ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — While the Chiefs' offensive coaching staff remains unchanged from a year ago, it's a completely rebuilt defensive group on the defensive side under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Two of Spagnuolo's new assistants – linebackers coach Matt House and defensive backs/cornerbacks coach Sam Madison – met with reporters on Tuesday at the team's training camp.
Many observers have noted a different attitude from the Kansas City defense during training camp. Madison credits that to Spagnuolo's fixation on the details with his side of the ball.
“He harps on (the details), getting to the ball and scooping the ball,” Madison said. “You see guys out there those first couple of series, really out there just busting their hump. You really just have to buy in to the system.”
Madison spent 12 seasons in the NFL, earning four Pro Bowl nods and two All-Pro honors. He says says Spagnuolo's defensive system is fun to play in due to the varied responsibilities and opportunities to play mixup styles and play more aggressively.
“You're not just locked into one specific thing, just a linebacker just blitzing all of the time or dropping into different coverages,” Madison said. “He gives you an opportunity to play multiple different coverages and do different things.”
After averaging 15.2 yards per punt return in college at Georgia, many expected Mecole Hardman to smoothly move into a similar role with the Chiefs. But while the rookie experienced some hiccups during OTAs and early in camp holding on to punts, those miscues are growing fewer and farther between, an improvement special teams coordinator Dave Toub credits to Hardman's focus and intensity.
“He comes out early, five minutes before everybody starts catching,” Toub said. “We've been doing that and it's added on about 100 balls per week for him, and it's made a difference.”
Hardman didn't get a chance to return a punt – the Bengals kicked away from him on his only appearance there. But he did return the opening kickoff of the second half for 44 yards from 5 yards deep in his own end zone.
Toub hopes Hardman gets a chance to return a punt Saturday night at Pittsburgh.
“It's all about confidence as a punt returner,” Toub said. “He's gaining more confidence, and we're gaining more confidence in him.”
When Spagnuolo and Madison started watching film of the 2018 Chiefs defensive, 6-foot-1 cornerback Charvarius Ward stood out immediately.
He's a very long corner,” Madison said. “When you have bigger, taller wide receivers down the field, he is able to fight for the ball."
Ward started just four games at the end of last season, but that was enough to show the Chiefs he might have what it takes to nail down a starting job. Madison hopes training his eyes and picking up zone coverage skills will help him take the next step in his development.
“He's learning very well,” Madison said. “Hopefully, it will be able to click in sooner or later. This is really still his rookie year, he has a couple of more games before he is a veteran, but he's learning. He's picking it up.”
Wide Receiver Group Loaded
Receivers coach Greg Lewis doesn't like to play favorites, so he won't concede that this year's crop of pass catchers might be the best he's seen in Kansas City. But that didn't stop him from praising the group the club built for 2019.
“I like all 13 guys that we got here,” Lewis said. “I think they have a chance to be great in the NFL. It's been a lot of competition, but we're only getting better.”
The Chiefs top four receivers appear clearly locked in with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman. The team usually keeps five receivers, but the depth of the position likely means six sticking with the club in Week 1. Right now, Marcus Kemp and Byron Pringle appear ready to hold those positions.
But plenty of competition remains from 2017 undrafted free agent Rashard Davis and a group of rookie free agents this year, including Cody Thompson and Felton Davis among others.
“It's going to be tough decisions down the line, but I'd rather have it that way,” Lewis said.
One of the highlights of Saturday's preseason game was running back Darwin Thompson, 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds, chopping down Bengals defense end Immanuel Turner, 6-foot-3 and 287 pounds.
Running backs coach Deland McCullough said Thompson has impressed the Chiefs with his ability to pick up blitzes as a rookie despite his small frame.
“It’s been solid since day one,” McCullough said of Thompson's pass blocking. “Just like a lot of these guys coming out of college, coming here and understanding and having a good anchor, punching and resetting. The guy has a phenomenal punch, he has a phenomenal base and most importantly, he has a great want to.”
Chiefs coaches and personnel evaluators regular refer to Thompson's “rocked up” body as the key to his success. McCullough said the strength more than makes up his size.
“He has some stature issues but once he gets up inside, that’s where his strength is are once he gets his hands on you, he will squat down on you and anchor down to stop a guy from getting to the quarterback,” McCullough said.
The Chiefs' starting linebacker trio of Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland and Damien Wilson have all noted Spagnuolo's penchant for moving them around and allowing them to play different positions. Position coach Matt House says that's be design, and we may see more of that during the regular season.
“I think in any system the more you can do, the more you understand the system,” House said. “It's been intentional for the system, and also when you get into the season, the reality is guys have to play multiple positions.”
Wilson has impressed during training camp, and more frequently finds himself paired with Hitchens when the Chiefs use subpackages with just two linebackers on the field.
“He’s really, really productive,” House said of Wilson. “He’s got a great football IQ and a feel for the game.”
Young Quarterbacks Thriving
The Chiefs have an intriguing battle at quarterback between second-year Chase Litton and rookie free agent Kyle Shurmur for a likely practice squad position with the club.
Shurmur started off strong in his NFL debut Saturday night, eventually finishing 6-of-15 passing for 77 yards and a touchdown. That performance pleased quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka.
“He came out and stayed aggressive,” Kafka said. “There was a few long, foul balls during the game, but I loved his mentality when he came off to the sideline.”
Litton bounced back from an interception to finish 11-of-15 passing for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Kafka saw much to like from both quarterbacks against Cincinnati.
“I loved their approach and I loved the way they competed, and I'm looking forward for them to continue to do that,” Kafka said.