers have been somewhat muted because they’ve had the highest-scoring offense in the NFL through the first three games of the season (39.3 points per game). Mahomes, who has not thrown an interception, set a record with 13 touchdowns in his first three games.
“Offense is about rhythm and timing, and you’re not going to always have that every game,” said McFarland, who played eight seasons in the NFL as a defensive lineman. “Sometimes weather can take that away from you. I’m a little old school. I think defense travels. I think defensively it just sets your tone for your football team. It takes the pressure off your quarterback from thinking he’s got to score 40 every game.”
McFarland said he’s seen individual breakdowns from the Chiefs’ defense as opposed to communication errors. He also pointed to the departure of Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters as having significantly downgraded the secondary.
As for the injury that has loomed over the secondary all season, Berry’s heel, McFarland gave voice to a notion many Chiefs followers may not yet want to consider.
“I think, eventually, it’s time to let go of Eric Berry,” McFarland said. “I realize what kind of safety he is or was. To me it’s time to let it go and move on, especially with the amount of cap space they’re allocating towards him.”
With Mahomes on a relatively inexpensive rookie contract, McFarland believes the Chiefs need build up other areas of their team to take advantage of that salary cap room over the next couple seasons, the way Seattle did when Russell Wilson was still in the early stage of his career.
As for this season, McFarland said the number of yards the Chiefs’ defense doesn’t matter nearly as much as points. If they’re able to stop teams in the red zone — Chiefs opponents have scored on 88.9 percent of their trips — and create turnovers, then they’ll be “fine.”
Turnovers were a topic of discussion this week for a defense that has created just one takeaway through three games. The biggest turnover of the season thus far came when wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas forced a fumble on punt coverage against the Chargers to set up a momentum-swinging touchdown in the second half of their season opener.
The Chiefs have had multiple turnovers wiped away by penalties, including a Chris Jones fumble recovery and return for an apparent touchdown against the Steelers, as well as Steven Nelson’s nullified interception of Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone.
“One thing I tell the guys is look if you just keep going, if you do these things, and you keep getting the ball out, it will eventually work your way,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Without question, we definitely want to get (more turnovers). That’s something we’ve been good pretty good at here, and we’ve just got to find a way to keep ramping up. It starts out in practice. It’s a mindset.”
The Chiefs ranked seventh last season in takeaways. They were first in 2016 and fifth in 2015.
“We just got to keep jabbing at it,” Chiefs inside linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “Every chance you get to hit at the ball, do it. Every change you get to get an interception, you’ve got to take it. In this league, you’re not going to get many opportunities so when you do get it you’ve got to take it. I think we’ve got to keep biting at the bit.”