Among a long list of discouraging things about the Kansas City Chiefs' season, one of the greatest disappointments has been the performance of their defensive line.
It's unacceptable when you factor in how much has been invested in the players that make up that position group. They have two of the highest-paid defensive linemen in the NFL and are currently last in the league with seven sacks.
From a fan's perspective, the lack of effectiveness from a group that looked as deep as it has been in years is inexcusable. The team and its staff likely feel similarly, but they do have a good excuse.
Defensive ends Chris Jones and Frank Clark have dealt with injuries through this first part of the season; Clark has had multiple hamstring issues limiting him to two games played, while Jones' wrist injury has nagged him for numerous weeks. It led to him missing Week 5.
The defensive line has only been at full strength for one week — and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo explained how that could limit what the unit can do.
"When you can't get a number of games back to back with the unit intact, the continuity is hard," Spagnuolo explained to reporters on Thursday. "Units have to function as a unit; there's all kinds of natural feels, and when you've played with someone for a period of snaps, that happens. It's been a little bit tough for us that way."
Clark returned from his second hamstring injury of the year on Sunday to lead the defensive line in pass-rushing impact; he earned five pressures while playing 82% of the snaps.
Defensive line coach Brendan Daly could notice that Clark was not playing to the ceiling of his ability, but he felt good that Clark could continue to improve moving forward.
"I thought he did some good things," Daly shared with reporters on Thursday. "You could see some of the rust, there are some communication things we need to clean up. I thought he had a couple productive rushes. Again, you could see that it's been a minute since he's been out there. His effort was good, his conditioning was good, we're at a good place."
Another disappointing aspect of the defense has been defensive tackle Jarran Reed. He was signed to a one-year deal this offseason to be a disrupting player on the interior of the defense — but through five games, he has yet to accumulate a sack and has earned pressure on 5.6% of his pass-rush snaps; that's an extremely low rate.
Daly believes Reed has given more to the team than the statistics would show.
"J-Reed has done a really nice job for us in a number of areas," Daly explained. "He's been really good in terms of communication, in terms of getting some games called in the third-down stuff, he's been steady for us in the run game. There's a handful of plays he'd like to improve on and have back; he's worked really hard at it, I'm not frustrated in any way there. I think that's headed in a good direction, and I expect we'll see really good play from him."
The one player that should not be categorized as a disappointment is defensive end Mike Danna. In his second NFL season, Danna is continuing where he left off his rookie year. He already has more sacks (3) than he did last year (2.5), and has been the team's most consistent pass rusher — earning a pressure on 9% of his opportunities and leading the team in quarterback hits.
Daly was an advocate for selecting Danna in the fifth round of last year's draft.
"Mike is so steady, so consistent," Daly began. "He does everything that you ask him to do to the best of his ability — which is at a pretty good level. He works his tail off, I'm just really pleased, he's a fun guy to have around, he's a pleasure to work with. I see that progression continuing with him."
There's only one way to go up from where they are now: up. It's hard to be much worse than the collective group has been this season, but we've seen this group struggle before — and go on to help win a Super Bowl title.
"Our guys are working hard, we all know we need to get better," Spagnuolo admitted. "We're chasing improvement, we're trusting our way back to improvement; we've been down this road before. Has it been this bad before? I don't think so, in the two years we've been here — but we're struggling our way through and that's what you do in this league."
Early-season struggles are better than late-season struggles — but it won't matter unless the players noticeably improve their performance. If each individual can play closer to their ceiling as a talent, it will help every level of the defense improve.