Through four weeks of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs defense leads the league with 65.8 rushing yards allowed per game. The improvement from last season — in which the Chiefs ranked 21st, allowing 117.6 yards per game — comes in spite of three consecutive games against elite running backs.
The Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor — last season’s league rushing champion — was held to 71 yards on 21 carries. Before that, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Austin Ekeler gained only 39 yards on 14 attempts. And on Sunday, Leonard Fournette of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers only carried the ball three times against the stout Chiefs’ front — for a total of minus three yards.
Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones has no doubt what has made the difference: the presence of new defensive line coach Joe Cullen.
“I’ve been in this system for four years — [and] that’s what’s changed: Joe Cullen,” Jones declared after Saturday’s practice. “Joe Cullen — his demeanor. Our game plan, the way he brings out the best of us individually and the defensive line group, we harp on that.
“We take accountability to stop the run. That’s [a] high priority on our list. It gives us the ability to rush the passer once we stop the run. [We] force teams to pass the ball and do what we love to do most: get after the quarterback.”
Jones said that Cullen has done this with a diverse defensive line room that ranges from Carlos Dunlap in his 13th season to rookie George Karlaftis.
“That’s a competitive group we have in there,” Jones observed. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are competing for different things in our room. Joe Cullen brings the best out of all of us. He challenges us every day.”
Jones revealed that one way Cullen is doing that is by rotating leadership among all the players.
“He has this thing that he calls The Wagon,” Jones explained. “Basically, you’ve got to lead every drill [and] challenge the group. We’ve got [defensive tackle] Khalen Saunders as The Wagon right now — and he’s doing an exceptional job. That’s what it’s all about as a group: being competitive, challenging each other, making sure we get the best out of each other.
“I think it’s a great challenge, because he puts it on one or two people to carry the group, lead the group [and] start every drill — making sure that person brings the energy to the group day-in, day-out.”
The team will need that energy when they the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday night; their running back Josh Jacobs is coming off a 144-yard rushing performance against the Denver Broncos in Week 4. Jones recognizes the challenge in front of his unit.
“Their record doesn’t reflect how good of a team they are,” he noted. “[Raiders head coach] Josh McDaniels is slowly opening up the playbook for them. We’ve got to try to stop — try to slow down —these guys.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo also considers Jacobs a threat after his performance last week. He predicts the Raiders’ offense will try to pick up where they left off in Las Vegas.
“It’s challenge after challenge after challenge,” Spagnuolo said Friday of the running backs his team has faced thus far. “We had Jonathan Taylor. We had Leonard Fournette. It’s not going to change.
“My guess is that in this particular game coming up, they’re going to make that a focus. That back that Josh [McDaniels] has right now — he knows is really good.
“He got [Jacobs] cranked up last week, and I would imagine he would try to do the same thing. It’s going to be our job to see if we can get it one-dimensional. And if we don’t stop the run, the other stuff will get ugly, too.”