Sat Jan 19 2:47pm ET
By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
Players: Tom Brady
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid watches workouts Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs host the New England Patriots in the NFL 's AFC football championship game on Sunday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
In this Oct. 14, 2018, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) gives a stiff arm to Kansas City Chiefs free safety Ron Parker (38) after catching a pass during the second half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass. It seems football fans everywhere are suddenly on the Kansas City Chiefs bandwagon, enthralled by their record-setting young quarterback and exciting offensive playmakers while hopeful that their amiable old coach can finally win the big one. Then again, maybe theyre just fans of anybody facing New England. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The only defense the Kansas City Chiefs played most of this season was, well, in defense of their own defense, which gave up so many yards and points that it became a running joke around the league.
Yes, the Chiefs scored in bushels. They also allowed points in bunches.
The fact that they spent most of the season coughing up 30 points and 400-plus yards per game came despite the fact that they excelled at sacking the quarterback. They finished with 52 of them, tied for the NFL lead, thanks primarily to the trio of Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston.
Yet things began to change in Week 17, when the Chiefs shut down the Oakland Raiders in a game they needed to win to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. And when critics claimed that the Raiders were playing for nothing, the Chiefs backed it up with a defensive gem in the divisional round against the Colts.
Now, that suddenly stingy defense gets its biggest test Sunday against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
At stake: A trip to the Super Bowl, the first for the Chiefs in 49 years.
So what changed? How did a Swiss cheese defense that was torched by the Patriots for 43 points in a Week 6 loss in Foxborough suddenly turn into a steel curtain, and just in the nick of time?
''In the last couple of games, the three things we've done is we've limited the explosive plays, we've done a really solid job of tackling and we've had one defensive penalty in two weeks,'' Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. ''Those three things allow you to function and go.''
Take each one in order.
In the Chiefs' four losses this season, they allowed four plays of 40-plus yards and 21 plays of at least 20 yards. Seven of those came in a particularly dismal defensive performance against the Rams, who ultimately won a 53-50 shootout at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.
But the Chiefs didn't allow a single play over 15 yards against Oakland, and didn't allow the Colts a play over 30 yards. In fact, Indianapolis didn't score on offense until late in the fourth quarter.
Their success in limiting big plays is, at least in part, a byproduct of improved tackling.
Then there are the penalties. After leading the league in total penalties and defensive penalties this season, their defense has been flagged just once over the past two games.
''Most points that are produced in a drive usually result from an explosive play and-or a penalty in the drive,'' Sutton explained. ''The common thing when you look back and say, `Hey how'd they get down the field?' It's usually you had a (pass interference) here or you gave up a 20-yard run here or whatever it was. So, if you can manage those and do a relatively good job on those things, you put yourself in a good position to play. I think the guys that have played have done a good job.''
Ah, there's the caveat: The guys who have played have done a good job.
The Chiefs have been missing pieces on defense the entire season, and often they have been crucial playmakers. Highly paid linebacker Justin Houston, who had a pair of sacks against the Colts, missed four games with a hamstring injury. Top cornerback Kendall Fuller missed a game with a broken hand. Starting safety Daniel Sorensen missed half the season with a broken leg.
Those injuries alone are enough to derail any defense, but the Chiefs have also played almost the whole season without Eric Berry, their star safety and arguably the team's emotional leader.
He played in just two games because of his heel but is poised to play Sunday against New England.
''That's my guy. Eric Berry has kind of taken me under his wing since I got here,'' Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson said. ''We call him `Coach' in our room because he's so knowledgeable. He means a lot to our team and our defense, so whenever we can have him out there, it's a great thing.''
The Patriots are under no preconceptions the defense they marched up and down the field against in Week 6 will show up on Sunday. Bill Belichick said this week that there is little to glean from that win, while Brady was quick to heap praise on a defense playing its best all year.
''We've played them quite a bit over the years,'' the Patriots quarterback said. ''They've had some incredible units that we've played against. They've got play-makers at each level. Obviously, a good scheme. They make you work for it. It's a very tough, hard-nosed team. They compete on every snap. They've been in a lot of close games this year. It's a great challenge for us. I don't think you can take anything for granted.''
Philadelphia Eagles FS Rodney McLeod (knee) expects to be ready for training camp, and he's on schedule in his rehab from torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans restructured his contract Tuesday, June 18, which created $3.2 million in 2019 salary cap space.
Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy said he "feels good" about tight end Trey Burton (hernia) being ready for the start of training camp this summer. Burton had hernia surgery this offseason. The 27-year-old caught a career-high 54 passes (76 targets) for 569 yards and six touchdowns in his first year in Chicago with Nagy running the show. In this improving offense, Burton could improve further and will be a strong TE1 as long as he doesn't suffer any setbacks in training camp.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (ankle) has missed all of the team's offseason workouts as he recovers from ankle surgery, but he expects to be 100 percent healthy in time for training camp. Kelce is one of a kind at the tight end position and should be the first name off the board at the position in fantasy drafts despite his ankle injury. The 29-year-old caught a career-high 103 passes (150 targets) for 1,336 yards and 10 touchdowns last year and has superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes throwing him passes. Kelce has now gone over 1,000 yards receiving in three straight seasons. He's pretty good.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Carlos Hyde, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, has occasionally lined up next to starter Damien Williams in the backfield at minicamp and has frequently been used as a receiver. "It's not just a one-dimensional running back here. You do it all. You line up at receiver. You actually run routes. You're not just a decoy," Hyde said. It's all fine and dandy right now, but it remains to be seen how much run Hyde will actually get when the games matter. At best, he's a handcuff for Williams owners in fantasy drafts. The 28-year-old floundered with both the Browns and Jaguars in a disappointing 2018 season. He had 10 combined receptions in 14 games last year.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been very impressed with rookie wide receiver D.K. Metcalf in offseason practices. "Its great seeing DK [Metcalf] make his plays. I think DK is looking really, really special," Wilson said. "He can do anything and everything and hes tremendous." The second-round pick isn't just a physical specimen at 6-foot-4, 229 pounds with a 4.33-yard 40-yard dash and 40.5-inch vertical jump. Wilson has been impressed with his knowledge of the game as well. Metcalf should be the No. 2 in his rookie season behind Tyler Lockett, and he really has a chance to put up special numbers in Year 1 with Wilson slinging him the football deep.
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling has been lining up as the No. 2 behind Davante Adams and ahead of Geronimo Allison during offseason practices. Minicamp practices revealed that MVS is a starter and probably the No. 2 behind Adams, with Allison likely to serve as the slot man in three-wide sets. I think this offense is really catered for a guy like him, Adams said of Valdes-Scantling. The fifth-round pick had some standout games as a rookie but was altogether very inconsistent for fantasy owners. Valdes-Scantling finished with 38 catches for 581 yards and had a team-high 15.3 yard-per-catch average. It's looking like he's a perfect fit for new head coach Matt LaFleur's offense, and he'll be coveted by fantasy owners in the later rounds as a potential breakout candidate.
Detroit Lions tight end Michael Roberts reverted back to the Lions on Friday after the Patriots tried to acquire him in a trade. Roberts failed his physical and has now been waived by the Lions. The 25-year-old was a fourth-round pick in 2017 and had just nine catches for 100 yards and three touchdowns in eight games due to injuries in 2018 with Detroit. It remains to be seen if he'll resurface with another team, but even if he does he won't be on the fantasy radar.
Chicago Bears third-round rookie running back David Montgomery has impressed the team as a route-runner out of the backfield in offseason practices. "We always knew he had great hands. You dont know how great of a route runner a college back is, but hes a really good route runner," head coach Matt Nagy said. Montgomery has had comparisons to former Bears do-it-all back Matt Forte, which is a high bar to match. However, the Bears drafted Montgomery with a purpose and then sent Jordan Howard packing in a trade to the Eagles. Mike Davis will also factor in, but Montgomery has as high of a ceiling as any other rookie back to come out of the 2019 draft.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner had more than 62 percent of the team's carries in 2018 and 64 percent of the targets in the passing game among running backs. However, he thinks the team will spread the ball out more evenly in the backfield among him and Jaylen Samuels in 2019. Samuels had 328 yards from scrimmage in the three games that Conner missed with an ankle injury late in the year. There's also fourth-rounder Benny Snell, who ran for 1,449 yards and 16 touchdowns at Kentucky in 2018. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said he isn't concerned about Conner's durability at all. Conner should be the team's primary back and should be the first target in fantasy drafts, but Samuels should also be useful in PPR formats as the Steelers look to spread things around with Antonio Brown gone.
San Francisco 49ers rookie defensive end Nick Bosa (hamstring), the team's first-round pick, believes he'll be ready for Week 1 after being diagnosed with a Grade 1 hamstring strain on May 23. He thinks he'll be able to get enough work at training camp to be ready for the regular season. Bosa also hasn't played football for nearly a year after suffering a sports hernia. The pass-rusher could get off to a slow start in his first NFL season after not practicing at all this spring, but in the long run Bosa should be very helpful in improving San Fran's pass rush. Bosa has been watching the team practice and learning the scheme while picking the brains of Arik Armstead and Dee Ford.
