Entering the Kansas City Chiefs’ first preseason matchup against the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night, they appeared a little short-handed along the defensive line. Due to short-term injury issues, key contributors like defensive ends Frank Clark, Taco Charlton and Alex Okafor didn’t suit up.
This meant an increased workload for the remaining defensive linemen — and at first glance, these players stepped up, displaying quality depth for defensive line coach Brendan Daly.
Generally, the line did a solid job of holding the point of attack on the front side of running plays.
Chiefs DL showed promising play identification and strength at the point of attack last night. Here, Danna, Wharton, and Reed all flow down the line, maintaining gaps. Jones also displays the processing and athleticism necessary to close on the backside of SF's stretch runs. pic.twitter.com/xatRNHGvZz— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 15, 2021
Another high quality showing of strength, leverage, and toughness by Saunders, Danna, and Reed. Linebackers fill nicely. Just not a lot of room to work with for the back. pic.twitter.com/VRo6XvCb8e— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 16, 2021
In his first start as a primary defensive end, Chris Jones displayed the quickness and agility to avoid blocks, showing that he will not just be a large target for offensive tackles and tight ends.
A small but significant thing in my mind: see how quick and agile Jones is to avoid the TE slicing toward him on the backside. Also, again, Danna with textbook pad level and overall technique on the front side of this run. pic.twitter.com/gD5t3IIWfO— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 16, 2021
Second-year defensive end Mike Danna also was a steady, consistent presence against the run, picking right up where he left off last year.
But it wasn’t all perfect. Despite showing several exciting traits at other moments during the game, play recognition and decision-making occasionally got the best of some of the young defenders.
Kaindoh had some rookie moments Saturday on top of some positive flashes, to be expected in his first game action. Late to recognize the reverse action in the first clip, jumps inside just a little too quickly in the second one allowing the RB to bounce for 10+ yards. pic.twitter.com/Gm9iVurCPa— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 16, 2021
Despite how impressive second-year defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton continues to look in one-on-one situations — especially as a pass rusher — asking him to hold ground against double teams is still a tall task.
Wharton has freaky athletic traits and requisite strength to do well in most 1-on-1 situations, but here the lack of size/power means getting washed out by a guard+tackle combo block. TE slice block gets a solid piece of Harris, but Thornhill scrapes over to make a nice tackle. pic.twitter.com/b74FdODDBX— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 15, 2021
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wasted no time throwing five and six-man blitzes at the 49ers’ first-round rookie quarterback Trey Lance. In different ways, these were also largely successful for the defensive line.
Spags throws a six-man pressure at Lance and he certainly doesn't get the ball out as quickly as he would like to go back and do. Noteworthy however is the lateral quickness "Bink" Saunders flashes to beat the LG here. pic.twitter.com/l5bBFvsx9S— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 15, 2021
#Chiefs send five on this 3rd-and-8, and even though the pressure is limited elsewhere, Jones just does what he does and dominates his 1-on-1 matchup (might've had a slight assist from Sorensen; either way was about to win as his hips had cleared the RG). pic.twitter.com/XApQDTzdbZ— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 16, 2021
It was great to see Chris Jones pick right up where he left off, winning quickly from the interior. The team’s new free-agent defensive tackle Jarran Reed also flashed some of the reason why he is now a part of the Chiefs roster, showing pass-rushing productivity between the offensive guards.
Another 3rd-and-14 play, and Jarran Reed gets very close to taking Garoppolo down after battling through the rep with good hand use and mental toughness. Danna and Harris lose on the edge, albeit after each were chipped before engaging the OT. pic.twitter.com/O0S5yaiFAz— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 16, 2021
One area where the 49ers’ offense found success was with play-action pass concepts. Given San Francisco’s propensity to lean on those plays to generate explosive gains, this came as no surprise.
SF is notoriously good with play action concepts and the Chiefs' DL plays a disciplined, assignment-sound style. On plays where the DL doesn't get much penetration and there are coverage busts on the back end, you're bound to surrender some explosive plays. pic.twitter.com/pGeUTznGdH— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 15, 2021
As the game went on, defensive linemen began doing a better job of recognizing what the offense was doing — leading to smart, high-effort plays like this one from Danna and Wharton.
Could be something or nothing, but Danna's change of direction quickness looks improved to me on this play. Starts play with great play I.D., keeps good leverage. Also, Wharton's pursuit effort is unmatched(!!) pic.twitter.com/4iV1MyGsgw— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 15, 2021
In obvious passing situations throughout the game, the defensive line did a really solid job of generating quick pressure with at least one player. This is what you want — and expect — from a good, tenacious defensive front.
3rd-and-14. The front four are all pinning their ears back, so you want to see them win quickly and get at least one body to the QB fast. Wharton, Kaindoh, and Harris all do just that while Danna draws the double team (lined up over the LG). pic.twitter.com/wQcPEXxDGJ— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 15, 2021
Defensive end Tim Ward — entering his third Chiefs season after developing on injured reserve and the practice squad over the last two years — excelled with his pass-rushing get-off. If he continues to have preseason performances like Saturday night’s, he will be a tough player to leave off the 53-man roster.
#Chiefs DE Tim Ward timed up the snap last night a couple times from a 3-point stance in a way that would have been tough on about any offensive tackle. Impacted the QB on both plays, too. In the last clip, shows tremendous effort that appears to have played a role in the fumble. pic.twitter.com/7CbgafYXVG— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 16, 2021
Depth players on the Chiefs’ defensive line mostly continue to shine when opportunities present themselves. Daly deserves credit for developing many young, gifted players who consistently bring tremendous effort.
If defensive ends Clark, Charlton and Okafor can all come back — helping to boost the edge rush and overall discipline of the group — there is lots of upside among these players. Defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi combines with Reed to form a tremendous set of run stuffers inside. Meanwhile, Jones is on a trajectory that could make him a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
At full strength, the Chiefs’ current defensive line is bigger, stronger, smarter — and perhaps deeper — than it has been in quite some time. Both now and moving forward, attrition will be their biggest opponent.