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Chiefs’ Dee Ford is doing things differently

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So earlier this season I had to write an apology letter to Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who plays right guard for the Chiefs. The general gist of the letter was, “dude, you’ve improved in areas I didn’t think you would, so my bad for saying you wouldn’t.” I figured I would only have to write a letter like that once this year.

Dee Ford is doing everything in his power to change that.

Less than a month ago, I wrote about Dee Ford’s game against the Saints. In said article, I wrote the following regarding Ford as a pass rusher and player in general:

Ford displays all the same traits we’ve observed repeatedly over the last few years. He’s got a great first step and initial burst, but lacks the ability to get around the edge quickly and hasn’t developed a counter move for when offensive linemen “cheat” toward the edge in order to account for his speed. In college, Ford used a bull rush to make offensive linemen pay for cheating.

As a final verdict, I said that Ford has developed into a decent pass rusher and average overall player. I based that on the fact that Ford’s pass rushing wasn’t consistently good enough to outweigh his weakness against the run.

Since that article was published, Ford has notched 5.5 sacks in two games and currently sits tied for third in the NFL in that category. More importantly, he’s had a direct impact on two Chiefs wins in a row, notching snaps like this...

Oh.

Now, we’ve seen Ford have good games in the past. So him stringing together two in a row wouldn’t be enough, by itself, to make me thing something has changed. However, I was in the stands at Arrowhead on Sunday, and I walked away thinking that Ford looked like arguably the best defensive player on the field multiple times. That’s... different.

And so I felt like I needed to examine the film against the Jaguars to try and determine if Ford is, in fact, doing anything different from what we’ve seen in the past, including the very recent past.

I tracked the number of times Ford rushed the passer and how many times he “won” in that situation (beat his individual blocker) against the Jaguars, along with pressures/hits/sacks. I additionally, for “fun”, tracked his run defense wins, losses, and neutral plays in order to get an idea how badly he was hurting the run defense. Those numbers are as follows, but what’s more important (in my opinion) is how those numbers came to be.

Pass Rushes: 40

Wins: 15

Pressures: 5

Hits: 2

Sacks: 2

Run Defense Wins: 3

Run Defense Losses: 6

Run Defense Neutral: 18

I’m not going to harp on Ford’s pass rush productivity much, because he’s had good games in the past. It’s just worth noting that nine total snaps where Ford either pressured, hit, or sacked Blake Bortles is a really, really high number on 40 rushes.

That said, it’s the WAY Ford was winning that caught my eye. I noticed two differences in Ford’s pass rushing from what I’ve observed his entire time with the Chiefs. The first of which is potentially career-altering for him, the second less so but also quite important.

Change No. 1: Dee Ford is getting bend around the edge

In case you don’t know what I mean by bend, here’s a great article about pass rushers that explains the concept in detail. Basically, it’s the concept of a rusher being able to plant his feet and move laterally around the edge of the kick-sliding offensive tackle toward the quarterback. You need flexibility to be able to do this, and it’s imperative that you get low and parallel to the ground (think Derrick Thomas practically running horizontally at times). The more upright you are, the easier it is for a tackle to shove you out of the play despite being behind after the first step.

Ford has never, as far as I’ve seen, demonstrated bend as a pass rusher. Time and again we’ve talked about it as his primary weakness as a rusher and the reason he kept getting sent wide around the quarterback. Tackles knew that even if he got a step on them (with that truly marvelous first step of his) the just had to move their feet quickly and wait on him trying to run around them upright. They would then give him a shove and he’d sail 3-4 yards past the quarterback.

I have always thought of the flexibility required for bend to be a natural trait. You either have it (like Von Miller) or you don’t (like Dee Ford).

Apparently, I don’t know anything. Let’s look at that first gif’d play up close.

Watch Ford’s second through fifth steps there. While this isn’t some kind of DT highlight film, there is noticeable bend as he shortens his path around the edge to the quarterback after destroying the tackle with his first step. Take a closer look

My exceptional artwork demonstrates the change. In the past, Ford would have been close to a 90 degree angle and trying to run around the tackle. Think of how much more leverage Ford has at the angle he’s at, and how much easier it is to plant and drive directly towards the quarterback. Try to imagine him upright here. Think there’s any chance he gets to the QB? I don’t.

This wasn’t a one-time occurrence, either. Ford was demonstrating some bend (as well as hand fighting, which we’ll talk about soon) throughout the game.

Again, when you watch that play, try to imagine what it would look like if Ford were upright. He’d lose all leverage and wouldn’t be able to plant and turn to the QB. I don’t think he’d even notch a pressure.

