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Film review: Chiefs unlocked pass rush potential in key moments versus Chargers

Kansas City enters Week 12 tied for fourth overall in total sacks after collecting another five on Sunday night.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

"Ya' gotta stop the run to have some fun."

It's an old saying many defensive football coaches so often utter — defenders have to position themselves in favorable down-and-distances in order to have a good shot at pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

While this might hold true for any defense spanning the NFL’s history, Sunday's contest in Los Angeles displayed just how important it is for Kansas City Chiefs’ defense — especially this season. Let's dive into the All-22.

Film review

Much has been noted about Kansas City's new defensive line coach, Joe Cullen, and his impact on the position group. Defensive tackle Chris Jones looks like an All-Pro who has entered the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year conversation, always being positioned to dominate matchups from a multitude of alignments.

Frank Clark has subjectively put together the best three-game stretch of his Kansas City tenure since the 2020 Super Bowl run that culminated in a world title. Veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap is applying visible pressure each week, and rookie defensive end George Karlaftis continues to flash a little more as the season continues.

Third-year defensive lineman Mike Danna — who just recently seems to have regained full strength from an early season calf injury — sacked Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert twice Sunday as he builds on a career year.

The key to putting these players and the defense in a position to truly maximize their ability to pressure quarterbacks is staying ahead of the chains — creating pre-snap scenarios such as second-and-10, third-and-8 and even third-and-6.

On Sunday night, the Chargers ran 16 offensive plays on second or third down with at least six yards to go toward another first down. The results? Three sacks, a false start penalty, two forced quarterback scrambles and the game-sealing interception by linebacker Nick Bolton. While Herbert made some plays in these spots — like a talented quarterback of his nature always will — the point is clear: this defense creates their big, game-shifting plays most often in these spots.

Danna is mainly considered a defensive end, but this season, the coaching staff has carved out a nice pass-rushing role for him where he can align over offensive guards pre-snap, much like a defensive tackle. In this spot, Danna's speed is often too much for a single guard to handle, and it proved the be the case for the Chargers' 2022 first-round draft pick Zion Johnson Sunday night.

This type of thing isn't possible without winning on first and second down to create that high predictability of a pass coming on the next play. Danna's newfound success in this role helps the team overcome a void left in the absence of defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton, whose season ended when he suffered a serious knee injury back in October.

It isn't just about enabling the defensive lineman to individually win — the predictable pass-heavy moments fully open up defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's playbook. A schematic master when it comes to the blitz, Spagnuolo disrupted Los Angeles' offense with the speed of their linebackers and defensive backs coming from the second and third levels as well.

Specifically, with linebacker Willie Gay and cornerback L'Jarius Sneed, viewers can see the difference-making burst they have coming after the quarterback. It can be described as nothing less than an absolute weapon that could yield season-altering dividends come playoff season.

On the negative side of things, for the second straight week, the Chiefs youthful secondary had a hiccup trying to cover a Chargers route concept out of a clustered alignment. Right before the ball is snapped, rookie safety Bryan Cook tries to tell veteran safety Justin Reid to take the first route that goes across the formation.

The communication is too late, as Reid follows the swing route toward the far sideline, and no one is left to cover wide receiver Joshua Palmer for the score. A great pass rush rep by Clark goes to waste.

Closing on a positive note, Jones put another stamp on his case for being the NFL's best defensive tackle right now — if not defensive lineman as a whole.

The defensive coaches have established an excellent formula that is simple yet destructive — they just let Jones find mismatches in these critical passing situations and dominate the man across from him.

On the game's final play, after Jones had just registered a sack on the prior snap, it was more of what fans have been able to count on for the past seven seasons in Kansas City. Jones quickly beat an inferior offensive guard, moving Herbert off his spot and forcing the pass that finished the game.

When the defense has to close out more games throughout this season, Jones and Clark will be heavily relied on to be very clutch.

The bottom line

While there's a lot of good pass rush film to be pulled from what the Chiefs did against the Chargers, the focal point remains that the unit must be solid stopping the run in order to truly maximize their opportunities — early in games especially. Often, they'll get those chances late in the fourth quarter simply due to the Kansas City offense establishing leads on the scoreboard.

The Chiefs' pass rush was rightfully questioned at times, especially throughout October. The formula and players to contribute to winning in the passing game are clearly there, though, and good health-related fortune willing, expect the sack totals to continue to rise throughout the playoffs.

It's Game Time.

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