Chiefs continue to generate underrated and unorthodox safety play

During the Andy Reid/John Dorsey era that’s doubled as a return to relevance for the Chiefs, Eric Berry’s back-line cohorts have joined him despite backstories not indicative of places in a quality NFL secondary. Kansas City’s deployed a top-five pick and a throng of dart-throw investments at safety for years, but the Chiefs continue to find capable help.

The assembly line of usable bodies appeared to have halted after both Husain Abdullah and Tyvon Branch exited, but what transpired against the Saints points to the succession continuing. KC’s top three safeties Sunday made a consistent impact in forcing Drew Brees and the league’s No. 1 passing offense to eschew chunk gains in favor of a station-to-station approach.

That plays into the hands of a defense with a plus-7 turnover differential, which ranks fourth in the NFL.

That ended up making a difference, with New Orleans being unable to start a first-half drive thanks to Berry and Daniel Sorensen’s combined pick-six effort and unable to finish a second-half march after Ron Parker’s well-executed Peanut Punch maneuver.

The Chiefs eliminating the kind of big plays the Saints’ well-designed offense generates showed what could be ahead for a coalescing unit, one that yielded yards consistently on the outside but did not fold thanks to the steady work of Berry, Parker and Sorensen.

This season profiled as one that could’ve placed the well-constructed Chiefs in a hole due to the collection of significant injury rehabilitations on similar timetables. But Kansas City shutting down Oakland’s otherwise dangerous offense and coming back to do just enough to halt an even better passing game shows the kind of growth that will leave the team in good position for when Justin Houston returns.

Houston is the Chiefs’ best player and will further raise the ceiling for a team that looks poised to remain in the thick of the AFC West title race throughout. Kansas City’s defense is flooded with veteran contracts, but the injury recovery processes of Houston, Phillip Gaines and Tamba Hali clouded the short-term capabilities of the fortified group.

On Sunday, the Chiefs’ penchant for coaxing quality play at safety helped compensate for continued trouble at corner and in the outside pass rush.

Brees carved up D.J. White and Steven Nelson, continuing to make the Chiefs vulnerable opposite Marcus Peters. Willie Snead and Michael Thomas helped their PPR-league owners considerably thanks to the future Hall of Fame quarterback consistently finding them. Those plays proved somewhat superfluous since the Chiefs weren’t letting anything fly deep, though.

After the Chiefs let previous starter Kendrick Lewis — a former fifth-round pick who started for four years alongside Berry — walk in 2014, they’ve consistently found solutions from unorthodox circumstances.

Parker was a former waiver claim who wasn’t a particularly strong cornerback, but upon being relocated to safety after Berry’s cancer diagnosis forced him to step away, the would-have-been journeyman has proven to be a vital piece in a secondary that hasn’t been deep at corner over the past three years.

But Kansas City made auxiliary helpers out of Quintin Demps, Kurt Coleman and Branch, and a fellow versatile chess piece out of Abdullah, since 2013. Demps, Coleman and Branch used their one-year stays in western Missouri to recharge their careers en route to bigger paydays elsewhere. Not unlike the Royals’ recent success with buy-low pitchers (Ryan Madson, Joe Blanton, Franklyn Morales, etc.), the defending World Series champions’ parking lot neighbors have identified undervalued back-line defenders and benefited from their contributions.

The Chiefs didn’t find any stars here to pair with Berry, but their low-risk additions have more than delivered on the meager investments the Chiefs used to bring them to Kansas City.

Last season, it meant Abdullah and Branch serving as the nickel and dime players after Gaines went down and Nelson wasn’t deemed ready. Now that Gaines and Nelson comprise key portions of opponents’ scouting reports as the Chiefs’ shaky Nos. 2-3 corners, it’s important to have a piece like Parker to match up with wideouts in the slot.

In addition to his movie-quality (if football cinema delved into safety play, which it almost never does) strip of Mark Ingram, Parker stopped a Brees-to-Brandin Cooks touchdown bid by holding up in man coverage against the Saints’ top weapon — one who made former Parker secondary mate Sean Smith look foolish earlier this season — on a wheel route. Soon after, his preposterously well-placed straight right hand jarred the ball loose.

A third-year ex-undrafted free agent, Sorensen looks to be continuing the Demps/Coleman/Branch lineage.

As the third safety, he’s going to play a key role if Parker is forced into a nickel role more often. Opponents will surely observe how well Snead and Thomas functioned against Nelson and White and continue to direct their aerial game plans away from Peters.

No favorite of Pro Football Focus in 2015 despite his critical role, Parker now rates as the analytics site’s No. 15 safety. Sorensen’s at No. 35 out of 85 full-timers graded. (If you’re curious, Berry’s at 16 here. But a debate on the Chiefs’ best safety does not need to occur.)

The Chiefs showing this level of play only stands to make them more dangerous once Houston returns to accelerate quarterbacks’ pocket clocks. And Kansas City’s secondary isn’t going to play a better quarterback for the rest of the regular season, so what it displayed without the luxury of Houston’s disruptions will serve the Chiefs well against less savvy passers.

Picked on for a failure to develop a No. 2 wide receiver, the Chiefs continue to find unorthodox solutions at safety. That’s one of many elements the veteran-fueled team has clicking right now as it continues a back-door build to the level many thought it would reach this season.

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