They got some luck when Cam Newton missed the game, but the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense still had one of its more unique and challenging tests of the season against the New England Patriots — one of the few NFL teams that defines its offense through its power running game. With an extensive playbook of power, counter and duo runs, it’s an offense tailor-made to give the Chiefs’ defense difficulty; it places a great deal of pressure on defensive linemen to quickly make the proper read and hold up against multiple blockers and linebackers.
Although the Chiefs had Mike Pennel back for the game, a groin injury forced Chris Jones to miss it — which put even more pressure on the line. With the pressure on, it was up to the defensive line’s leader — Frank Clark — to step up and play a pivotal role.
"Code red. Code red. They trying to stop the fire but it ain't gonna happen." @TheRealFrankC_ pic.twitter.com/A59XjgGFrp— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) October 7, 2020
Frank Clark always brings the energy, intensity and high-level play — but this game proved to be a little different. There wasn’t another superstar with whom he would have to share the glory. For many people watching, he was under the microscope — and he did anything but disappoint.
Frank Clark | DE
Stopping the run
I normally prefer to look at defensive ends by starting with their pass rushing film; it usually has a larger impact on the game. In this specific case, though, I think it’s best to start with Clark’s run defense.
When Frank Clark was on the field, the Patriots ran for 5.85 yards/carry— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 8, 2020
When that run went within one gap of Clark's alignment, that yards/carry dropped to 3.3 (2.7 on only RB runs)
When ran more than one gap away from Clark's alignment, the yards/carry was 7.35
These numbers are pretty self-explanatory. The Patriots ran towards Clark 10 times, gaining 3.3 yards per carry. But when the Patriots ran away from Clark, they averaged 7.35 yards per carry on 17 attempts — including New England’s three longest runs. The numbers are fun — but let’s see why Clark so consistently gets these kinds of results.
Fun Counter by NE that goes for 5 yards, but Frank Clark stops this from going for 15+— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 7, 2020
Clark crashes and disrupts the TE trying to work to the MIKE to keep Hitchens free, then works back outside behind both pullers to make the tackle. Great I.D. and reaction vs the counter pic.twitter.com/FLWrAyR6ge
This counter run goes for five yards — but without Clark, it would have been a double-digit gain.
The play design is excellent. It’s set up to have two blockers immediately climb to the second level and then bring two pulling blockers around the left side. The fullback’s motion towards the A-gap pulls the linebackers in before he kicks around the edge — while the guard is meant to kick out the defensive end.
Instead, Clark sees the tight end trying to cross his face and work up to the MIKE linebacker. Clark crashes on the tight end — knocking him completely off his angle — and then not only closes down any possibility of running through the C-gap, but also keeps the MIKE linebacker clean from a climbing blocker.
This also allows Clark to hide from the pulling guard in the scrum; the guard now has no one to kick out, so he turns upfield to connect with the WILL linebacker. Now it looks like New England can save the play. The fullback is still coming through on a delayed pull; he only has a safety to kick out, because the MIKE linebacker is still recovering from the initial counter motion. There is a clear running lane forming between the pulling guards that is going to leave two Chiefs defenders diving at ankles.
But then Clark steps in. Not only does he disrupt the tight end trying to climb, he is also able to work to extension, disengaging from the block. This allows him to trace back outside and make the tackle before the running back can fully accelerate, bringing him down after only five yards.
This play is a microcosm of Clark’s run defense, showing how his length, power and intelligence help him to not only make plays, but also help other players be in position to do so.
Chiefs' LBs taking the counter bait & if Clark is kicked out by the FB coming across this is a wide open gap.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 7, 2020
Nnadi does a great job discarding a blocker and squeezes the gap as Clark crosses the FB's face and submarines him to make contact with the RB. pic.twitter.com/BRBfAwpiQA
Leaving Clark unblocked while trying to counter back to his side isn’t a good idea — but here, the Patriots tried it anyway.
While squeezing down on the open area, Clark’s spacing is essentially perfect — because he’s in a position where the two backs will have to commit first. As the fullback pulls across and squares Clark up, the running back is on his inside hip aiming for the C-gap. Clark sees this and drops his shoulder to submarine the block, allowing him to completely slip underneath and make the stuff with Derrick Nnadi.
