Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, Dee Ford was quoted as saying “I think I am the best pass rusher in the draft, point blank.” which caught quite a bit of ire in the draft community as a one-year wonder.
It was a bold claim for a prospect not widely considered a first-round draft pick. Ford went on to be drafted 23rd overall by John Dorsey and the Kansas City Chiefs with the expectation that he was going to be Tamba Hali’s eventual replacement. Ford had plenty of struggles early on from not being able to identify runs, a poor base on his pass-rush snaps and subpar play strength which all led to limited playing time early on in his career.
Going into his second season, Ford was still a backup but showed some improvement to his pass-rush technique. He was still not playing with good strength, base or a variety of pass rush techniques but his bread and butter explosion off the line of scrimmage was starting to connect at the NFL level.
The following season, Ford got the start due to injuries and had a big first half of the year. He had started adding counter moves, varying his speed rushes, and figuring out how to set offensive tackles up. Last year, the 2017 season, Ford was in and out of the early lineup dealing with injuries (like he had most of his career) which derailed any chance to build upon the previous season. 2018 hit, and we got a brand new version of Ford, or the version that Ford always thought he was.
This year Ford has been on another level compared to any Chiefs pass rusher since Justin Houston’s 2014 season.
That all came to a head against the Denver Broncos, as seen by this week’s highest defensive grade according to Pro Football Focus.
This isn’t a single-game revelation either, as PFF also has Dee Ford has their second-highest graded EDGE player for the season, being graded as “elite.”
He has figured out how to re-work his feet to set up his pass rush, how to convert his speed into power, added a variety of counters to his initial speed rush and become way better against the run
Ford will be the first to lob credit to new outside linebackers coach Mike Smith and Smith often returns the praise. Smith should be the leading candidate as to why Dee Ford is finally breaking all the way out, well besides his own health, as Dee Ford is a completely different player.
Let’s head down into the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory and spend some time learning The Art of The Pass Rush, starring Dee Ford.
Bread and butter (Speed Rush)
Better angle of Ford's speed rush. Von Miller and Dee Ford, not sure anyone else is in their tier of pure speed rush from a Wide 9.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 30, 2018
I like the hand position of his inside arm prepared to chop to stay free until realizes the OT has no chance to get hands on em. pic.twitter.com/zyV8btoTkM
The one thing that’s never been questioned about Ford his is explosion and acceleration off the line of scrimmage and his ability to speed rush a corner.
Well, this year he’s somehow even better at it. Whether that be a slightly better get off by reading the OT, better hand usage at the corner or his footwork coming around the edge allowing him to keep a stronger base. On this play, Ford wins the rep with his first step just being so fast but it’s his third and fourth steps that slide his hips away from the OT while he reduces his surface area by dipping his shoulder inside.
This angle he’s moving at around the corner makes it nearly impossible to recover for the RT without holding, who can’t even get in position to do that.
Finding his changeup (inside counter)
Sometimes a QB makes a good play to escape what would otherwise be a good pass rush. 2x in the game, Keenum escaped the pocket just in time as Dee Ford beat the RT on an inside move relatively quickly. Press the corner, stutter, and skip step is move Ford's used often this year pic.twitter.com/fhEMwBvCiR— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 30, 2018
Something that hampered Dee Ford as a younger player was a lack of secondary pass rush moves, and while many chalked it up to not having any, that may have not been the case.
Ford flashed plenty of counters while at Auburn. In the NFL, you have to set up and execute them well and he struggled with that. His play strength and base (footwork) were just not at the level they needed to be allowing him to be shoved around, but now things are different.
Ford uses the same upfield three-step get-off, but then skip steps back inside while swiping at the arms of the RT. He uses his inside arm to get under the RT and leans into him to help turn a tighter corner and not get washed. Unfortunately, Case Keenum looks his way at the exact last moment to avoid the sack, evades the rush and completes a long pass.
Twice in this game, Ford won on an inside counter that the quarterback was able to just slip away at the last second. Ford also brought back out the inside spin, usually once or twice a game, that beat the RT but the Broncos right guard did a good job passing the defensive end to the center and saving Keenum from a big sack.
Taking it to the next level (bend)
Love that Ford goes to the cross chop now. Even on a play like this that it doesn't get the RT's hand clean off him, it takes leverage away from the RT as his arm buckles. Gets the edge & he hooks up and under the "holding" arm, uses that to turn tight. Keenum's timer is at 2 sec pic.twitter.com/Z146FU3OQQ— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 30, 2018
Again, the footwork should probably get the majority of credit here but Ford has taken himself from a linear athlete to a true athlete at the EDGE position.
He’s still super explosive in a straight line but with some handwork (we’re getting there), Ford softens the edge and begins to turn it. Unlike his second and third years in the league, Ford doesn’t get washed out of this play but instead, Ford leans into the OT, keeps his feet moving upfield while flipping his hips and dips lower than the OT can go.
