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The Re-Up: The man behind the potential rebirth of Dee Ford and Justin Houston

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Mike Smith is in his first season with the Chiefs as outside linebackers coach.

It’s our Monday column, The Re-Up. In this column, I’ll write about some deeper thought I had about the last game and finish with some fun stuff to ponder at the article’s end. Check out last week’s column here.


Arizona Cardinals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs did not have the dominant offensive performance we expected Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, who came into Arrowhead Stadium with a 2-6 record. There was no cover of their dreaded 16.5-point spread with only a 12-point victory.

The story that developed as the game went on was much more so about the Chiefs defense and, digging even deeper, its pass rush. I’m not ignoring you and your six-game sack streak, Chris Jones, but for the purpose of this week’s Re-Up, I’d like to zone in on the outside linebackers.

Justin Houston returned to the lineup Sunday after missing four games due to a hamstring injury, and according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Dee Ford and Houston combined for 15 pressures on the day, good for 54.5 percent of Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen’s dropbacks.

That resulted in an awful stat line for Rosen—22 for 39 for 208 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Houston had one of the picks.

“They set a record or whatever they did by hitting the quarterback as many times as did, so that wasn’t a bad start,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. “I would tell you that they’re playing good. Defenses right now are stretched in the National Football League. You’ve seen it every week, so to be able to get the pressure that we did on the quarterback was a huge part of it—stepping up with big plays when needed I thought was big again. Do we have plenty of room to grow? Absolutely—both sides of the ball. Special teams can be better here, so we’re just going to keep working on that, but I thought our guys were getting after it.”

In early June, I wrote about how the Chiefs had decided to part ways with linebackers coach Gary Gibbs, splitting the room into two—Mark DeLeone with the inside linebackers and Mike Smith with the outside linebackers.

It probably does not get talked about quite enough, but the job Smith has done may be directly leading to the success that we have seen from Ford, who is in the midst of the best season of his career, as well as the room as a whole.

“It’s helped tremendously,” Ford said earlier this season regarding the linebacker coach split. “Mike is great. He is a student of the game. Everything is repetitive. Every day, we do the same thing and we are getting better at smaller things. It is crazy, we’ve played for so many years, and Justin (Houston) and I talk all the time with our steps being awful at times.

“We are just so athletic and strong we can just get away with it. But now, having that coach, Mike is phenomenal.”

2018 marked the eighth season for Houston and the fifth season for Ford, so when Smith took over their coaching, he turned back the clock.

“That’s what we went back to this OTAs,” outside linebacker Tanoh Kpassagnon explained earlier this season. “Kind of doing basic things—our steps, little things that older guys can kind of forget sometimes that they put in the back of their head because they’ve been playing for so long. Mike just brought that back and I feel like that’s helped us a lot.”

Smith works diligently each week to provide the outside linebackers with guides on how to beat every offensive lineman along the line. He made headlines here at Arrowhead Pride in late May, when he decided it would be best to move Houston and Ford around the front based upon OL matchups.

What’s more was how willing the players were to buy in.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith does a really good job with [Ford], with all of those guys,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained earlier this year. “Giving them the information, the background and clips to match these things, saying this is what we are anticipating, this is what we think this guy is like. I compare it to pitchers and hitters. They have to know each other to really take advantage of it. You can just get up there and swing or reel back and throw your fastball without knowing anything about them. Sometimes that’s good enough. Usually when you get people of equal ability you have to know something else.”

That pro scouting work is providing a rookie like Breeland Speaks confidence he may not otherwise have.

“It definitely helps,” Speaks said. “You know what you’re looking for on the field. If you don’t know your opponent, then you can’t really know how to beat them, so that helps in every way, especially in pass-rush situations...like if a guy has low hands, I know what moves to use against him, high hands or whatever—it’s just whatever we already scouted—he’s not going to change it up, he’s been doing it his whole life, so we pretty much know what to expect.”

The Chiefs’ 2018 and 2017 second-round picks in Speaks and Kpassagnon, respectively, are in the midst of a transition to the outside linebacker position after playing along the defensive line in college.

It is not always an easy transition, but Smith has been there to direct them along the way.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s helped in every aspect,” Speaks explained, “from teaching pass rush to showing me how to watch film to showing me what to look for on and off the field. It’s just been all a big help to me.”

Kpassagnon, who did not make as big an impact as he would have wanted in 2017, has taken a visible step forward in 2018 in part thanks to Smith.

