One would assume that losing literally every original starter along the defensive line would create a situation in which a football team is completely helpless to stop the run or rush the passer. One would be mistaken in that assumption.
After Dontari Poe left the Broncos game with his back flaring up, the Chiefs were suddenly left without a single player they had starting in Week 1 along the defensive line (Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard both now being on injured reserve). Instead, the Chiefs were left with a combination of rookie phenom Chris Jones and a bunch of unknowns, including Rakeem Nunez-Roches (a second year player taken in the sixth round), Kendall Reyes (a reclamation project from the Chargers), and Jarvis Jenkins.
Interestingly enough, this patchwork emergency line acquitted itself fairly well against the Broncos. Nunez-Roches in particular caught fans’ eyes for the second game in a row, making several splash plays against the run and looking generally disruptive. Many people (at least people talking to me) even indicated the Chiefs were better off with RNR (as he’s called) taking snaps than they were with Howard.
As always, such things must be investigated. and so to the all-22 film we go, tracking wins and losses against the pass and run (as well as neutral plays), sacks/hits/pressures, and run stuffs (generally I treat those as tackles initiated by a defender that stop the run for two yards or less). After reviewing every snap RNR took, I’m not quite sure I’m ready to jump on the bandwagon. But we’ll get to that after we talk about the numbers.
Pass Rush Wins- 4
Pass Rush Losses- 12
Run Defense Wins- 12
Run Defense Losses- 4
Pressures/Hits/Sacks- 1 (pressure)
Now let me be clear about something from the start: Nunez-Roches is definitely a player who can help make things happen at times, particularly against the run.
Nunez-Roches is definitely at his best against the run. Quick first step, high motor. Had some nice stuffs vs DEN, this one in 4th Q. pic.twitter.com/qrETSbZ5Pf— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 1, 2016
Plays like that are highly valuable for a defense, nearly as much so as sacks. They place the opposing offense in bad situations (second and long, third and long) and discourage offensive coordinators from running the ball.
As you can see from RNR’s stuffs statistic, he was right up there with Justin Houston in stopping Denver runs at the line of scrimmage or immediately thereafter. He also consistently won against run blocking and was basically a pest any time Denver attempted to get that part of their game going. He was especially effective from the defensive end position, which he played primarily before Dontari Poe exited the game (from there out he played a great deal of nose tackle, which we’ll talk about shortly).
As you can see, though, RNR wasn’t nearly as successful rushing the passer. Now, keep in mind that defensive linemen (and all other pass rushers) are SUPPOSED to lose the majority of the time. If they didn’t, we would see 15-20 sacks a game. A great pass rusher collects a sack on an incredibly low percentage of his rushes (even Houston, in his dominant game against Denver, only sacked the quarterback on less than 10% of his rushes).
However, that win/loss stat is one to keep an eye on. Generally speaking, I’d like to see a defensive lineman win (or collect at least a neutral snap) a bit more in order to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable, even if they aren’t necessarily pressuring him. RNR needs to work on developing some moves and countermoves when rushing the passer, as of right now he appears to be reliant on a good first step and attempting to bull rush.
Nunez-Roches does three things really well: first step, pad level and aggressiveness. He’s explosive off line and generally does a great job getting underneath the pads of opposing offensive linemen (being 6’2 helps, as he’s got a very compact build). He also plays with an extreme edge and is constantly battling. Those specific strengths are why he’s such a threat to disrupt the running game.
This is a beautiful run defense snap by Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Chris Jones. Look at RNR's pad level and Jones's raw strength. pic.twitter.com/J3frsv7mak— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 1, 2016
RNR is definitely a plus player against the run when he’s asked to shoot gaps and create problems in the backfield. Like I said, he’s got three specific things he does well and when he’s placed in a position to ONLY do those things, he’ll generally get the job done.
The problem is when RNR is asked to do more than those things. Like I said, when he’s asked to rush the passer he generally doesn’t win, and quite often gets stonewalled. The problem with only having a good first step and low pad level is that you’re in a situation where your only “move” is “explode into the blocker and try to shove him backward.” At the NFL level, once a guard or center knows that’s all you’re going to do, he’s going to handle you the majority of the time. Offensive linemen are just too good at this level to not have more of a plan in place when rushing the passer.
At this point, RNR doesn’t have the strength to bull rush a prepared offensive lineman the way Chris Jones does, regardless of how good his pad level is. He also doesn’t seem to have developed any real moves (such as a swim, push-pull or club) that blockers need to consider. That’s a real problem right now, and one that makes RNR a liability on many pass rushing downs.
Speaking of strength, RNR does have one weakness against the run that could prove to be problematic if Poe continues to sit out: he’s just not that strong at the point of attack.
Lots to like about RNR, but I don't think he's a guy you want at NT consistently. Can't hold up at point of attack like Poe can. pic.twitter.com/m0yaJs6QD4— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 1, 2016
Once Poe went down, RNR lined up at nose tackle pretty frequently in the Chiefs base defense, and it was not nearly as natural or successful for him as lining up at defensive end. RNR is listed at weighing in at 306 pounds, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s more like 295 or so at this point in the season. Despite his pad level, he gets washed out of running plays when facing double teams and at times against individual blockers. He just can’t hold up at the point of attack the way you need from a nose tackle.
A final issue I would caution fans on with RNR is consistency. From what I saw against Denver, he runs very hot and cold. Not with effort, mind you. That’s present every play. What I mean by that is RNR, between splash plays, has quite a few snaps where he gets beaten or doesn’t do much. Generally speaking, fans tend to ignore the “in between” snaps because it’s flashy plays that get our attention. However, until RNR can hold up well in between those plays he’s going to be back and forth between “stud” and “potential liability” on a snap-by-snap basis.
Overall, RNR showed some impressive traits and held his own a lot of the time, especially for a second year player who is just starting to get snaps. At the same time, he wasn’t nearly as dominant on a snap-by-snap basis as I think a lot of fans believe based on the plays he stood out. I would say Kendall Reyes caught my eye more as a pass rusher and consistent player, though he didn’t make as many splash plays.
Does this mean we shouldn’t be enthusiastic about Rakeem Nunez-Roches? Absolutely not. He’s shown a valuable skillset and may be part of the solution to the run defense’s problems this season (along with the return of run-defense maestro Justin Houston). But I would pump the brakes on calling him an upgrade over Howard until he can show more consistency and more strength at the point of attack.
All that said, kudos to the youngster for stepping in and making an impact. Given the effort he shows on the field I would be surprised if we didn’t see improvement from him very quickly, especially if he pursues practice with half the intensity he plays.