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Steve Spagnuolo isn’t ‘hung up on the sacks’

The Chiefs’ defensive line may be struggling to bring down quarterbacks, but they’re still affecting the passing game.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to understand how the Kansas City Chiefs have the 10th-fewest sacks in the NFL this season. Over the last two offseasons, the organization has given defensive end Frank Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones top-market contracts that pay them as highly as any other NFL pass rushers. Yet the duo has only two sacks in the past four games — and the team as a whole has had just four.

Jones makes a noticeable impact on the game — but sometimes, Clark looks to struggle. On Thursday, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo explained that he’s working to get more production — and for him, sack totals aren’t the be-all, end-all.

“We all feel like if we don’t get to him, then we didn’t get the job done — and I think Frank Clark feels the same way,” Spagnuolo told reporters on Thursday. “He’s out there battling just like the rest of them. We could try to put him in better situations, but I look at it like a unit thing more than anything.

“I thought we were really good on third down this past week, so it got a little bit better. Every time they drop back to throw the football, we’re trying to affect the quarterback. It doesn’t have to be a sack. Everyone gets wrapped up in numbers and that’s the big number — but It’s more than that: it’s how we affect the quarterback.”

Even when Clark appears to fly off the line of scrimmage in recent games, he’s faced quick throws and good offensive tackles.

“Frank does have one of the better get-offs,” Spagnuolo confirmed. “I don’t know where the doubles or not the doubles are... we’ve played some quarterbacks like Derek Carr, who does a great job of getting the ball out really quick. I don’t care how fast you’re get-off is — when he gets it out quick. it’s not going to make a difference.”

Then he reiterated: he’s not paying attention to the sack statistics.

“I’m not hung up on the sacks,” Spagnuolo declared. “I’m hung up on the unity and how we’re playing as a group — especially third down. If we can keep playing third down like we did last week, I think that will help us.”

Kansas City Chiefs v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Chiefs have been getting pressure on 24.5% of opposing dropbacks. Per Pro Football Reference, that’s the eighth-highest rate in the NFL. That means they are one of the league’s best at constantly being in the quarterback’s face. That may not be giving the sack numbers that fans like to see, but head coach Andy Reid agrees with Spagnuolo: the pass rush has been better than their box-score numbers might show.

“Sometimes that can be determined by hits on the quarterback,” Reid said when asked why the pass rush hadn’t finished sacks against Tom Brady on Sunday. “We were able to keep his feet off-balance — and that paid off for us. So it’s not always about the free rush you get, and you hit the quarterback, but if you can make a move and keep him off-balance. Then that becomes a big thing. And if you can do that with Tom Brady, you’re doing pretty good, because he gets it out relatively quick — as we all know. So, anyways, I thought we did a pretty good job in that area — and this week, it’s important we keep building on that.”

Like most positions in football, effort has a lot to do with how successful an individual player can be on a particular play — especially for pass rushers. Spagnuolo believes that effort plays a very prominent role for them.

“I once heard a coach say that ‘Pass rush at any level is like 70% want,’” Spagnuolo recalled. “We always talk about being relentless. I just go back to see sacks and pressures and why they’re getting them, and it’s not necessarily a real skill thing they did; they just wanted to get there.”

If a nonstop motor is crucial to pass rushing, Clark should be as good as they come. He’s known for his relentless pursuit of the passer — especially in crucial moments.

With five weeks left in the regular season, those will happen more and more frequently as the team gets closer to its goal of a second-consecutive championship. In 2019’s postseason, Clark came alive with five sacks in three games. This year, the hope is that a similar resurgence occurs.

If you ask Clark, he’s likely to tell you that it will. He told reporters after last season’s loss to the Tennessee Titans that he gets “stronger towards the end of the season.”

Well, we’re getting to that point of the year — and the defense could use an uptick in play from their best edge rusher.

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