“He’s a real personable person, so it’s almost like we’re playing for him,” Kpassagnon said. “We don’t want to disappoint him. Things kind of like that, but also, the way he coaches. We understand him. He played the game.”

Smith was selected out of Texas Tech in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens, with whom he played for four seasons until 2008.

“He played with Ray Lewis,” Kpassagnon added, “with a bunch of great players, so he knows both sides and he recently has done both.”

The trust from his position group has shown on the field, and if Sunday is a sign of things to come, the Chiefs may finally get to matching their defensive success with their offense’s.

“That’s why we always say it’s so important that your front’s playing well,” Reid said. “When the defensive front’s playing well, particularly in the pass game, that makes everybody around them better, so it’s a plus.”


RAPID REACTION

This week’s Rapid Reaction was taken from my opening thoughts on the Arrowhead Pride post-game show, as first heard live on 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City.


STAT OF THE GAME


GIF OF THE GAME


TWEET(s) OF THE WEEK

Meanwhile, in Oakland...


FIVE QUOTES

  • 1. Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on the Kansas City Chiefs and Tyreek Hill: “You can’t give a team like Kansas City any extra possessions. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player like Tyreek Hill … as explosive and dynamic as that guy is. He can hurt you in so many phases of the game. It was fun to see it in person.”
  • 2. Hill on quarterback Patrick Mahomes breaking the single-season franchise touchdown record: “That is something I’d do on Madden. For him to come in and do that, that’s amazing. A lot of people doubted him saying he wasn’t going to do this or wasn’t going to do that. He is shutting a lot of people up right now and I’m proud of him. He’s just got to continue to move forward and stay humble. He will be alright. We have playmakers all over the field. We’ve got Kareem, Kelce, Pat, me, D-Rob, Conley, so we have a lot of playmakers.”
  • 3. Chiefs defensive end Jarvis Jenkins on the different style of win against the Cardinals: “It was more of a team win, like all three phases of the ball. At the end of the day, the offense can’t close the game for us. Sooner or later, it has to be the defense. That is part of the being a team, you can’t be one dimensional. I think the feeling we have now is it is a good team win. It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done. That is what we have to do going into the postseason because these games are about to be a lot tougher.”
  • 4. Chiefs running back Spencer Ware on his first touchdown of the 2018 season: “If anyone knows kind of how I made my way onto the scene in 2015 was off of that play. I scored a lot of touchdowns that year. Finally got the monkey off my back and trying to get more to go.”
  • 5. Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland on the defensive improvement on Sunday: “We’re having more fun with it. I feel like the first couple weeks we were putting too much into it, trying too hard. We’re having fun with it, whatever happens, happens. It’s football. we’ve been playing the game for too long for us not to have fun with it. It’s a child’s game and we’re grown men playing it. Have fun with it, don’t worry about all that other stuff. Do what we’re supposed to do, handle what you can handle and everything else will work itself out.”

THE BIG THOUGHT

Arizona Cardinals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Waiting 54 years to watch someone break the single-season franchise touchdown record, especially when it was only 30 touchdowns, is less than ideal.

But as you think back to all the Chiefs starters from Len Dawson to Patrick Mahomes—the Elvis Grabcs, the Trent Greens and the Alex Smiths—the moment becomes much more special given the fact that Mahomes is Kansas City’s, doesn’t it?

Mahomes was drafted by the Chiefs and has only played for the Chiefs, and if Chiefs fans have their way, he will never play anywhere else.

“He’s playing his heart out,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said of Mahomes. “I love the backside of that: the preparation and how he goes about his business there day in and day out. You guys have a chance to see him at practice early and comes out every day bringing energy and he makes sure that he has his things in order. When he does that, and he’s got a lot on his plate, as far as responsibility goes, to run that offense, and he takes care of that. He’s in a position where he can make everyone better around him, and he’s doing that. I am proud of him for how he’s going about his business.”


POLL OF THE WEEK

Poll

Who is the most important player on the Chiefs offense not named Patrick Mahomes?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Tyreek Hill
    (762 votes)
  • 37%
    Kareem Hunt
    (837 votes)
  • 24%
    Travis Kelce
    (549 votes)
  • 1%
    Sammy Watkins
    (38 votes)
  • 1%
    Other
    (26 votes)
2212 votes total Vote Now

If you can’t see the poll, click here. Discuss in the comments.