The most improved player on the 2022 Kansas City Chiefs may be fourth-year defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. After two injury plagued-seasons, the 2019 third-round draft selection is finally seeing regular game action.
“I got to showcase a little of the wheels,” Saunders said on Friday of the biggest play of his career. “I like to run, I like to show some speed every time I get on the field. I think that sack got to show I can pick them up and put them down a little bit.”
While he was happy to register a highlight play, the Western Illinois product knows that the team’s rush defense remains his opportunity for a regular role. Saunders played a huge role in the Chiefs limiting Titans star running back Derrick Henry to only 23 yards on the ground after halftime.
“I always make the joke [Chiefs defensive tackle] Chris [Jones] has got the ‘Sack Nation’ — I credit myself as the ‘Run Nation’,” he declared. “Me and [defensive tackle Derrick] Nnadi – the big guys in there.
“My biggest thing, it’s all about the run. Because if you can’t get to passing situations, how do you expect to rush the passer? I take great pride in going from first-and-10 to second-and-8 or second-and-7. My goal is don’t let them get three yards because then we can get into the passing situation. Then we can get an incompletion to make it third-and-8. I credit myself as Kansas City’s run defense. Whoever hears it, I don’t care.
“If you want to run the ball, it’s going to be through me. And I’ve been working my tail off to make sure that I can defend that as best as I can.”
He acknowledged the benefit that comes with the extra attention Jones demands when on the field.
“It’s a blessing to be able to play next to him,” Saunders boasted, “because I’m not getting the slide. I usually don’t have to worry about that and it makes my match up a little more easy. I’m lucky to be able to play with a guy like that. And for him to still come out and know the double is coming and still produce the way he does — he’s a special player.”
On Sunday, the Chiefs will welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to GEHA Field at Arrowhead. The Chiefs will hope Saunders’ confidence pays off with Jaguars running back Travis Etienne coming off of three consecutive games with over a hundred rushing yards.
“Travis – he’s a heck of a running back,” Saunders admitted . “He’s just starting to get his opportunity. I think about Week 6 is around when started to full time starting. Since then, he’s been on a tear. He’s definitely a huge focal point in stopping these guys.”
Injuries limited Saunders to only ten total games from 2020-21. He believes that the missed time robbed him of development opportunities in his second and third seasons.
“There’s a progression that occurs with every player,” he explained. “When you’re robbed of that, you don’t get to see that progression. Early on second year — I played one game and was out. Last year, I played pretty ok up until the Tennessee game. I think I had a pretty good game against Tennessee – we actually lost – and then [I] got hurt again. Being healthy, me putting together a full season is the biggest thing that people are getting to see this year.”