New direction starts with `D'

From coordinators to personnel to philosophies, many teams have overhauled their defenses

Reconstructing the Defense

September 08, 2005|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

For the Kansas City Chiefs, it was not enough to lead the NFL in offense last season or finish second in scoring. All it got them was a 7-9 record and a seat in front of the TV for the postseason.

Nor has it been enough to lead the league in scoring and offensive touchdowns the past three years combined. All that did was produce a 28-20 regular-season record with one playoff game.

So this season, the Chiefs will try one more time to find a playoff defense.

A year ago, they fired their defensive coordinator and kept their players.

This year, after finishing 31st in total defense, they kept their coordinator and fired several players. The Chiefs figure to open the season Sunday with at least six new starters on defense, including first-round draft choice Derrick Johnson at linebacker.

Finally, coach Dick Vermeil thinks they're getting it right.

"I think we're going in the right direction," Vermeil said in late August. "I think we'll be a better defensive football team. ... I really appreciate the intensity that they're playing defense."

Vermeil isn't the only one who hopes for a change in sea level for his defense. Nearly half the teams in the league undertook major defensive revisions this summer. Either they got a new coordinator (six teams), a new base defense (seven) or simply overhauled a tired lineup.

In Dallas, the Cowboys will attempt to close the gap on the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East by switching to a 3-4 defense and going big.

In Cincinnati, the Bengals will try to complete their playoff push by getting faster, more physical and younger.

And in Minnesota, the Vikings will try to put a defense on the field that their offense will be proud of. It likely will be coach Mike Tice's last chance to get it right.

Among the other teams that have overhauled their defense are the Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams and Green Bay Packers.

Overhaul for Browns

No team has changed as much as the Cleveland Browns under the leadership of general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel, though. Crennel brought the 3-4 scheme from New England, where he was defensive coordinator, and Savage brought a personnel philosophy from Baltimore, where he was director of player personnel. Together, they set about creating a new attitude.

So far, 21 players who started at least one game last year are gone. As few as three defensive starters may retain their jobs.

"One thing we've done this offseason, we've cleaned the closet here," Savage said. "[Former Browns coach] Sam Rutigliano visited us and one thing he said was, `Don't worry about the weeds; plant the seeds.'

"We've tried to get rid of some of our weeds and we've tried to plant a lot of seeds in the spring."

The Browns don't have enough impact players to fit the prototypical 3-4 scheme, and should struggle much of the year as a result.

In most other cases, defense has been the missing link on teams with a playoff-caliber offense. In addition to Kansas City, that describes the Indianapolis Colts.

Colts coach Tony Dungy says the trend toward defensive overhauls is a function of the salary cap.

"Most teams spend a lot of money on offense, spend a lot of money to get a quarterback who can play, and therefore you're always trying to build the [defensive] side of the ball," Dungy said.

"It's hard to continue on in that same vein on defense. Therefore, you say, `We've got to do things a little different' or `We've got to do it with new guys.' And starting a defense with young guys and draft picks and growing is not in fashion - and maybe it is impossible with the salary cap. I'm sure that has a lot to do with it."

Bengals build in draft

The Bengals are trying to become the exception to that rule. Under coach Marvin Lewis, they have taken a total of four linebackers on the first day of the draft the past two years.

Cincinnati's first two picks this year were linebackers - David Pollack and Odell Thurman, both from Georgia - and are expected to start this season.

"We think we're more athletic, more in tune with what the rest of the NFL is all about," Lewis said. "We're going to put some young football players out there again and they better be up to the task."

What Pollack and Thurman bring to the Bengals, Lewis said, is "good energy, a charisma and the ability to lead and the ability to make plays."

The Bengals' defensive coordinator, Chuck Bresnahan, doesn't have a problem with playing rookies. In his previous job as coordinator of the Oakland Raiders, he went to the Super Bowl with a rookie - Napoleon Harris - who had never played middle linebacker.

"You're going to have some growing pains, but if they're football players, they're going to do their job," Bresnahan said. "And they're going to learn and progress as the year goes on. The exciting thing about that is the future, and I'm talking about the future for this year."

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