In the NFL, things can change for a particular unit or position group very quickly. One injured player lost, one additional player added, one player receiving an increased (or decreased) role — all of these small things can have an enormous lasting impact on a football team. These changes can be extremely frustrating — or very exciting.
In the case of the Kansas City Chiefs, film from recent weeks has shown that what once appeared to be a lifeless pass rush is now highly formidable — and nothing that took place during Kansas City’s 13-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers altered that description.
Although the Chiefs successfully created pressure with six and seven-man blitzes in Week 9, let’s look more closely at some of the individual defenders who are now creating the greatest impact.
It started out with Frank Clark’s resurgence. During the past month, he’s consistently displayed a more healthy, dynamic body of work. Then there was last week’s trade that added edge rusher Melvin Ingram to the mix, providing the defensive line with another veteran pass-rushing threat. Finally, we saw Chris Jones make his nearly full-time return to the interior of the defensive line — from where he helped the Chiefs close out Super Bowl LIV with big-time plays.
These changes have added up to a total transformation of the defensive line’s pass-rushing potential. But there’s also a trickle-down effect — a series of force multipliers — that makes the group much more imposing.
So intrigued to see what this trio of Jones, Ingram, and Clark can do for the #Chiefs moving forward. There's a force multiplying factor at play here with these guys playing healthy in spots that fit what they do best. pic.twitter.com/Mqy5rE19MH— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
On any given snap — especially with Jones back to the interior — the Chiefs now have multiple players who are capable of quickly winning one-on-one matchups. When one (or even two) players lose, it may not matter — simply because of how quickly another player could win their own battle. And all of that is before we even consider how much that helps rotational players like Jarran Reed and Tershawn Wharton find favorable matchups.
Jones' return to the interior DL has also helped Jarran Reed fulfill his role and we're starting to see better reps as a result, like the one-on-ones in the clip below. pic.twitter.com/lDBYKVDuQn— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
Reed’s best days as a member of the Seattle Seahawks looked a lot like these plays. Reed isn’t always super flashy, but even if it requires exceptional effort deep into the play, he finds ways to get the quarterback off their spot.
On Sunday, the Chiefs’ newest defender wasted no time making it appear that the trade to acquire him was a good one.
Melvin. Ingram. #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/NeUl3Xt0oT— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
First off... it’s pretty weird to see a pass rusher wearing No. 24. But more than that, he is already putting in work.
Ingram is used to rushing without his hand on the ground pre-snap — and it appears the Kansas City coaching staff is okay with that. Here, he displays some of the ability you might recall from his time with the Los Angeles Chargers. His pad level, power, leg drive and effort add up to create a key third-down pressure.
It's a screen and the blitz ruins GB's plan here, but my eye is caught by Ingram's hand use. LT fans him upfield by design, but the way 24 sheds the hands here is transferrable to other plays when the QB might otherwise still be holding the football. pic.twitter.com/A8lTgJr5qL— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
On this play, Ingram’s use of his hands to counter the offensive tackle is what really sticks out.
In limited snaps, we have already seen some of the ways this savvy vet is going to help the defense continue to ascend as games become more and more meaningful.
Last week, I explained how Clark was starting to look like the player Kansas City originally expected from their trade with the Seattle Seahawks. While Sunday’s performance wasn’t quite as strong as Monday night’s had been, Clark still made a substantial impact on the game.
So, Frank Clark jumped the snap several times Sunday in a game-altering way. This level of explosion directly impacted Love's process on both plays. Doesn't show up in the stat sheet, but changes games. pic.twitter.com/sieSN0CeWf— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
There’s an energy to his play — perhaps championship swagger — that has been missing. Now it is providing an energy boost to the entire unit. With two versatile, powerful, athletic players in Clark and Ingram, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can get even more creative in how he aligns his fronts.
Peep Clark and Ingram both aligned outside the LT to the left of your screen, then Spags brings 7 total defenders and Mathieu gets the free rush, finishes the rep. Great design plays out as planned vs. the rookie QB. pic.twitter.com/PcDuMF69eS— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
On Sunday, Clark will have another big test: going against Las Vegas Raiders left tackle Kolton Miller, who is a very solid pass protector. Should Clark continue to stand out in a good way, it could mean the difference between the Chiefs winning or losing this big AFC West matchup.
Sunday’s biggest positive indicator for Kansas City’s future defensive performance is unquestionably Jones’ play as a defensive tackle. Despite battling through some injuries, he was the game wrecker — the same one Chiefs fans remember so fondly.
It's reallllllly hard to ruin a screen play like this from the perspective of a DT, but here we are. Welcome back, CJ! pic.twitter.com/oWgAjBz2YR— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
Even when Green Bay elected to take extra measures to slow down Kansas City’s front — such as utilizing eligible receivers as blockers — it didn’t always matter. That’s simply because Jones can be so destructive between the offensive guards.
Green Bay chipped KC edge defenders w/ additional blockers a fair bit - and the results here probably would have worked out as they hoped, but... Chris Jones at DT happened. pic.twitter.com/oLjmKn3R8P— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
Here, we see there are at least two offensive linemen who weren’t able to contain Jones as a tandem. How these offensive players weren’t called for holds is mysterious.
One area of concern that isn't going away is when Jones isn't present on the interior, this team struggles to get off blocks vs. play action. Fortunately here they have 32 coming off the edge and he keeps working to effect the play. pic.twitter.com/nvNk7XwXRj— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 9, 2021
There is still, however, some concern about how much pressure the Chiefs can apply when Jones isn’t lined up as a defensive tackle. In situations when he is not in the game, it appears to be a prime opportunity for opposing offenses to utilize play-action pass concepts, as other defenders continue to struggle with shedding blocks under those circumstances.
But overall — especially by the second half on Sunday — it was clear that the Chiefs had tremendously sped up Packers quarterback Jordan Love’s internal clock. As the game wore on, he displayed no interest in holding the football for longer than a few seconds. Even though the line’s play didn’t lead to many sacks, it did substantially impact Green Bay’s offensive attack.
The bottom line
While there is plenty of reason to be excited about the Chiefs’ pass rush, keeping these instrumental players healthy will be crucial during the second half of the season. Yes... the team appears to have discovered fixes for what seemed like a big problem not so long ago. Still, if the line’s ascension is going to continue, it will require no small amount of physical luck. It will also be important to see how this group performs with the less-aggressive game plans that will likely be used against veteran quarterbacks Derek Carr and Dak Prescott in the next two games.
On Sunday night, Kansas City will arguably face the biggest game of the season: the 5-3 Raiders hosting the 5-4 Chiefs — and while a win for either team could be a key piece leading towards a postseason run, a loss could prove detrimental to either squad’s hope for making the playoffs.
Win or lose, what Kansas City’s defensive line does will play a key role in the outcome.