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Frank Clark ready to lead defensive turnaround amid off-field adversity

Injuries and his off-field issues have clouded the defensive end’s season, but now he’s back on the field with a healthy body and mindset.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive line received offseason hype, with expectations of top-heavy starters and high-quality depth behind them. It was supposed to be the deepest since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo joined the staff — so obviously, it’s disappointing that it is currently dead last in the NFL in sacks.

The early-season absence of defensive end Frank Clark didn’t make things any easier. He injured his hamstring two weeks into training camp, forcing him to miss all of the preseason and the season-opener. He returned for Week 2 but injured his other hamstring in the following week of practice.

On top of that, Clark has well-documented, off-field problems to worry about: he was recently charged for the second of his two gun-related incidents this offseason. The impact those incidents could have on him, and his family has weighed heavily on him — but he believes he has turned a corner mentally.

“I’m feeling way better,” Clark told reporters on Friday. “I feel like I’m in a way better place than I was before. At first, things hit me real fast — but at the end of the day, I have a job to do here with the Chiefs. I still also have a life that I have to make sure isn’t going to shambles because of some decisions that were made off the field... You have to separate the two... you have to be able to have it balanced.”

It’s not a coincidence that Clark is in a better mental space now that he has returned to the field. It was likely a dark time not being able to play, sitting around and not having the on-field distraction of his job. He couldn’t execute his role as the veteran leader of the defensive front — and with its issues this season, he felt the need to push himself to get back.

“I’m the vocal one on the defensive line,” Clark reminded reporters. “I’m the one that calls the shots as far as what we’re doing in games, pass-rushing and stuff like that. Seeing the problems, you watch them develop and you watch the communication start to fail... that’s where the urgency of trying to get back comes into play... I got healthy, got right mentally, physically, and I’m back out there playing football.”

He has played in the last three games, totaling five tackles, 11 pressures, and three quarterback hits. He’s been the team’s most effective pass rusher in that stretch, even without a sack to his name. He’s felt more and more comfortable each week since his return.

“I feel like I’m getting back in my flow,” Clark explained. “I’m getting back to rushing the passer aggressively. My first two weeks back out there, things were kind of slow, and it was me just getting a feel, me getting back conditioned to do what I do. Then, last week, I finally started to get back to touching the quarterback more and getting back in the backfield, being disruptive.”

His pressure rate not resulting in sacks is a microcosm of the team’s season-long problem on defense. Kansas City has the fewest sacks in the league but produces pressure at the 12th-highest rate. Clark recognizes the group isn’t executing the entirety of its job.

“We have to finish plays,” Clark declared. “We’ll get to the quarterback, but a lot of the time we’re not making the actual play: we’re missing a sack, some guy is falling off, allowing the quarterback to slide off... that was like the third game in a row as a defensive line we haven’t had sack production. It pisses me off, because you watch games and you see teams have six or seven sacks in a game as a defensive line unit. It’s inspiring because those are the same things you want to do every week. So of course, it’s on my mind as a leader of the defense... we’re struggling as a defense, and if we don’t figure it out sooner than later, it’s going to be a longer season than it was already.”

Clark has faith that the unit can rebound and become effective at getting to the quarterback, as it has had in the past. He doesn’t believe the talent on the field is the issue.

“I feel like being put in the position to make those plays and being able to be utilized in the proper way,” Clark answered when asked what he thinks could help turn it around. “When you do those things, you’re going to make the plays that come to you... We have some unique guys: myself, Chris [Jones], guys in the middle that are disruptive like Jarran Reed, Derrick Nnadi, or Khalen Saunders. Even young guys like Mike Danna — who’s playing good football — and Tershawn [Wharton]. This is a unique group of guys, one of the most unique that we’ve had — and athletic.”

With Chris Jones’ return in Week 7, the unit is now as healthy as it has been all season. All the names that Clark listed are ready to contribute — with the exception of Khalen Saunders, who popped up on the injury report this week — and have ramped up their play in the past few weeks.

It all comes to a head on Monday Night Football, when the Chiefs will host the New York Giants and their banged-up offensive line. It should be a recipe for a get-right game by the defensive line. A big performance from Clark and his group could spark a more confident, effective pass rush for the remainder of the season.

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