Coming out of the bye week, the Kansas City Chiefs are 8-1 — and in a perfect position to compete for the AFC’s top seed. The team’s offense has rebounded from an effective (yet uninspiring) couple of weeks — and the defense still ranks well across most NFL metrics.
The Chiefs are hardly in trouble — and with L’Jarius Sneed, Alex Okafor, Sammy Watkins, and Mitchell Schwartz all returning soon, should be set to get better for the stretch run.
So what’s the team’s biggest issue right now?
The Chiefs’ pass rush has appeared to take a small step backward since the Week 4 game against the New England Patriots. Even though there have been bright flashes from players like Chris Jones, Tershawn Wharton and Taco Charlton, the overall effectiveness of the pass rush has declined. Injuries, game scripts and pass coverage have all played a part in it, but it doesn’t take much film time to see the team struggling to generate pressure without bringing extra rushers.
In the first four weeks, the Chiefs defensive line accrued 37 pressures. Frank Clark had 11 and Chris Jones (in just three games) had 13. Pressure rates were never likely to stay constant — but since then, Chiefs defensive linemen have amassed just 34 pressures over five weeks. While that may not seem like a crazy difference, it’s nearly two fewer plays impacting the quarterback in each game — and they have effects beyond the plays themselves.
Still, it’s hard to be too upset about it. The defensive line’s pressure rate matches up quite well with most of the league’s top-10 pass-rushing teams — and even with 2019’s Super Bowl team. We’ve simply been seeing a downturn.
Let’s look into why it’s been happening.
Pass rushing woes
The losses of defensive ends Mike Danna and Alex Okafor can easily help explain some of the decrease in production.
Fenton gets his back!— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 6, 2020
Good pressure by Okafor to force a typical Stidham throw. pic.twitter.com/02Ujwd35Ay
Okafor began the season with a high pressure rate, looking as explosive as ever while coming off the line of scrimmage. He’s always been an above-average player; the issue has been his durability and consistency. Even when he returns, there is no guarantee he can pick up where he left off — or even make it through the season.
Lack of a third pass rusher
Whether it’s been Okafor, Charlton or Tanoh Kpassagnon, it hasn’t exactly mattered who has been lined up with Clark and Jones. They just haven’t been able to take full advantage of the situations. While Charlton and Okafor have both flashed high-end pass rush reps, they have been unable to consistently take advantage of the single blocks they are often seeing on a given play.
Through the first 1/4 of the season, Taco Charlton has had a major impact as a pass rusher, leading KC in pressure rate.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 7, 2020
This two-hand skip-swipe caught Chiefs' fans eyes, but the tight corner is what makes this sack happen. Result is a massive turnover to help stop a deep drive pic.twitter.com/YAJbHPaywq
As he’s gotten more reps, Charlton has been a bright spot, but the inability to see the field consistently — or get pressure at a higher rate — has reduced his impact. Plain and simple, the Chiefs need a third pass rusher that offenses can’t handle with a single offensive tackle. Even without exceptional stats, that was a role Terrell Suggs and Emmanuel Ogbah filled nicely last season; offenses had to respect them.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case this season. Even with Charlton and Okafor’s flashes, offenses can give them minimal attention, leaving them on an island. The Chiefs haven’t helped matters by playing Kpassagnon and Danna on early downs. While they can stop the run, neither has dynamic pass-rushing ability.
Essentially, the Chiefs constantly face a difficult choice: whether to put their better all-around defensive ends or their better pass rushers on the field. And even when they do go pass-rush heavy, it’s still a rather mediocre complimentary rush; the team’s two stars have been equally inconsistent.
Clark’s diminishing performance
As mentioned earlier, Clark had 11 pressures and three sacks through the first four games — along with his always-excellent run defense. But since that Patriots game, he has only amassed seven pressures and a single sack.
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’s general pass rushing plan seems to be a bit different than it has been for most of his career. Previously, Clark had been a more technical, power-based rusher, using his speed as the counter. But this year, he seems to have reversed that plan of attack. He’s getting pressure by utilizing his explosion and speed rush, but combining that with nice timing (and power) on some cross-chop and rip moves. As the season has continued, offensive tackles appear to have noticed.
So part of Clark’s struggles has simply been due to tackles setting more deeply, forcing him around a deeper arc — while opposing quarterbacks get the ball out quickly. Throwing the ball faster will always diminish pressure, but pairing that with tackles knowing how a defensive end is going to attack them makes it much more difficult for the defender.
So why has Clark altered his pass-rushing plan?
Reminiscent of the playoffs;— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 11, 2020
Clark torching the OT with the ghost tech, Watson barely escaping, and Clark not giving up for the efffort sack pic.twitter.com/g6P8qe9EuQ
Early in the season, it was noticeable how fast Clark was able to explode off the line of scrimmage — and then bend around the edge without really having to engage with his hands. Generally speaking, this is how Clark played last season while he was dealing with injuries to his elbows and neck.
There is no reason to believe Clark is playing injured, but his current playing style certainly reminds me of what we saw him do in 2019. Clark made his name by using his long arms and a bull rush where he converted his speed to power. But lately, that’s all but gone from his pass-rushing repertoire. Hopefully, this has simply been about getting into football shape — and dealing with a high percentage of snap counts. The just-concluded bye week should help with that.
It’s also possible that the Chiefs may be struggling to adequately fill pass-rushing lanes.
This illustration is from a New York Giants playbook from the year after Steve Spagnuolo left to become the St. Louis Rams’ head coach — and from a defensive coordinator who comes from the same coaching tree. We see the emphasis on pass-rushing lanes — and how that translates to pressure on the quarterback.
You can see the general concept: for the outside rushers to contain the quarterback by getting depth and then closing inside. While this is the general plan for almost any defensive scheme, some defensive coordinators (like Jim Schwartz or Bob Pettine) give much more freedom to their edge rushers to take what is available.
That doesn’t seem to be what the Chiefs prefer their defensive ends to do — but even so, Clark is about the only player on the team who has the physical ability to actually get deep enough to force the quarterback up into the pocket. When the opposite rusher is Danna or Kpassagnon — or even Okafor or Charlton — often the player who is best suited to contain and push the quarterback into other rushers is Clark.
We don’t know if this is the crux of the issue or just a small part of it. But it would help explain Clark’s heavy reliance on speed rushes — trying to get around an offensive tackle rather than through them.
The bottom line
Thankfully, the defensive line’s pressures per game stack up well against other NFL teams. As a whole, they aren’t rushing the passer poorly — but there’s definitely been a downturn since the first few games of the year. If Alex Okafor or Mike Danna can become consistent (and effective) as a third pass rusher with Chris Jones and Frank Clark, getting them back on the field will help.
But the biggest factor in returning to the defensive line’s early-season success probably lies with Clark. His pass-rushing productivity has certainly fallen off — but hopefully, the time off helps him return to being the player he was at the beginning of the season.
I also think it would benefit him if another defensive end across from him could step up, helping to funnel the quarterback towards him and Jones — rather than Clark always having to serve in that role.