KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Here’s a situation that ought to send shudders through any head coach: Starting a rookie left tackle next to a rookie guard next to a center playing out of position, all against the NFL’s best pass rush.
That’s exactly what the Chiefs did last Sunday against Denver.
With left tackle Branden Albert out with an injury, and veteran guard Ryan Lilja now at center because of another injury, Kansas City’s reshuffled line looked nothing like coach Romeo Crennel expected when he broke training camp a few months ago.
But lo and behold, with rookies Donald Stephenson and Jeff Allen starting alongside Lilja, the patchwork offensive line played well in a 17-9 loss to the Broncos, providing the shakiest of silver linings to the eighth straight loss in a season of misery.
“If they play with that kind of attitude and energy, like I tell them — that kind of energy and effort, that makes everything better for everybody,” Crennel said.
The offensive line is rarely a sexy topic. Even more rarely is it the one thing that coaches, players and fans can feel good about.
Usually, those anonymous big guys up front are only singled out when they give up a sack, or get called for a penalty. When a running back breaks a long run, he’s the one in the spotlight, not the guys prying open holes along the defensive line.
Or when a quarterback stands stoically in the pocket, surveying the field, and then delivers a perfect pass down the seam, the pass-catch combo gets all the love — certainly not the five guys up front who were sacrificing their bodies to give them enough time to make a play.
“Most of us are used to each other,” right guard Jon Asamoah said. “I’m used to Lilja and he’s used to me. We’re on the same tempo. I don’t know. We spend so much time together, we’ve developed that through games and practice, things most people don’t see.”
There are plenty of reasons why they’re 1-10 and barreling toward one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and the offensive line has been part of the problem.
They’ve given up plenty of sacks, allowed pressure to force several fumbles in the pocket, and too often hasn’t been able to create much running room for Jamaal Charles and Co.
It hasn’t been entirely their fault, though.
Second-year center Rodney Hudson was poised to take over the center position from veteran Casey Wiegmann, but he broke his leg in late September and landed on injured reserve. That forced Lilja, a career offensive guard, to slide over to center.
Allen, the Chiefs’ second-round pick out of Illinois, moved into the void he created at left guard. He got off to a rough start in the NFL, routinely blown back by bigger, quicker defensive tackles, but has started to hold his own over the past few weeks.
Stephenson, the franchise’s third-round pick out of Oklahoma, got his when Albert hurt his back a couple of weeks ago. It was trial-by-fire against Cincinnati, but he performed well last week against Denver, holding its fearsome pass rush at bay most of the game.
The Broncos came into the game with a league-leading 35 sacks, but the only ones allowed by the Chiefs were to Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard, and only Woodyard’s was for a significant loss.
“Yeah, Cincinnati, I was trying to feel it out,” Stephenson said. “This game, I knew that if I tried to go out there and try to feel it out and figure out how the game was going to go, I’d probably get my butt kicked, so I came out aggressive and knew I had to play hard.”
Stephenson said it helped to be able to practice with the first team all week, just as he’s been doing this week with Albert still questionable for Sunday’s game against Carolina.
“The more you prepare yourself through the week and how hard you practice, it kind of gives you more confidence,” said Stephenson, who grew up in the Kansas City area.
“If you don’t prepare right and you don’t practice right, you have a right to go in there a little bit nervous, because you don’t have confidence in what you did all week.”