After 10 quarters of Kansas City Chiefs football without MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, it looks like he will return in Week 10 against the Tennessee Titans. On Wednesday, he was a full participant in practice for the first time since his knee injury in Week 7 — although he was still not taking first-team reps. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid labeled Mahomes as “day to day.”
The Chiefs went 2-1 without Mahomes — and there are multiple players who deserve praise for their performances in this period. Backup quarterback Matt Moore was exceptional, with no turnovers and numerous big-time throws. Wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins made Moore’s job easier by playing as well as they have all season. Cornerback Charvarius Ward stepped up; he looks like the best at his position on the team. Defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi has become a force on the interior of the defensive line.
These players have all been important contributors in the three-game span without Mahomes — but you already knew that. So I’d to highlight a few under-the-radar players who have also made important contributions: four unsung heroes who have helped the team win while it’s been without its best player.
In Week 5, rookie defensive tackle Khalen Saunders found himself on the active roster for the first time in his NFL career. He was not expected to play much, but when defensive linemen Xavier Williams and Chris Jones both left the game with injuries, the third-round draft pick was thrown into the fire.
His lack of experience showed in his first few opportunities, but he has played well in each of the last three weeks; he and Nnadi have been key cogs in the recent resurgence of the run defense. According to PFF premium stats, Saunders leads the interior defensive line with four run stops in the last two games. Against the Minnesota Vikings, he also earned a sack, a quarterback hurry, and a batted-down pass.
Khalen Saunders has been eating these past couple weeks pic.twitter.com/hSUvHwwfFi— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2019
Here, the Green Bay Packers’ center actually does a good job reaching Saunders and getting in position to seal him — but Saunders shows impressive strength, driving the blocker into the hole to disrupt the run.
1st down from the last drive of the game. Good awareness to get his hands up in Cousins' throwing lane. pic.twitter.com/1tcdfHtOxT— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2019
In this play, we see a great reaction as Saunders watches Kirk Cousins’ eyes and gets himself in position to bat the pass down. Seeing this awareness from a player in only his fifth career start is impressive.
Saunders has earned playing time even when the defensive line is completely healthy — and Chiefs fans should be excited about him for seasons to come.
I was adamant about cutting veteran safety Daniel Sorensen during the offseason. His contract, additions to the safety group — and my confidence in Armani Watts and Jordan Lucas — contributed to that opinion.
Well... Dirty Dan has shut me up. Since the injury to slot cornerback Kendall Fuller in Week 6, Sorensen has needed to play a bigger role while safety Tyrann Mathieu saw more snaps in the slot — and he has done well.
For starters, he has noticeably been one of the stronger tacklers for the Chiefs. He has only two missed tackles this season. His biggest play of the season may have been the seven-yard loss he forced on the final defensive drive against the Vikings. In coverage, he is giving up a 67.1 passer rating on the 20 targets he has seen — allowing just 3.6 yards per target. As a blitzer, he’s also accumulated two quarterback hurries.
Sorensen's aggressivness when tackling is refreshing in a season with plenty of crucial missed tackles pic.twitter.com/rd6SZxayof— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2019
What I like about this tackle is Sorensen’s willingness to attack the pass catcher. This season, we have seen multiple instances of defenders whiffing after being timid in open-field tackling situations.
Sorensen's been pretty good in limited coverage opportunities too pic.twitter.com/XRYRG5F3zs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2019
On this play, with one false step, the tight end could have enough separation to take the ball upfield after the catch — but Sorensen takes a good angle to put himself right on top of the receiver.
Sorensen is one of the longest-tenured defenders on the team — and his veteran presence has been important to the defense’s resurgence.
When the Houston Texans traded second-year offensive lineman Martinas Rankin to the Chiefs for running back Carlos Hyde before Week 1, most people didn’t give it a second thought. Rankin was Houston’s third-round pick in the 2018 draft — but his position at left tackle was filled when the Texans traded for Laremy Tunsil. So he is looking to revitalize his young career in Kansas City — and the opportunity to do so has come more quickly than he likely anticipated.
Rankin took over for Andrew Wylie when the starting left guard suffered an ankle injury in Week 5. Since Week 6, he has taken all but four of snaps at the position. While he has not been perfect, he and the rest of the offensive line have responded well against tough opponents.
On 4th & 1, LG Martinas Rankin makes a key block on Everson Griffen to get the short conversion pic.twitter.com/39e2v8BlnP— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 7, 2019
On this play — where the Chiefs need short yardage — Rankin has to block Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen. Rankin does well, engaging and stalemating Griffen so running back Damien Williams could sneak by for a first down.
Good initial punch here from Rankin on Za'Darius Smith -- although it may have been a bit high pic.twitter.com/noGWbUyZml— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 7, 2019
We see a good, strong initial punch on this play with Rankin against Packers defensive end Za’Darius Smith. He then re-establishes and settles in, staying locked-in on Smith.
If he can keep improving, the Chiefs may have made a good deal with the Texans. Going forward, Rankin should be considered a solid backup.
There may not be a player that has benefited more from the changes on the defensive coaching staff than third-year defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon.
It was obvious that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was intrigued by his physical attributes and was excited to have the challenge of developing him. After being labeled a cut candidate, Kpassagnon flashed in the preseason and earned a spot in the defensive line rotation.
While he did play a decent amount in the first quarter of the season, the injuries to defensive ends Frank Clark and Alex Okafor forced Kpassagnon to see more playing time than he has seen in his young career; he has played at least 75% of defensive snaps in each of the last three games. The increase in opportunity has led to an increase in production; in each of the last two weeks, he has hit career highs in total pressures with five — and had two sacks against Green Bay.
I would imagine Kpassagnon's length+strength is not fun to deal with as an offensive lineman pic.twitter.com/vLWQpMPiyz— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 6, 2019
In the past, it’s been hard for Kpassagnon to get his pads low, but he’s done better this season.
On this play, he fires out, using his length to get past the tight end. His quick penetration keeps the offensive tackle from helping to block him — and his big frame forces a bad throw from Cousins.
Kpassagnon from the nose tackle spot. Forcing a hold here on a third down late in the game. pic.twitter.com/RopxHRmwFn— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 7, 2019
Kpassagnon’s most important trait has been his versatility. He can play on the edge and from the interior.
Here, he plays from the nose tackle position and gets a great jump to beat the offensive lineman. His length nearly allows him to make the tackle in the backfield, but his quick penetration forces a holding penalty.
Kpassagnon’s improvement from last season is a huge development. The Chiefs now boast both depth and versatility on the defensive line — which will be vital in a postseason run.
It was very impressive to see how well the Chiefs played while Mahomes was sidelined. These four players were key contributors — and if they can keep performing this well, the Chiefs should have a lot of confidence in their roster depth.