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Frank Clark’s game against the Chargers may be just the beginning

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The defensive end has battled through an injury all year, and there’s reason to believe his best play is yet to come

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Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee TItans Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

“I told you what I can do when I’m healthy!”

According to Kansas City Star beat writer Sam McDowell on the KC Sportsbeat podcast, that’s what defensive end Frank Clark exclaimed to general manager Brett Veach in the locker room following the Kansas City Chiefs24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday night.

The game included defensive highlights from multiple Chiefs, but against both the run and the pass, Clark was the one player who dominated the game from start to finish. He accumulated seven pressures, two quarterback hits, four hurries and four run stops — all season-highs. He also earned his fifth sack of the year and forced the first turnover of the game: a disrupted throw that led to an interception by defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi in the second quarter.

Yes... he was exploiting a backup offensive tackle — but that’s what great pass rushers are supposed to do: dominate lesser players.

Monday night’s game was the kind of performance we expected of Clark in his first game as a Chief; back in August, there was reason to believe he would play that way right out of the gate.

It was evident early on in training camp that Clark had the look of a dominant, game-changing player. In the preseason, Clark cemented fan confidence with a notable play: an impressive sack against the San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley that showed off his athleticism and skill.

In the locker room after the 49ers game, Clark spoke about how basic his array of pass-rush moves had been to that point. He energized Chiefs fans with a vote of confidence in himself.

“I’m going to bring my arsenal now,” said Clark — knowing his next action would be in the regular season.

With what we know now, Clark may have suffered his nagging neck injury sometime between then and Week 1 — which likely affected how much of his repertoire he could use. After the 35-32 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 10, Clark admitted that he had not been 100% all season.

The first time the public knew about this injury was after his first big game as a Chief — the 30-6 defeat of the Denver Broncos in Week 7. He popped up on the injury report and missed the next two weeks — presumably to receive treatment on his neck. It looks like that has paid off; Clark has played at a higher level in the two games since his return.

Two of Clark’s five sacks have come in the last two games. He has produced pressure on 10.8% of his pass-rush snaps these last two weeks — compared to 9.5% in the seven games before his absence. He has accounted for a run stop on 19.4% of his run defense snaps — a big improvement from 7.8% before then. He has not missed a tackle since Week 5 — but prior to that, he averaged one per game.

You can see the difference in his play style as well. While this clip is in slow motion, the smoothness and explosion jump out. But that ability to bend low around the edge — and maintain his momentum towards the quarterback — has not always been apparent.

On this play, he stays too high, making the blocker’s job easy. When the offensive lineman doesn’t have to bend his hips to stay engaged, he has a better chance of succeeding against the pass rush.

Here, you can see how Clark isn’t getting off the line as quickly as he did on Monday — nor does he look as flexible while trying to win on an outside speed rush. While he might have a good excuse because he is playing on that dirt, he gets washed out of the play.

When you watch clips like this one while Clark was with the Seattle Seahawks, the main thing that jumps out is how quick he is — and how smooth he looks — in his pass rush.

In this play with the Chiefs against the Baltimore Ravens, we see Clark use the same inside spin move. While both plays result in sacks, you can definitely see the difference in Clark’s smoothness and explosion off the spin. This is a pretty good indication of how much his lingering neck injury might have affected him early in the season.

But it’s also true that it’s not unusual for Clark to improve late in the season. In 2018, he earned a pressure on 16% of his pass rush snaps during the last five regular-season games, which was up from 12.8% before then. In 2017, he had a pressure rate of 14.3% in the season’s last five weeks, but only 10.6% before.

“My whole career, I feel like I’ve gotten stronger towards the end of the season,” Clark told reporters after returning for the Titans game. “It’s usually been the makeup of my story and my whole career.”

He has also shown up when it matters most. In three playoff games since 2016, Clark has averaged 5.3 pressures and two sacks per game. But even those statistics don’t represent how well he performed against the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line in the 2018 playoffs; he worked all-pro left tackle Tyron Smith as well as any pass rusher could.

Along with fellow newcomer Tyrann Mathieu, Clark has established himself as one of the vocal leaders of the defensive unit. You can see Clark is passionate about the success of the defense.

“We had 10 men on the field on one of the plays last week,” Clark said after the Tennessee game, “I take part of the blame for that. Being one of the leaders on the team, just the substitution stuff and making plays. As a defense, we gotta make plays.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

But leaders should lead by example — and Clark plays one of the most important positions in football. With just a few plays, a dominant pass rusher can make the difference between a win or a loss. We saw Clark do exactly that in the win over the Chargers — and with a bye week to rest up, Chiefs fans have every reason to expect him to be the game-changing force he is paid to be down the stretch.

Frank Clark’s play in December and January will be one of the important factors in determining whether the Chiefs can make a Super Bowl run.