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Chiefs coach Joe Cullen getting the most out of multiple defensive linemen

Whether it’s the star or the underrated rotation player, the defensive line is benefitting from the new coach’s guidance.

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the first three seasons of Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s tenure, the defensive line was coached by Brendan Daly. This offseason, he was assigned to coach the linebackers — giving way for former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen to coach the front.

In his first year leading the group, the defensive line has contributed to allowing the league’s seventh-fewest yards per carry, collecting 13 sacks and notching the NFL’s third-highest pressure rate.

Back in training camp, Cullen was confident in this unit — but especially defensive tackle Chris Jones. During one of his post-practice press conference, he challenged Jones to have a career year, emphasizing how important that would be for reaching (and winning) the Super Bowl.

During his press conference on Thursday, he had a chance to reflect on Jones’ season.

“I think he’s had a dominating season,” Cullen said of Jones. “Obviously he can keep improving – but he’s playing the run, he’s playing physical, he’s making impact plays and he’s doing a really good job for us.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jones’ two sacks tie with Carlos Dunlap for the most on the line, but Jones has pressured the quarterback 20 times — six more than any teammate and second only to the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Tennessee Titans’ Jeffery Simmons.

Yet in Cllen’s eyes, it’s Jones’ improved run defense that is the most impressive.

“He’s done a great job keeping his pad level low,” Cullen explained. “Striking blockers, he is a big guy. He’s improved in those areas. I think he’s just really working hard.”

Alongside Jones on the interior, there have been different kinds of contributions from everyone. But primarily, it has been third-year defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton who has rushed on passing downs. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL on Monday night — likely ending his 2022 season.

Cullen reflected on ‘Turk’ Wharton’s play — which has included earning a sack and three other quarterback hits this season.

“I’ll tell you: Turk did a phenomenal job,” Cullen confirmed. “He’s got a great motor. [He] doesn’t say a lot, but you get the same consistent effort every day. He made a lot of plays — sometimes hustling down the field, getting pressure on the quarterback. We’ll really miss him.”

The Chiefs have now activated former Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth from the practice squad.

“It’s a next-man-up league,“ said Cullen. “Anything can happen at any time. Taylor is a guy who’s worked hard, played in this league and we’re fortunate to have him — just like Danny Shelton.”

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

No matter who gets called up from the practice squad, fourth-year defensive tackle Khalen Saunders will naturally see more snaps — and he has earned them. In limited action, he has racked up 17 tackles — which leads the defensive line. He’s also accumulated a couple of quarterback hits.

“Last year, he was injured,” Cullen noted of Saunders. “He’s been working hard. The injury probably set with him last year — but he’s healthy, he’s strong [and] he came back in great shape. He’s working hard at his craft.”

And Saunders doesn’t only lead the line in tackles. He’s also earned another way to lead his teammates: by pulling the wagon.

“It’s just an old saying,” said Cullen of his unique motivator. “It goes back years — about ‘Hey, you’ve got to pull the wagon today. You’ve got to pull everybody with you’ It’s just something we do in our group – just a leadership thing – leading drills. Khalen is someone we put on that way back in OTAs. He’s been doing a great job — and we’re going to leave it with him.”

Now in the last year of his rookie deal, Saunders is more consistently showing the talent that made him such an intriguing prospect as a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. It might just be that needed Cullen’s help to maximize it.

But whether it’s Saunders, Jones or anyone else on the line, Cullen’s coaching is appearing to get the most out of them. It gives you confidence that he can adjust to being without Wharton — getting everything possible from the next man up.

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