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Film Session: The Chiefs defensive line is clicking at the right time

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The defensive line may be starting to show the expected improvement for the home stretch.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you were hearing it from Brett Veach in the front office or from players like Reggie Ragland, the big offseason storylines about the Kansas City Chiefs defense were that it was “getting tougher” and “stopping the run.”

So the Chiefs brought in two free agents — Anthony Hitchens and Xavier Williams — to be part of the front seven. In the draft, Chiefs used all of their picks on defensive players, bringing in power edge player Breeland Speaks, true nose tackle Derrick Nnadi and fast nickel linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. With this much attention focused on the front seven — and a new attitude from the top down — there were expectations that the defense would be better against the run.

Unfortunately, through the first eight weeks of the season, that was not the case. The linebacker play was frazzled and slow-developing, the defensive line was as porous as last year, new additions didn’t make their presence known, and prior-year players didn’t take steps forward.

Considering all this investment in the run defense, it was a rather befuddling situation in which the Chiefs found themselves. We may have seen things shift just a bit Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. The Chiefs allowed just 3.8 yards per rush — well below the NFL season average of 4.4, and way below the Chiefs average of 5.1 through Week 9.

And this was accomplished without Anthony Hitchens — who was active but didn’t play because of a lingering rib injury — or much of a contribution from Breeland Speaks, who played fewer snaps than he has since Week 4. In fact, most of Speaks’ snaps against the Cardinals were on pass plays.

Since two of the Chiefs’ most valuable new defensive assets had little or nothing to do with the run defense on Sunday, one has to wonder: were the Cardinals just that bad at running the ball, or did the Chiefs run defense start to show some life?

So join me in The Arrowhead Pride Laboratory, and we’ll try to find out.

The defensive line

It’s time to give “Big Hog Mollies” some love. As a whole, the defensive line played very well in this game, and we’re going to give each one a little bit of shine!

Derrick Nnadi

Best trait: Nnadi’s best trait is easily his ability to anchor and generate leverage with his body against solo and double-team blocks. This shows up in his ability to stuff running lanes with bodies, as well as shoot into gaps when he’s allowed to play through the nearest gap.

Worst trait: Nnadi isn’t a pass rusher — which was expected — but there might have been a bit of hope that he would develop that ability. It doesn’t appear to be coming soon. This isn’t a major concern, but the natural leverage that helps him so much when offensive linemen are attacking him works against him as a pass rusher. Nnadi does a good job condensing the pocket, but when an offensive lineman can skip back and work to re-anchor, he just doesn't have the length to disengage while maintaining his leverage.

Good and improving: Entering the NFL, Nnadi’s hand technique was already well-advanced, and it’s improving as learns NFL blocking concepts and assignments. He can get his hands inside and lower than most offensive linemen, which allows him to extend and look around their body while maintaining his gap control.

He’s doing a better job of addressing the block on the edge of the gap — keeping his body across it so it shuts down the running lane — while still being able to play through the blocker using his fantastic core (or rotational) strength to dispatch blockers.

He’s also engaging zone blocking better than earlier this year. Rather than just shooting through vacated spaces, he’s getting control of moving blockers with proper hand placement. This allows him to physically occupy the gap he’s in, and squeeze down the gap the blocker is working by driving them into it — in front of the running back.

Best use: Nnadi is best-suited as a nose tackle. While he has the ability to play head up over the center and control the matchup, his first step is surprisingly quick for his size, which makes him best playing a 1-technique between the center and guard. At this point, he’s still a one-and-a-half-down player with limited pass rush upside.

Xavier Williams

Best trait: Williams is at his best when he can slash into a single gap using his surprisingly good first step and body control to reduce his contact area. For a big guy, he has good ability to twist and dip, making it hard for blockers to land their hands on him cleanly. This also allows him to get ahead of solo blocks and slip between double teams.

He’s not as stout as you’d prefer a nose tackle to be — even in a one-gap system — but he provides a unique change-up with his crashing ability. His first step and body control give him some limited upside as a pass rusher when the Chiefs have three defensive linemen on the field.

Worst trait: Williams does sometimes have some issues anchoring, and a lot of that has to do with his alignment and what he’s being asked to do. It’s not that Bob Sutton is misusing him. It’s just that he is best-suited for a specific niche role — one that isn’t needed every time he’s on the field. When attacking blockers head-up or making a longer cross, he does struggle to get penetration — and often, even to hold his ground.

