KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For much of the regular season, the Chiefs defense couldn't get out of its own way, yielding 76 plays of 20 yards or more, racking up 107 penalties and missing countless tackles. The mistakes were enough to make defensive coordinator Bob Sutton pull his hair out at times.
“As we've said before, most points that are produced in a drive usually result from either explosive plays and/or penalties in the drive,” Sutton said Thursday as his team prepares for Sunday's AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. “Those seem to be common things when you look back and say, 'How did they get down the field?' Well, you had a (pass interference) here or you gave up a 20-yard run here or whatever it was.”
But in last weekend's Divisional Playoff victory Saturday, none of those miscues manifested. In fact, over the last two games the Chiefs cut down the big plays and committed just one defensive penalty. Even the missed tackles have dropped sharply – “We're in the low six, seven, eight range of missed tackles the last two weeks,” according to Sutton.
“If you can manage those things and do a relatively good job of those things, you put yourself in position to play,” Sutton said.
The reduction in penalties over the past two games appear the most stunning. During the regular season, the Chiefs committed more defensive holding and pass interference penalties than any other team in the league. They drew the most defensive holding penalties in the league with 25. They ranked second-worst in the league with 16 defensive pass interference flags. Only the New Orleans Saints committed more pass interference penalties with 20.
Cornerback Steven Nelson said the Chiefs have renewed their focus on avoiding penalties in the secondary in recent weeks.
“Absolutely, just practicing it and repping it, not trying to hold,” Nelson said. “It is harder not to get those holds the way the game is played today. Just making a conscious effort not to hold.”
The drop in penalties coincides with lineup changes in the secondary as well. Veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick picked up 11 flags for defensive holding or pass interference. Rookie Charvarius Ward replaced Scandrick, and although he picked up three flags in his first start against Seattle in Week 16, he's picked up just one flag since then.
Linebacker Justin Houston credits the defensive coaching staff with the steady performances from young players such as Ward and and fellow rookie cornerback Tremon Smith in the secondary.
“I think the coaches have done a great job of getting them prepared and helping them understand,” Houston said. “You grow confidence the more you play, and I think those guys are doing a great job doing that.”
The Chiefs also demoted veteran safety Ron Parker, whom they released on Tuesday to clear a roster spot for right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. Third-year safety Jordan Lucas replaced Parker in the rotation.
With a Super Bowl berth on the line Sunday, the Chiefs defense needs another clean performance. Against the Patriots in Week 6, the defense committed six penalties resulting in two first downs.
Sutton believes that the combination of veterans and young players have given the defense an emotional lift as the regular season closed and the playoffs commenced.
“I think the guys have played really hard obviously and done a good job, good energy,” Sutton said. “I think all those things have kind of helped us ramp it up here in the last couple of weeks.”