I asked around on Twitter and other places to people I respect with regards to pass rushing, asking if bend is something people really CAN develop. The general answer I got is that while players don’t usually improve on it, if you’ve got the physical talent you can develop you balance with improved footwork and repetitions. Additionally, players learn how to lean on offensive tackles in order to maintain their balance around the edge, which is something I have definitely seen Ford doing as of late. Basically, you use the guy blocking you as a prop to help you get to the quarterback faster. Doesn’t that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside?

Dee Ford getting some bend around the edge, when combined with his exceptional first step, makes him much more of a threat to go screaming around the edge. That threat sets up other moves, which leads me to the next change I’ve seen from Ford.

Change No. 2: Ford is pass rushing with a plan

It used to be that Ford would try to speed rush over and over again, and if that wasn’t working he’d attempt to convert it into a bull rush. Every now and then he’d dust something off like a spin move or a rip, but the vast majority of the time Ford just didn’t have a counter when he couldn’t get to the edge. It didn’t look like he had a plan so much as he’d think, “I’ll just go around him ... dang, he’s in the way, I’ll try to push him.”

Not so anymore, at least not against the Jaguars. There, Ford was using complimentary moves to go along with his newly discovered bendy (definitely not a real football term) edge rush.

This is basically a counter for when the tackle does a good job keeping his feet in front of you. Ford (from both the left and the right side) will get his inside arm on the tackle and shove. This accomplishes two things: it increases the already-moving tackle’s momentum backward, and it helps propel Ford forward. Again, using the blocker’s body as a tool in your rush.

Jacksonville’s right tackle had absolutely no answer for this whatsoever. Ford is just too quick jumping inside when you’re already trying desperately to keep him from going OUTSIDE. Ford seems to be employing less bull rush (though I saw that used at times, and occasionally effectively as the tackle was already off balance) and is more going to the Dadi Nicolas school of pass rushing: beating them with quickness rather than strength. It’s a good plan, as Ford is ridiculously athletic and not particularly strong. Keeping tackles from getting their hands on him is far more advantageous than trying to engage them directly the way Justin Houston does.

Ford kept going back and forth between speed rushes and inside moves, employing a lot of hand fighting along the way. This is an area Ford improved on prior to recently in my opinion. It just didn’t matter as much when Ford could win the hand fighting battle as he wasn’t turning the corner fast enough to keep the tackle from staying between him and the quarterback. Like everything else, this aspect of Ford’s game looks significantly better when accompanied by some bend around the edge.

And even though he doesn’t use it much, Ford can employ an absolutely vicious spin move.

This play shows you the difference between a win and a play where a pressure, hit or sack is obtained. Ford absolutely destroys his blocker, but doesn’t get to the QB because the right guard gets in front of him in the nick of time. Had he not done so, Ford would’ve had a free run at Bortles.

Like I said, Ford rarely employs the spin move. But it’s important that he use it at least a time or two a game if he wants to be a pass rusher with a plan. You want the tackle to be constantly guessing wrong as to what move you’re throwing at him. And Ford, at least right now, definitely looks like a man with a plan.

The final note on Ford is that his run defense is not what I’d like to see in an outside linebacker, BUT it’s not nearly bad enough to offset how good he’s been getting after the quarterback. Ford was part of several 8-10 yard gains due to getting washed out or walled off by blockers (including tight ends one-on-one, which should not happen), but he wasn’t the biggest culprit in Chris Ivory going bananas.

With Ford, run defense seems more about effort than ability. He’s not a strong player, but at times he set the edge very well against a big right tackle. Other times, he’d let a tight end push him around and wall him off. It was very inconsistent. Ford did have a few nice run snaps, including one stuff where he used a DJ-like stutter step to avoid the tackle and hit the runner for no gain. When Ford seems fired up against the run, he was... passable. Not good. Not average. But not crippling. He needs to maintain that effort though, as he doesn’t have Houston’s monstrous natural strength.

All told, Ford’s film against Jacksonville was even more impressive than watching him live. The two big changes (especially the bend he’s showing) are both things that should, if they keep up, drastically affect his consistency as a pass rusher. I’m crossing my fingers and holding my breath, because if he keeps doing what he’s been doing lately (not just beating tackles, but doing it in a way that can be replicated consistently), Ford will absolutely continue to produce a ton of pressure for the Chiefs.

What does that mean with Houston’s return and Chris Jones’s emergence as a legitimate interior pass rusher? Well, hopefully bad things for everyone else.