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown (knee) underwent a scope on his knee last week but is expected to be ready for training camp next month. The 23-year-old had five receptions in eight games played in 2018 and has just nine catches for 87 yards and on scores in 21 games over two seasons after being drafted in the seventh round in 2017. He's buried on the depth chart behind Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns and Randall Cobb, so he's well off the fantasy radar.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had high expectations in his first year in Minnesota after signing a fully guaranteed $84 million deal, but it didn't exactly pay off on the field. Cousins had career highs in completions (425), attempts (606), completion percentage (70.1) and passing touchdowns (30), but the Vikings finished 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs. Cousins is hoping to win more games in 2019, but he's just 34-37-2 as a starter in the NFL and has no playoff wins. The Vikings are expected to focus more on the running game under offensive advisor Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski this year. Cousins could put up decent numbers, but he should be drafted as a low-end QB1 or high-end QB2 this time around.
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone doesn't expect left tackle Cam Robinson (knee) to be ready for the start of training camp this summer. Robinson should be available eventually in training camp, but it's disappointing after he tore his ACL way back in Week 2 of last season. When healthy, Robinson will be tasked with protecting quarterback Nick Foles' blind side in his first year with the team after coming over from the Eagles.
Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay is confident that the Rams will give quarterback Jared Goff a contract extension. "Whether it ends up happening this year or next year, there is a zero percent chance this guy's not gonna get an extension he's worthy of," McVay said. "All the narratives out there are wrong. Jared and I couldn't be more connected, and I couldn't be more appreciative of him as our leader. He is so vital and important to us and our success. That extension will get done. It's a matter of when, not if." Goff will make $4.26 million in 2019 and $22.783 million in 2020. He's had growing pains at times but helped lead the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance last year. Consider him a low-end QB1/high-end QB2 going into 2019.
Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy said the team is optimistic that wide receiver Anthony Miller (shoulder) will be ready for the start of training camp this summer. Miller had left shoulder surgery in January after playing through the injury in his rookie season. The 24-year-old was impressive in his first season, catching 33 passes for 423 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games. Miller will once again be a big part of Chicago's passing game alongside Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and should be able to improve on those numbers, although don't expect his touchdowns to go up in his sophomore campaign.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and wide receiver DeSean Jackson have had a great connection and good timing throughout the offseason program. Head coach Doug Pederson said that Jackson spent the entire offseason in Philadelphia working with Wentz, and their chemistry is showing through. Jackson, 32, was a bust in his final year in Tampa with 41 catches for 774 yards and four touchdowns, but he's still very fast and averaged 18.9 yards per catch. He's boom or bust as a deep threat, but D-Jax will still have appeal in standard-scoring leagues in a very potent offense. However, his per-game catches will likely fluctuate with tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert and receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor gobbling up targets.
Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson has made an impact as a pass-catcher in organized team activities, and the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett thinks he can catch as many as 60 passes in 2019. Theo Riddick has been the team's primary receiving back the last few seasons, but he might not even be a lock for the 53-man roster this year and is a trade candidate. Johnson caught 32 passes in 10 games as a rookie in 2018 and could easily add to that production as the team's lead back if he stays healthy. He may not get more than 20 touches a game with C.J. Anderson, Zach Zenner, Riddick and rookie Ty Johnson being in the mix, but Johnson is in line to take a big second-year leap for fantasy owners in this run-first offense.
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Cameron Meredith (knee) said it's the same knee injury that he dealt with last year that kept him sidelined for organized team activities and minicamp this year. However, he's mostly just being smart with it so that he can have a healthy training camp. Meredith had a breakout year in 2016 with the Bears but then missed all of 2017 with his knee injury and played in only six games with the Saints in 2018, catching nine passes for 114 yards and a touchdown as a complete non-factor. If he doesn't prove his health this summer, Meredith is in danger of not making the final roster.
Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay skipped minicamp last week in hopes of landing a new deal, and he's unsure if he'll report to training camp next month either. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison also sat out of minicamp this week as he seeks a new deal. Both players forfeited $250,000 of workouts bonuses this spring. Slay is scheduled to make $12 million this year and has two years left on the extension he signed in 2016. Harrison also has two years left on his deal and will make $6.75 million in 2019. The Lions have been reluctant to renegotiate contracts of players with multiple years left on their deals, so Slay and Harrison may be barking up the wrong tree. Slay, 28, is coming off his second straight Pro Bowl season and has 11 interceptions over the last two years.