GRETZ: TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW - Defense
What a difference in attitude compared to last year that Kawika Mitchell carried into his room here at McMillan Hall on Thursday.
Some 365 days ago, Mitchell arrived in the north woods as a target in the crosshairs of Gunther Cunningham. Throughout that 2005 off-season, the Chiefs defensive coordinator had pounded on the middle linebacker. Cunningham wanted a leader on his defense and he wanted Mitchell to step forward and grab the job. There were heart-to-heart talks where Gunther questioned his manhood. There were meetings and practice sessions where Mitchell felt like his coach was sitting on his shoulder, constantly yelling in his ear.
It took about 10 days of training camp last year before Mitchell finally snapped. During a hot and sweaty afternoon workout, Mitchell returned the verbal fire. The happiest guy on the field was Cunningham.
The breakthrough began the process of elevating Mitchell into the defensive driver’s seat. He went out and had the best season of his young career, leading the team in tackles and spearheading the unit’s much improved performance against the run.
The process has continued through this off-season, enough that Mitchell showed up in River Falls without any recent verbal scars from his coordinator.
“He’s taken charge,” said Cunningham. “He’s moving people around out there. He understands what’s going on. He’s really … you can see I’m getting emotional. He’s got total command of everything he does out there.”
Mitchell cracks a small smile when told of Cunningham’s emotional comments.
“Gunther got what he wanted,” Mitchell said. “That’s what I was used too,” Mitchell said. “In college my head coach was just like that. I love being pushed. I love the competition. That’s what I needed. I needed someone like Gunther. I love his style.
“It wasn’t pleasant at times. He got under my skin. He said some things that I didn’t agree with, but there was only one way for me to prove to him that he was wrong.” It’s a year later and the alterations on the Chiefs defense has continued. Ty Law was signed this week. Tamba Hali and Bernard Pollard were selected in the draft. The defensive coaching staff with the exception of Cunningham is new.
What’s continued from last year is this: the defensive huddle belongs to Mitchell. “That’s how I feel,” he said. “I feel very confident in understanding this defense, seeing how it all fits together and knowing not only my role in what happens, but that of everyone else. Yeah, it is my huddle.
“I tell Gunther all the time that he needs to teach us in the classroom and then he needs to be quiet. This isn’t Pop Warner ball where the coaches stand on the field with you. This is the NFL and there isn’t anything he can do about what happens on the field. His time is in the classroom. After that, it’s up to us to get things done. It’s up to us to make the adjustments. It’s up to us to be the leaders.
“If there is somebody slacking, we have to be the ones to pick them up, because during the game, they (coaches) aren’t going to be out there. There’s urgency and I think people are starting to take more responsibility as players. That’s what we need.”
Mitchell is especially pleased with the new defensive coaching staff; not only in their personalities, but also in the fact there are fewer coaches.
“The thing with the last staff, everybody talked so much the players didn’t have a chance, we couldn’t have vocal leaders out there,” said Mitchell. “We had so many assistant coaches, they had already said what needed to be said. If you stepped up and tried to say something, nobody listened because there was so much other chatter.
“Now, there’s only a few coaches out there and it’s more personal. We don’t have to hear so much nonsense.”
The focus in River Falls will be on the defense. Mitchell says the group make strides last year that it’s not given credit for from the fans and media.
“Was it good enough? No,” said Mitchell. “But, I thought we were more aggressive. Teams threw the ball on us because they couldn’t run. The games that we really needed, we really didn’t make it count like we should have. I think we have some regrets about that. As individuals we played more aggressive and any time you do that, you are going to get better as a defense.
The next step in Mitchell’s mind is improving those pass yardage numbers and that doesn’t start in the secondary, but starts up front.
“We’ve got to get the quarterback on the ground more often than we did last year,” said Mitchell. “That may no always come in sacks, but we’ve got to hit the guy, make him think about getting hit, make him get rid of the ball before he wants to get rid of it, screw up the timing of their passing game. The more we can do that, the better things will be for the guys in coverage.”
Mitchell plans to be more vocal when the Chiefs defense hits the field Friday afternoon and for all the two-a-day practices. He relishes the role.
“That’s my element,” he said. “I like having an attitude when I’m out there. If people see that in me, they can get on my back and I can carry them. They can follow me wherever they want to go. I think that was the whole point of what Gunther was trying to do with me and it definitely came through.”
The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.
A former beat reporter who covered the Pittsburgh Steelers during their glory years, Gretz covered the Chiefs for the Kansas City Star for nine years before heading up KCFX-FM's sports department. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Board of Selectors. His column appears three times a week during the season.