This is made possible by the improved hand usage by Ford who uses the cross chop to soften the OT’s arm before using it as a pivot point to turn the corner.
Technical details (hand usage)
Top tier speed rusher, easily. + get off, hits the LT with a quick stab to the numbers, and uses outside hand to control the wrist. After winning the outside, Ford leans hard into the LT while ripping under the outside arm, and flipping his hips to the QB maintain speed. pic.twitter.com/HlYJEbVl0Z— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 29, 2018
The speed, footwork and bend are all prevalent, but this play highlights some of the nuance that was missing early in Ford’s career. Coming in from a wide 9 alignment, Ford attacks the edge, then uses a stab to set up the rest of the rush. He leans in and stabs with one hand to maximize his length but the best part is the outside hand up high and ready to control the outside wrist of the LT if he reaches for the outside shoulder of Ford.
After winning the corner, Ford transitions to a rip with the inside arm but the LT got his arm up high around Ford’s neck to slow him down while Ford is turning the corner.
The savviest part of this play came next.
Ford is leaning into the block, feels the OT’s weight with that arm around his own neck, so Ford violently drops his inside arm and dips his shoulder. This breaks the contact the OT has on Ford and it’s just up to him to maintain his balance long enough to get to the QB, which he does.
It’s not all finesse (speed to power)
Ford outside another EDGE is difficult to defend. I.D.s potential RB chip and adjusts pass rush plan from speed rush to inside counter, converting his speed to power. Good pad level & hand placement 4 leverage, drives the OT back/inside and keeps working the inside rip. pic.twitter.com/JxEVF4vzeD— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 30, 2018
Ford isn’t a power rusher and while he is improving in that department, he likely never will be. That doesn’t mean if an OT gets on their heels racing to the back of the pocket he can’t transition his speed into a solid bull rush.
Ford gets his hands inside of the LT’s hands, gains all the leverage and extends to create space. Ford doesn’t quit there, though—he keeps working across the face using that initial leverage to rip under with his inside arm and eventually forces the OT off balance and to fall while he makes yet another hit on the QB.
OTs are often caught off guard by Ford’s bull rush if he sells his rush up the arc, and he is generating enough power to create space he can then take advantage of with his speed.
Improving the deficiencies (run defense)
Ford may not ever be a great run defender but he's at the point you can't just line a TE up over him and expect an easy win. Ford has been able to set an edge vs a TE and disengage to effect the play more often than not. Gets TE deep into outside gap, gets inside arm free pic.twitter.com/4LZrllklh5— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 29, 2018
This is a pass-rush review, but I must mention Ford’s run defense, something that was obviously a major weakness of his game. Mike Smith (the OLBs coach) has recently said that Ford’s recognition of everything (OL sets, weight shifts, motions, alignments, etc) has improved a ton and that seems very evident watching him against the run.
Ford no longer is trying to sit back and read if it’s a run but rather still attacking and reading on the fly. Could be a slight redistribution of rules for the OLB or just simply his improvement but the takeaway here is that Ford is no longer a weak link against the run.
Teams can’t run at him and block him with a tight end, allowing the OT to move to the second level. Even when using an OT on Dee Ford, he can hold his gap—not get blown off the ball, and “do his job.” Ford is not a great run defender, unless in chase, but he’s no longer a liability, which goes a long way with his pass-rush skills.
Improvements on the horizon (reading pass sets)
Ford has grown as a rusher but there is still improvements to be had. He has great counter rushes but still has to adjust on the fly rather than as planned. RT sets deep, vertical & leaves inside wide open, but Ford continues the speed rush. RT gets inside hand on ribs, it's over pic.twitter.com/pLYcLlPI6Y— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 29, 2018
This isn’t a consistent issue but is something that pops up from time to time. Ford has the ability and skill to adjust his pass rush mid-rep when he correctly identifies what he needs to do, but he also can get stuck in the mindset of running around the arc that he misses obvious counters.
The RT takes a deep vertical set and essentially sells out to stop the speed rush. The RT is matching if not dropping faster than the QB, and Ford still tries to force the edge. At his third step, Ford has to identify the OT’s hips starting to open to push him wide and transition to an inside counter through the open space. With the five-man rush, Ford may have an assignment to take the outer most rush gap but even then, he should just work on condensing the pocket rather than running around the edge.
The bottom line
After four full years in the NFL, it looks like it’s all starting to come together for Dee Ford. Some have credited the contract year; others are crediting his health.
The third option that has to get consideration is just how good a true pass-rushing coach has been for him.
Ford isn’t just winning based off insane athleticism but rather through attention to detail, technical work and overall improvement to every aspect of his game.
The best part for the Kansas City Chiefs, or at least Ford, is that this 100 percent looks sustainable barring his health, and he could get even better as he continues to read offensive linemen at a faster rate.