Kansas City Chiefs defensive players were front-row ticket holders to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL swan song — but they made for an unruly audience.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark led the way as the Kansas City front seven had an impactful day during Sunday’s 42-21 Wild Card playoff victory, allowing only 56 rushing yards to the Steelers. For the majority of the contest, the defensive line outmatched Pittsburgh’s young offensive linemen.
Najee Harris had a memorable rookie season in 2021 — but in his first playoff game, the Chiefs shut him down.
Najee Harris has nowhere to go, Hitchens fills the hole to force a bounce outside where he and Clark chase him down, Jones easily swims his blocker to gain position pic.twitter.com/FM7JPMR5R7— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
Here, veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens fills the hole, preventing Harris from doing anything effective. The play then bounces outside, where Clark has sealed the edge to string out the play; he and Hitchens take the ball carrier down.
Hitchens has looked like he has found the fountain of youth. He’s playing faster than he has in a while.
But it wasn’t just the Kansas City run defense setting the tone early in the game. The pass rush was also effective in disrupting plays. Sunday’s sack numbers simply aren’t reflective of how well the defense got after Roethlisberger.
A well-designed blitz from Coach Spags is executed nicely by Willie Gay who forces a quick throw from Roethlisberger pic.twitter.com/F3az8zNGNm— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
Here we see a blitz that was called at the perfect time — and linebacker Willie Gay Jr. shoots the gap with ferocity. Roethlisberger’s veteran savvy — allowing him to get rid of the ball right before he is annihilated — is the only reason this isn’t a sack.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones was Priority 1 in the Steelers’ offensive game plan. In a lot of the reps, he dealt with double teams.
Chris Jones stonewalls the double team, causing the LG to stay on his initial block longer than designed, allowing Hitchens to read and get to the spot to help make the tackle, Sneed fills fast too to help out with the play pic.twitter.com/Tg09Y58I8F— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
Here, however, we see how difficult Jones makes it for opposing linemen. He gives the offensive guard only half a shoulder with which to engage, leaving little to no leverage for the guard to utilize. Jones takes up the two blockers long enough to disrupt the second-level block on Hitchens, who is then able to meet the running back in the hole. Defensive back L’Jarius Sneed is the first one to make contact, flying into the screen from the secondary.
Second-year defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton provides depth for the line — but in this playoff matchup, he played like a starter.
Clearly a miscommunication by the Steelers upfront, there is zero attention on Tershawn Wharton and he capitalized on a wide open lane directly to Big Ben pic.twitter.com/39KwWMtC7B— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
In this play, the offensive line does not account for Wharton, who beelines to the quarterback for Kansas City’s first sack. Just as they do here, the Steelers used quick passing plays to counter the Chiefs’ pass rush — but on this play, no pass would have been quick enough to stop Wharton from taking Roethlisberger down.
Pittsburgh tight ends were often put into one-on-one matchups against Kansas City linemen.
Melvin Ingram vs a tight end? Think I’ll go with No. 24 pic.twitter.com/Nw0US4tQJn— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
Here, defensive end Melvin Ingram takes advantage of the mismatch, quickly overpowering the attempted block to close the back side gap and wrap Harris up — assisted by linebacker Nick Bolton and defensive tackle Jarran Reed.
Here is another good example of the pass rush making a play without getting a sack.
Hitchens’ relentless pursuit here forces the ball to be under thrown and aids the DB in making the deflection pic.twitter.com/QtOiwnLloL— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
This time, Hitchens is sent on an outside blitz. The running back picks him up, but he is still able to gain enough outside leverage against Harris to affect the pass. Roethlisberger isn’t able to step into his attempt, causing an underthrow that cornerback Charvarius Ward swats away.
Gay made what could have been the play of the night.
Love this play from Willie Gay, arguably the play of the night, Steelers first second-half play from scrimmage and Willie punches the ball out and Clark pounces on it, love the rally to the ball and Clark got chopped so starts the play on his knees but finishes it with the ball pic.twitter.com/BP2zhhjJ5h— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
We see him slow-play Harris in the flat, forcing the play back inside and knocking the ball out during his tackle attempt. There are plenty of defenders in the area, but it is Clark who falls on the loose ball.
Quick passes weren’t the only strategy the Steelers deployed to prevent sacks.
Clark is held to prevent the sack but his first initial step is ultra quick, timed up to perfection pic.twitter.com/HIoX1zTb7y— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
On this play, Clark times his first step with the cadence, easily turning the corner on Pittsburgh’s rookie left tackle. Dan Moore keeps his quarterback upright by grabbing Clark with a clear-as-day hold.
Other defensive backups made plays, too.
Alex Okafor rips inside and forces an errant throw that was picked, but this gets called for roughing the passer, negating the turnover, I’m not upset at all with Okafor, good play by him pic.twitter.com/T2zIFtxfZ7— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
In this play, defensive end Alex Okafor is able to rip inside of the right tackle, forcing Roethlisberger to throw too soon. Sneed intercepts the pass — but because Okafor makes his contact low, the officiating crew flags him or roughing the passer.
While the play had a less-than-ideal result, it represented exactly the type of effort and production from depth players that gets teams to Super Bowls.
What are they doing blocking Clark with a tight end? Man if Turk could’ve snagged this, the sideline party would have been on pic.twitter.com/lkUvZHVQB9— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) January 18, 2022
Here we see another tight end being left on an island against a Chiefs defensive end. Clark swipes the blocker’s hands down to get his shoulders turned — but then loses his balance a bit, giving Roethlisberger just enough time to get rid of the ball. Wharton nearly makes another big play, but isn’t quite able to haul in the pass. It’s another athletic play for the big man out of Missouri S&T.
The bottom line
Sunday’s win included a dominant performance in the trenches. The linebackers — who have been shaky lately — played just as well, making the necessary tackles.
Jones and Clark are just the names at the top of a long list of productive defenders that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can utilize to disrupt offenses.
But looking ahead to the Buffalo Bills in this Sunday’s Divisional round game, quarterback Josh Allen presents a much different kind of threat. The last time, he wasn’t sacked once — and rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown during his team’s 38-20 win over Kansas City.
If the Chiefs are going to make it to the AFC Championship, those numbers must be heavily reduced — and that begins with the Kansas City defense controlling the line of scrimmage. In Week 5, Jones wasn’t available — and Ingram wasn’t even on the team yet. This time, both wlll be contributing.