Good and improving: Williams needs to continue to improve on his recognition of the flow of the play — not just his assignment versus the blocks he’s facing, but also where the running back is aiming, the cutback plan, what blockers are trying to accomplish, and their backup plan. In this process, he needs to revamp his hand technique so he doesn’t end up chest-to-chest with blockers trying to shoot their gap. He has the fundamental strength and ability to anchor, but so far, he just doesn’t hit the finer technical points on a consistent basis.

Best use: Xavier Williams is also best-suited as a nose tackle, but right now, he’s perfect as a sub-package nose tackle. His change of pace and style over Nnadi is useful — especially on potential passing downs — but he can’t replicate the interior anchor ability Nnadi brings to the table. As a heavy 5-technique, he also deserves playing time on likely run downs.

Allen Bailey

Best trait: This is definitely a tie between his raw strength and his hand technique. Bailey has always been freakishly strong, but he’s put in a lot of work to get better technique with his hands — and it shows. He does a good job fighting for leverage, controlling the wrists of his opponents, and trying to torque them into positions where he can disengage from the blocker.

Worst trait: The one thing that stops Bailey from being a very good defensive lineman is his clunky athleticism. Bailey is a crazy-good athlete, but on the field, there are specific situations that show his athletic limitations. He’s stiff-hipped, which makes changing directions or trying to corner around a blocker a bit difficult for him. His get-off from the line of scrimmage is slow; he’s routinely the last guy to move. His first step isn’t necessarily slow, but he’s slow getting to it. This puts him behind the blocker too often.

Good and improving: Bailey’s improved blocking and hand technique against the run has started to bleed over to the passing game, too. Bailey isn’t a fantastic pass rusher, but any offensive lineman taking him on is in for a fight. He’d better have his base set, and not miss their strike and catch, because Bailey is learning how to keep himself clean and maximize his strength.

Best use: Bailey is a perfect 5-technique for the Chiefs defense. He has the range and hands to scrape down the back side of a play, and the ability to control an offensive tackle on the edge. Anchoring against double teams isn’t his strong suit, which is why he should be kept outside the offensive guards. Bailey also provides a sneaky amount of interior pass rush, and has the ability to condense the pocket when teams begin to pay extra attention to the edge rushers.

Chris Jones

Best trait: Jones’ best trait is a combination of best traits that make him a dominant pass rusher. He has a lightning-fast first step, powerful hands that maximize his length, and uncanny lateral quickness that makes him a terror when rushing the passer. He has a wide array of moves. He favors a stutter-swipe and quick arm-over to beat offensive tackles, and at any given moment, he can still put them on their backs with his long arms and raw strength.

This year, Jones is a bit slimmer and in better playing shape, and he’s found a way to get more flexible — even at 300 pounds. He does a great job of dropping his hips and dipping his shoulders to reduce the contact area. These have all been strengths in previous seasons, and he’s improved all of them this year.

Worst trait: Jones still struggles with his pad level. It’s most apparent when powerful offensive linemen get a jump on him, or when he is being combo-blocked. With his tall frame, he often gets upright and loses leverage, and never really drops back down to re-establish his position. This sometimes leads to being blown out of gaps and giving up ground. But this year, Jones has improved his ability to shed blocks when he’s lost leverage and has been able to get back to the ball carrier after the offensive line’s initial surge. He still needs to work on lowering his pads and playing more stoutly when the situation calls for it.

Good and improving: Jones has always had good specific moves with his hands, and has had the ability to rock players off their sets — but it was often a preset plan that lacked attention to detail and timing. It worked — and still does — because of his natural gifts, but he’s getting better at reading offensive linemen and knowing how to set up his hands. Whether it’s the location of his punch, the order of his chop-swim or simply the level at which he attacks a blocker, he’s starting to show some improvement with his hand technique.

Best use: Chris Jones is best anywhere that gets him in one-on-one matchups; as a 3-technique, a 5-technique inside an edge rusher, or even as the edge player. If the Chiefs can avoid setting him up to eat double teams and be the anchor in the middle, he’s a big chess piece for the team.

Does it carry over?

This is the million dollar question. The game against the Cardinals was clearly a fantastic game by the entire defensive line — but it also happened to be against a poor offense.

Are they really starting to turn a corner against the run? Are they are starting to find their flow with each other, or will they crash back to Earth next week?

On Monday, the Chiefs face the Los Angeles Rams — a team that boasts a much better offensive line and rushing attack.

Watch for Nnadi to continue to be a literal anchor in the middle of the defensive line, Bailey and Williams to play an accessory role in good situations and for Jones to record a sack in his seventh straight game.