Almost by default, Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Melvin Ingram has been the No. 1 storyline entering the team's Wild Card matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. As is well known by now, the Steelers signed Ingram in the offseason — only to trade him to the Chiefs for a sixth-round draft pick eight weeks later.
Understandably, onlookers have questioned the Steelers' thought process here. What if a playoff berth came down to the Chiefs or the Steelers? Worse, what if they played in the playoffs?
Well, that's happening.
Ingram's hostage days are over — and as the Chiefs' volunteer, he's thrived.
"He's a great teammate, and you don't know those things about him when you watch him from afar," said Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on Thursday, as he discussed what he's learned about the 10-year veteran. "He's passionate about the game of football, and he's a real intuitive football player. He gets football. When you go over and explain something to him, or, 'We're doing it this way because of,' it makes sense to him. Some guys you coach through the years, they'll shake their head and say that they've got it — but you're not really sure if they do.
"You know that when Melvin [Ingram III] says, 'Yeah, I know what you're talking about, coach,' that he surely does. So, that's something I would not have known. The rest of it you see, physicality and all the other things we talk about. I think we saw that on tape."
In his own right, Ingram has 24 quarterback pressures, including 2.0 sacks and four quarterback hits, as a member of the Chiefs. The stats aren't dazzling — as some long-time Steelers scribes would be happy to tell you — but the impact he has had on the rest of the room has been undeniable.
Spagnuolo commented earlier in the season about how he brings anger and intensity to his game that the Chiefs may not have had before the acquisition. But maybe it's his leadership by example that speaks the loudest.
"I just like the way he handles himself and operates around — whether I see him in the locker room or see him in the meeting room... when you're in front of all of [the players], you can see every guy," said Spagnuolo, painting a picture. "You can see if their eyes are closed, you could see if their eyes are open. He's wide-eyed and tuned in as anybody we have in that meeting. He loves football. He loves to embrace it and absorb it, and I think there's a lot of value to that."
The Chiefs began the season by keeping defensive end Chris Jones primarily outside. Jones was excited for (and eager about) the opportunity — but as the season went on, it became more apparent to the defensive staff that perhaps it was better to keep him along the interior.
Spagnuolo explained that though the Chiefs were beginning to head in that direction anyway, the acquisition of Ingram sealed the deal for Jones to go back.
"It was a little bit more of a natural tie-in when Melvin came because he's an outside guy at end," acknowledged Spagnuolo. "I've said this before. It's just his physicality and the passion and the angriness he brings to the game. I think our guys have fed off of that."
And to Jones' credit, though the Ingram addition meant less pass-rushing opportunities for him on the outside, he has relished the move, understanding what it's meant for the unit as a whole.
"Melvin's been huge to this defense," said Jones. "Bringing Melvin in — I felt like he's been a spark for this defense as a whole. And I know statistically-wise, his numbers don't show it, but he's been a huge part for this defense, whether it's his presence on the field, whether it's just setting the edge, whether it's just causing a fumble for our rookie linebacker to win the game."
It was one of those angry plays that Spagnuolo talked about that led to him trucking the ball loose from Broncos running back Melvin Gordon — and that attitude is only complemented by a comprehension of the game only made possible by nine seasons of experience.
"He just has a knack for really understanding blocking schemes and what offensive lines want to do, what coordinators want to do and it kind of helps him anticipate what's coming," noted safety Tyrann Mathieu — one of the team's smartest players. "I think any time you have guys on the field that can really use their instincts to the defense's advantage, I think it's beneficial to the rest of us on the team.
"He's a great leader. He's a great communicator as well — especially in the classroom with the coaches — so he's a guy that we feed off. Not just on the field, but off the field in the classroom as well. So he's been big for us."