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AP Lab Film Session: the unstoppable force against the immovable object

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Dee Ford, Chris Jones and Justin Houston put the pressure on the Colts in the divisional round

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We are down to the final four teams competing for the Super Bowl, and the Kansas City Chiefs are one of them.

These final four teams are the top four scoring offenses in the NFL, with quarterbacks that are arguably playing better than the rest of the league. In order for the Chiefs to get to this point, they had to defeat the Indianapolis Colts — a team you could easily argue falls into that same general category; the Colts were fifth in scoring in 2018.

There are many reasons the Chiefs came out of the game with a win. Better coaching and better quarterback play were part of it. You could even argue that extra rest for the Chiefs played a role. But something that can’t be understated is how teams have to combat innovative offenses and elite quarterbacks.

Great coaching can do that, but only for so long. Simply being a more innovative offense with a better quarterback can work, but it works less consistently against the best teams.

So teams have to find a way to disrupt both the opposing quarterback and the play caller. And that comes from the ability to rush the passer — not just getting sacks or even pressuring the quarterback, but making the opposing team feel unsure about where the pressure is coming from. That not only affects the quarterback, but also places a ton of pressure on play callers trying to counter that pass rush.

So let’s go down into The AP Laboratory after this playoff victory — not to break down one of the NFL’s best-ever offenses, but to take a deep dive into why the Chiefs pass rush is so successful.

We’ll focus on individual effort and performance, rather than scheme; my AP Nerd Squad colleague Craig Stout has already detailed the blitz packages, stunts, and twists we saw during the game. So we’ll focus on the proficiency of the team’s main pass rushers, and how they were able to find success.

Chiefs pass rush

Dee Ford

It would be a disservice to lead off with anyone other than Dee Ford, who has once again led the team in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s really come into his own as an overall player. While he now shows flashes against the run, he still makes his money with his ability to get the quarterback. Ford’s initial burst off the line of scrimmage is second to none — and like Von Miller, he has the ability to change his level (height) while maintaining that speed, and then pop up from underneath the blocker to get the quarterback.

On this play, Ford simply beats right tackle Braden Smith out of his stance and gets even with Smith’s hip on his second step. With that kind of leverage up the arc, Ford doesn’t need to do anything but slightly dip his shoulder to reduce the contact surface area, and he has the corner.

The most amazing part of his performance this year has been how outrageously good he has been at finding the football in the quarterback’s hand and taking it.

Here, using his outside hand, Ford is able to flip his hips square to the quarterback, reach out with his outside hand and simply knock the ball loose. The speed can’t be taught, but the skill behind stripping the ball is a thing of art that he’s worked on over the years.

As we’ve talked about all year, Ford now has more than just a speed rush. He has counters both inside and outside. He may not have the cleanest or most precise counters, but with the speed and body control he possesses, the margin for error for them is significantly higher.

On this inside spin, the right tackle is so afraid of Ford’s speed around the edge that when he hits the spin, he misses the ice pick (outside hand of the spin driving into the blocker’s shoulder) because the offensive tackle is still recovering from setting too deep.

It’s not just finesse moves with Ford, either. He has learned to turn his speed into power, and when he combines that with low, inside hands, he’s able to move much larger and stronger players.

Here, the right tackle is setting deep — trying to be patient so he can catch Ford and drive him around the edge. But Ford identifies the deep set and off his third step, drops his hips to get low, allowing him to explode into the chest of the right tackle. Ford ends up driving him directly into the quarterback, which forces the short incomplete pass.

As a pass rusher, Ford has completely transformed himself into an all-around stud. His individual traits have become so elite that he’s able to play his counters in nearly every game.

Chris Jones

In some ways, it seemed like Chris Jones had a quiet game against the Colts. In others, he seemed to be everywhere. Playing only 31 snaps was a big part of that, as was the fact that he was rarely in one-on-one matchups. When he was, it was against the Colts’ Quenton Nelson — their best offensive lineman. Jones still made his presence felt — often getting pressure or opening up lanes for another rusher with explosive, looping twists.

Neither the Chiefs nor Colts seemed overly interested in letting Jones and Nelson battle it out one-on-one very often; the Colts were often helping on whichever side Jones lined up, and the Chiefs often asking Jones to loop or slant away from Nelson. But even in these situations, Jones was able to find some success.

His hand technique has improved greatly from last year. On this snap, he’s able to swipe away Nelson’s quick punch and transition to get both hands underneath the center, using his inside hand to help grab and spin the center while he drives through with his outside hand, ripping up and under to get a hand in Luck’s face as he tries to throw.

Even in a game where the opponent set out to stop Jones, he was still able to make his presence felt — and that’s the sign of an elite player. He has proven to be a mismatch for any offensive guard one-on-one, and his range and diversity in how he affects the game is a huge step in his growth.

Justin Houston

Now we come to the veteran of the group. Houston is still finding ways to put his imprint on games. He may lack the consistency he once had as a pass rusher. but he’s still able to turn it up when necessary; he’s gone from being a player that dominated games to being a veteran pass rusher with a knack for coming up with his best plays at the right time.

Whether out on the edge or kicked inside, Houston has consistently been able to get one-on-one matchups with opposing offensive linemen. Houston often takes advantage of these situations, using his power and excellent hand technique to create pressure. He still has the power to beat any blocker but also has the speed advantage on the inside.

On this play, Houston is lined up between Ford and Jones. With Jones slashing inside, Houston is isolated on the offensive guard. Houston hits the guard with a quick two-hand swipe and his patented skip-step, and due to the isolation, there is no one there to help stop him.

He may no longer be Chiefs’ top pass rusher, but a healthy Justin Houston puts offenses in a bind: where do they send help on any given play? Constant one-on-one matchups with Houston will always result in at least one big defensive play. The emergence of Ford and Jones help to force teams into that situation.

Breeland Speaks

Against the Colts, Breeland Speaks played more snaps than he had since Houston returned from injury in Week 9. The Chiefs should continue to use Speaks the way they did against the Colts.

This isn’t a great rush by any means. Before the snap. Speaks looks fidgety getting set, which causes him to lose any built-up tension or kinetic energy that he would need for an explosive get off. This carries over into his first few steps, which can only really be described as a video game character charging up. There is a lot of lateral movement with each step, and he’s essentially running at the offensive tackle’s chest.

The rush plan and execution leaves a lot to be desired, but the concept of using Speaks to give Ford and Houston breaks in the second and third quarters makes sense. Allowing Speaks to bull, club, hit, and punish offensive linemen in spurts during the middle of the game — only to have Ford and Houston return when it matters — could be a sort of secret weapon.

While he still learns the nuances of playing on the edge, Speaks’ best role may simply be to make blockers work. Wear them out. Punish them and make them feel the physical impact of handling the hard-working, powerful Speaks.

The bottom line

It’s no secret that this season, the Chiefs have boasted the league’s best pass rush — and yet it seems no one wants to accept that as a major factor in their success.

The Colts — with the best offensive line in the NFL — were supposed to slow down the Chiefs pass rush, but as we saw, that simply didn’t happen.

The combination of Dee Ford, Chris Jones and Justin Houston is too much for any offensive line to handle. Adding in the fantastic rush plans and blitzes — as they did against the Colts — the NFL’s best pass rush is now at its best when it matters the most.