Preseason or not, miserable defensive performance against Bears bodes ill

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Sports

August 28, 2018 - 10:29 AM

CHICAGO — Until this atrocious and alarming performance on Saturday at Soldier Field, you maybe still could have consoled yourself into thinking that you just hadn’t yet seen the real Chiefs defense.
Even in the aftermath, it’s healthy to remind yourself that there is almost no correlation between what we should still call exhibition games and what’s to come.
Plus, heck, some truth still remains even in what is looking more like denial that this isn’t as bad as it looks: If safety Eric Berry indeed returns as we keep being told he will, and if he resembles himself before suffering a torn Achilles’ last year, that will reconfigure some things both from a motivational and physical performance standpoint.
But even if you cling to all that, this 27-20 loss was a distressing dose of truth serum.
Because this was the day to establish some traction and earn some confidence and credibility and set a foundation with key reinforcements back for the preseason game that’s traditionally the closest approximation to regular-season play.
The fact that Chicago went against protocol and sat most of its starters because the Bears had been at camp a week early to prepare for the Hall of Fame Game should only have reinforced the urgency of performing well, not to mention enhanced the opportunity for the Chiefs.
Instead, even with Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens at their inside linebacker posts for the first time, the Chiefs justified every paranoid thought anyone has had about where this defense is going.
In the process, they lent fresh credence to the thought the defense could sabotage the crackling anticipation over what first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the offense might be able to do.
Especially when you think about this: Among the hallmarks of the Chiefs’ success in Andy Reid’s first five years was that the Chiefs would win the turnover game thanks to the combination of a defense that typically created them and a quarterback, Alex Smith, who rarely did.
Now, turnover catalyst Marcus Peters is gone, and so is Smith, as the Chiefs turn to Mahomes knowing he will make his share of mistakes to go with the spectacular.
That complicates the winning formula in its own way, calling for the defense to at least be more reliable about, you know, stopping the other team. So this mess against the Bears evokes another tier of skepticism.
Chicago amassed 280 yards and 24 points in the first half as the Chiefs committed gaffe after gaffe against a unit led by former Mizzou star and Chiefs reserve Chase Daniel.
When the pinpoint-throwing Daniel wasn’t exploiting a token pass rush and inept coverage for 198 yards on 15 of 18 completions, he ran for 47 yards — including a 28-yard burst down the right sideline that made his pedestrian speed look like world-class stuff.
Maybe that was the most disconcerting thing about this: This is vanilla-scheme time, with scant game-planning for the opponent. It’s as much just guys playing football against each other as it ever will be.
Reid prides himself on giving nothing away during the preseason and maybe even has a little rope-a-dope in him. But this was the Bears backups dissecting the Chiefs starting defense from the start, simply running away from or through them, mano a mano.
The opening drive featured a facemask on Hitchens, a crucial missed tackle by safety Leon McQuay, another by lineman Derrick Nnadi on a 13-yard touchdown run that also featured linebacker Justin Houston getting waffled up.
Then came Daniel’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Kevin White.
His double-move buckled cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who hasn’t been with the Chiefs a week and maybe deserves some slack … but also has been in the NFL a decade.
Afterward, Scandrick suggested that the issue on the play was what he considered “a little gray area in the concept of the defense,” which is tough to match with what you see on the replay where it looks like he just got scorched.
Later asked about White, Scandrick owned the play more even as he seemed to take a jab at White, identified to him as No. 11.
“Nameless, faceless. That could have been No. 90,” he said. “If I don’t have my eyes right, he was going to be wide open.”
The Chiefs have a lot more to get right on defense than their eyes, of course. Around the locker room, you’d hear calm explanations of fixable solutions in everything from just tackling better (Ragland) to basic technique (Hitchens) to jelling as a group that right now looks like the island of misfit toys.
“We’re still building culture,” said Houston, who repeated Saturday that he feels the best he has in years but has been virtually unnoticeable and played sparingly so far.
He added, “Once we get all our pieces back, we’ll be fine.”
So for argument’s sake, let’s assume that Berry returns healthy, Houston really feels great and is just being coddled through preseason, cornerback Steven Nelson returns soon from a concussion and that safety Dan Sorensen returns in late September from a knee injury.
Naturally, all of that and Hitchens and Ragland playing rust-free would make them better than they are now.
“So much of defense is communication and working together, passing things off,” Reid said, later adding, “Everything transmits (from) your inside ‘backers.”
But with the exception of Berry and Hitchens, with no way to know how fast young players will develop, at this stage this is still about the same vulnerable defensive lineup that did them in in the 22-21 playoff collapse against Tennessee.
That led to calls for the firing of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, which in turn led to a statement by the Chiefs that they believed the issue was more about defensive personnel.
So they went with the extreme makeover that hasn’t paid dividends yet. Nor has it actually had to yet.
Now you can only grit your teeth as you wait to see what Sutton is able to scheme up with this group — and what the relationship between this particular preseason and regular season is.
“At the end of the day, everybody’s record is going to start at 0-0,” Scandrick said.
True. It’s just that some teams will start off with more issues than others, and so far this defense is validating every unsettling thought you might have had about it.

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