Deciphering The Defense
Dilip Vishwanawat - Getty
Dilip Vishwanawat - Getty
Warpaint Illustrated Columnist
Posted May 20, 2009


How much do we really know about the Chiefs’ new defense?

Yes, we know it will involve the 3-4 formation, that Tyson Jackson will start at one defensive end spot, that Zach Thomas will play inside linebacker, that it may be awhile before the Chiefs start stopping anyone consistently.

But, really – what do we know, for sure? We’re dealing with a whole new world here. There hasn’t been a 3-4 defense in Kansas City since Gunther Cunningham started experimenting with Derrick Thomas in the “Falcon.” The 4-3 has been a way of life at Arrowhead for a long, long time.

As fans who aren’t privy to the playbooks at One Arrowhead Drive, what do we really know? Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast may end up completely taking us all by surprise this season, and hopefully a few of their opponents along the way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to figure things out ourselves in the months before September.

One thing we do know is that the Chiefs will run some of the hybrid 3-4/4-3 schemes implemented by Pendergast in Arizona a year ago. But whose brain do we pick? Fortunately, we don’t have to do any actual brain-picking ourselves – Pro Football Weekly took care of it for us in January.

In an interview with Cardinals linebacker coach Bill Davis, PFW’s Eric Edholm explored the intricacies of what is described as a “4-3 Under” defense. Davis was kind enough to explain the vital positions within the defense, the responsibilities each is assigned, and how it all fits together.

1. The Middle Linebacker – In Arizona’s scheme, this player has to be stout, able to take on offensive linemen, get off blocks and make plays in the running game. The Cardinals employed Gerald Hayes (6-foot-1, 246 pounds) in this role.

2. The Weakside Linebacker – The Cardinals needed a fast, explosive player who could get up the field in a hurry and bring down the ball carrier. The defense was set up to “protect” this player, so he wouldn’t have to deal with blockers. The Cardinals used Karlos Dansby (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) in this role.

3. The Predator – Essentially a pure pass rusher for the Cardinals, designed to constantly occupy the left offensive tackle. Arizona lined up Bertrand Berry (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and Travis LaBoy (6-foot-3, 254 pounds) in two-point stances, however, giving the appearance of a fourth linebacker on the field.

So now the only question is, how does it all fit together in Kansas City? We know the Chiefs have viable 3-4 defensive linemen in Jackson, Tank Tyler and Alex Magee. Where do the Chiefs find their versions of Hayes, Dansby, Berry and LaBoy, if indeed that’s what they need?

It’s actually fairly obvious.

Having arrived in Kansas City and finding no fireplug middle linebacker who could resist offensive linemen and play a vital role inside, Scott Pioli went out and signed Zach Thomas, who has made a career of butting heads in the trenches. At 5-foot-11 and 242 pounds, Thomas’ physique clearly isn’t all that different from Hayes.’

Can Derrick Johnson be the “fast, athletic” linebacker positioned next to Thomas? That’s exactly where the Chiefs are placing him. Might he play a role similar to that of Dansby’s?

While Dansby has achieved more than Johnson they are comparable players in terms of talent. Interestingly enough, one of Dansby’s supposed weaknesses – not unlike one of Johnson’s – is his inability to shed blocks. Hence, the need for a scheme that frees him up to run unimpeded to the ball. And again, Johnson’s skillset is not dissimilar to Dansby’s, at 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, with speed to burn.

If KC’s new scheme were to “set Johnson free,” so to speak, it might lead him to the new contract he’s undoubtedly hoping for. Dansby not only led the Cardinals in tackles last year (in both the regular season and playoffs), he tied for second on the team in sacks, forced two fumbles, grabbed two interceptions, had five passes defensed and led the team in tackles for loss. Naturally, he was slapped with the franchise tag.

Finally, we have “The Predator.” In Arizona, this position was described by Davis as “almost always rushing the passer.”

What else does Tamba Hali do well, anyway? This role might just be tailor-made for Hali since, you know, covering tight ends isn’t exactly his strong suit. And if Hali has dropped weight as reported earlier this offseason, he may not look much different than Berry or LaBoy. Hali’s experience as a standup pass rusher might just come in handy if he’s to be KC’s “Predator.”

In fact, in an interesting turn of events, Hali lined up at that exact spot in OTAs on Monday – right outside linebacker. Perhaps it was only because of Mike Vrabel’s absence (he played both right and left outside linebacker in New England), but it also might indicate that the Chiefs believe Hali has some potential as their “Predator.”

So, what do we now know about the 2009 Chiefs’ defense? Perhaps nothing more than we did 700 words ago, but we can definitely speculate and see where the pieces might fit in Kansas City if Arizona’s “4-3 Under” is to be installed. Now we just have to hope it yields a defense ranked a little higher than 28th, as the Cardinals did in 2008.


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