Earlier this week, reports that the Kansas City Chiefs interested in signing (at the time) free agent defensive end Whitney Mercilus made sense.
In my opinion, it would be a great idea for the Chiefs to continue to pursue additions at the position. After all, NFL teams can never have enough good defensive linemen — and the Chiefs could certainly use more of them on their depth chart.
Considering those reports — and that on Sunday, the Chiefs will face the Tennessee Titans, led by freak-of-nature running back Derrick Henry — I decided to dive into the defensive line film from last Sunday’s game against the Washington Football Team.
Let’s see how they did — and what their performance could mean on Sunday, as well as in the future.
From the standpoint of playing selfless, team-oriented run defense, I loved what the Chiefs’ defensive ends did to help spill power-style running plays outside to their help.
Something the Chiefs' DL did really well last Sunday is cutting underneath the kickout blocks of pulling guards coming at them, forcing the RB to bounce outside away from the hole they intended to run thru. Schematically and technically sound. pic.twitter.com/BxbhFlPo7F— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
Here, Alex Okafor and Frank Clark are supposed to do exactly what they actually do: make it difficult for the pulling offensive linemen to identify which player to block.
These plays are designed to give the offense a numerical advantage. Instead, the defense gets the advantage — and on both runs, linebacker Nick Bolton does an excellent job cleaning them up for short gains.
Danna continues to be just a solid, consistent presence for KC, especially in the run game. He is going to play a big role this week on both the front and backside of Tennessee's stretch zone runs. pic.twitter.com/RU4vNIZNir— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
Speaking of defensive ends... second-year player Mike Danna provides a reliable level of play for the group. While he isn’t super flashy, he is still very effective. He has never faced Henry before — but his disciplined, stout style of play could really help the Chiefs in Sunday’s game.
Just one small example here -- but I liked a lot of what I saw from Okafor this week too, specifically his play recognition and effort. A healthy version of AO does deserve a spot in this rotation to some degree. pic.twitter.com/mTjs6TcqFi— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
Since coming to Kansas City in 2019, Okafor has struggled to stay healthy — but I was surprised by how much I liked his play in Washington. There isn’t a lot that jumps off the screen — and there are most definitely some physical deficiencies — but Okafor’s effort and production are stable; Kansas City can count on him in the defensive end rotation.
Potentially big development for the #Chiefs is it looks to me like Nnadi is getting healthier, playing with more of the power we're accustomed to seeing. When he can cover a couple gaps like this, the run defense gets so much better. pic.twitter.com/wFytqGd4pv— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
Perhaps more important than any of that... it looks like defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi is starting to play like his old self. Early in the year, he had some problems with a hip injury; more recently, he’s been off the injury report. His role as one of the team’s best, most consistent run defenders had been missed. Against Washington, we saw him take a step back in that direction.
KC is upping the use of their blitz package and it has resulted in giving up just 20 points in their past six quarters of football. Note how the twists along the DL help as well. Manufactured aggression and creativity will continue to be necessary to create pressure consistently. pic.twitter.com/w89ALvxUsW— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
Last week, I looked at how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took a more aggressive approach in the second half against the Buffalo Bills — and how it led to positive results.
Against Washington, Spagnuolo stayed aggressive from start to finish — and I believe it is helping the defense to find an identity; the players want to be aggressive, applying mental and physical pressure on the opponent. This is one way in which I believe the defensive coaching staff is beginning to settle in on what their players can best execute.
Speaking of twists - what a play by Wharton where he ends up on the edge of the DL. Appears to me that there was some simulated pressure in the QB's head given all the prior blitzing, etc., and that is a direct consequence of the D being aggressive throughout the game. pic.twitter.com/a4I4lRqEzv— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
Defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton’s incredible fourth-quarter interception was a fantastic play. Full stop.
We can see, however, how the quarterback’s sped-up process helped lead to this turnover. Due to the various pressures Spagnuolo had presented, Taylor Heinicke had become more and more uncomfortable while holding the football in the pocket.
Here, that causes a quick check-down throw — one that, given the score and time remaining, wouldn’t have helped all that much even if it isn’t intercepted.
The Chiefs’ front seven appeared to be a bit leaky against the wide, stretch zone runs that Washington was running. This is scary because the Tennessee Titans run this concept better than just about any other NFL offense.
On the flip side, the Chiefs absolutely must execute better vs. stretch zone runs like these two plays below. Need less ground given along the interior DL, more penetration to disrupt the RB's path, and discipline on the backside for the cutback lane. pic.twitter.com/U00hYNO2Lm— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
On these plays, running backs J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson could easily get five and 10-yard gains. If the Kansas City front allows Derrick Henry to accelerate toward the line of scrimmage like this, those carries could be good for 20-plus yards — and potentially end up as devastating touchdowns.
Furthermore, the lack of pass rush against play-action passing schemes continues to be problematic.
One area I'd like to see more development for KC is getting off blocks when the opposing offense goes play action on early downs. A lot of 1v1's in these situations and there's a theme of no one really winning, let alone quickly. pic.twitter.com/5v3oWgaTGO— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) October 22, 2021
If you are going to play a disciplined, patient, assignment-sound style of defense — as the Kansas City defensive line is trying to do — you have to be either really good against the run on first down or get off blocks quickly when converting to a pass rush.
Otherwise, you are constantly going to give up chunk plays in those situations — whether it be with a run or play-action pass — which up until last Sunday, the Chiefs had been doing at a historically poor rate.
Even with the increased blitzes, Kansas City defensive linemen are losing a disappointing percentage of their one-on-one pass-rushing matchups. This is one reason why getting Chris Jones back is so important; he can quickly win those reps like no one else on the roster.
Still... this is one reason why adding another defensive end to the rotation before the trade deadline makes a lot of sense. I not only condone it, but also expect it to happen in some way.
The bottom line
The Chiefs’ defensive line — and defense as a whole — took a step forward last weekend in Washington. Now, with a huge test in Nashville on Sunday, the key is to not take two steps backward.
Derrick Henry leads the NFL in rushing. He is arguably the best running back in the entire league. He is going to get his. A team isn’t really going to stop him — but the Chiefs have to contain him and “kill the engine.”
If they do, we will be talking about Kansas City’s biggest win of the still-young season. If they don’t, it could be yet another week of grave disappointment — in which fans will again contemplate what’s gone wrong with this football team.
The time is now. The Chiefs’ defense must make a gigantic statement to the rest of the AFC and NFL: that it is back!