It really does get glossed over how good Frank Clark is vs the run every week.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 7, 2020
Re-sets the LoS against the TE forcing the RB only into the C gap. Gets full extension w/ inside arm, keep outside arm free in case RB tries to bounce, then disengages to bring down the RB. pic.twitter.com/VQFtVODbwj
One more for good measure.
Craig Stout and I have talked about how playing defensive for Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo requires certain skills and physical traits. One of those is the ability to dominate tight ends in the running game.
On this play, Clark resets the tight end so far into the backfield that if the running back bounces outside, he’ll have to go backwards around the block. He does this by getting extension on his inside arm, keeping his outside arm free — just in case the bounce happens. When the running back is forced inside, Clark is able to utilize that leverage to disengage and tackle the running back from behind — as Rashad Fenton does a good job submarining the blocker in the hole.
For a player who makes his money rushing the passer, this is a lot of talk about run defense — but it’s an under-appreciated aspect of Clark’s game. His dominance against the run forces teams to call less-efficient plays — or avoid him entirely. Clark’s ability to close down an entire side of the defense to running plays can’t be understated.
A lot of the discussion about Clark’s play revolves around pressure rate — that is, how often he gets near the quarterback. This makes sense — but completely misses a few major points.
Like most other teams, the Patriots weren’t dropping back five or seven steps to throw the ball against the Chiefs. Most passes were getting out in under two and half seconds — and when they weren’t, Clark was seeing plenty of added attention from chips and protection slides. The other thing that is often overlooked is how often Clark is even being asked to just rush the passer. The Chiefs have a lot of “key rushes.” In these plays, the defensive ends are playing the running back (or contain) first — and then working toward the quarterback.
Oh... and when Clark is rushing the passer he’s still incredibly good.
Clark had about 5 plays vs NE that he single handidly saved points or massive gains.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 7, 2020
As mentioned, Clark looks more explosive this year & when he gets a jump on the snap it's over. The burst + the cross chop-rip, again, saves a huge play to the RB. pic.twitter.com/3XPltyVPlQ
This season, Clark looks more explosive coming off the line of scrimmage. This ability to instantly win against offensive tackles may have been the one thing missing from his game — even at the end of last season. It clearly isn’t missing now; this season, his bread-and-butter pass-rushing move has been the cross chop-rip. When he’s fully able to just pin his ears back and rush, he’s had a ton of success eating up the cushions of offensive tackles with a great jump — and has such good timing on the cross chop that half the time, Clark doesn’t even have clear out tackles’ hands; they haven’t had time to use them.
This is easy to label a coverage sack given the high TTT- the coverage is great- but that doesn't give Clark's rush enough credit.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 7, 2020
Off the stutter, he's able to get inside hands and extension/control of the LT. Sees the QB step up, sheds inside, then mirrors back outside w/ spin pic.twitter.com/IVsGQ9f83C
It would be easy to throw out this play because it was a pressure sack — or just great effort. While both things are true, it greatly underestimates what Clark was able to do.
Clark’s stutter-step into a bull rush resets the offensive tackle, giving Clark all of the leverage — which he then turns into half-man leverage. Clark doesn’t take the bait up the arc, locates the quarterback (who is trying to climb up the pocket) and rips free to counter inside.
Again, Clark could try to fight through the inside, but his eyes continue to work. He sees the quarterback retreating again, so he spins back outside to finish the sack.
It’s not a super flashy, one-and-a-half second win like the cross chop-rip, but Clark’s pass rushing process and technique is on full display as he controls an entire four-second pass set by an offensive tackle.
Before this game, there shouldn’t have been any question just how good Frank Clark is — or how how important he is to the Chiefs defense. He’s the leader in the front seven, makes some of the team’s most clutch plays and constantly changes how offenses try to attack the Chiefs. This game is just a picture that shows how dominant Clark is as a run defender — and the kinds of big plays he can make as a pass rusher. And with Chris Jones out, Clark did all of it as the focal point of the whole defensive line.
If you’re not already excited about Clark’s 2020 season, you should be. Clark already looks much healthier than he did last year — and in destroying opposing teams’ game plans, he’s already batting a thousand.