When you break out the basic statistics, the Kansas City Chiefs’ pass rush is better than it ever has been in the era of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
They have the NFL’s fourth-highest sack total and sixth-highest rate of team pressure per dropback. The 42 sacks are the most Kansas City has racked up in a season since 2019, and it is on pace to pass that year’s 45-sack total.
Yet, when opposing quarterbacks drop back against a typical pass defense with four rushers and seven defenders in coverage, it feels like the job doesn’t get done — outside of the 11 times defensive tackle Chris Jones blew past a blocker for a sack.
With an all-too-familiar theme in his words, Spags tried to explain where the standard pass rush is coming up short during a press conference on Thursday.
“In the last two weeks, we’ve had four-man rushes that have gotten the quarterback to move,” Spagnuolo explained to reporters. “What we haven’t done — and what Joe, the guys and I have talked about — is we need to finish the quarterback when we get him moving around; that’s where we need to get better. I think the guys have gotten home in situations like you want, I just think the finishing part is the next step for us.”
Finishing was the thing that the pass rush lacked in last season’s ultimate game, the AFC Championship loss — where Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow scurried away from the grasps of defenders to make game-changing plays.
It also was a problem in this year’s matchup with Burrow.
The persisting problem didn’t last without an attempt at change: new defensive line coach Joe Cullen has hoped to make a difference in that department. Newcomers at edge rusher George Karlaftis and Carlos Dunlap have worked to contribute 7.5 sacks combined — but two veterans still headline the group: defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark.
Cullen reminded reporters that Clark and Jones played a significant role in his decision to come to Kansas City. Since he’s gotten here, he has gained respect for Clark and his ability to play through the recurring stomach issues that have plagued his career in Kansas City.
“The Cincinnati game, anyone else would not have played in that game,” Cullen shared with reporters about Clark. “Frank is a fighter, a warrior, and there was no way he was going to let his guys down. He gave everything he had in that game. It’s just one of those things that he has had in the past, and he’s done a really good job of watching what he eats, he drinks, so he can play at peak performance.
“He is in the 240 [pounds] range. He has been a little higher than that, but he’s quicker, more explosive, and I don’t think it has slowed him down in terms of the physicality.”
Clark’s value also comes as a leader, as we saw in training camp as he mentored rookie defensive end George Karlaftis. That leadership doesn’t end in St. Joseph, Missouri; Clark has continued to help set the example for an ascending Karlaftis — who has earned a sack in three straight games.
“The hardest thing to do when you come into this league is rush the passer right away,” Cullen stated. “Frank and Chris were talking about it with George: both of those guys didn’t start their first year, they were situational players. George has handled it well, I just think he’ll continue to get better — especially this last stretch.”
His improvement is vital to the progress of the four-man rush. When pass protections use two blockers on Jones, it leaves one-on-one opportunities for everybody else. One, if not multiple rushers, have to win in those spots — but it doesn’t have to be alone.
It can be in concert, and that’s where coaching schematics come into play.
“The biggest thing about the four-man pass rush is when it’s all together, it’s a thing of beauty,” Cullen gushed. “When all four are in unison working towards the quarterback, they’re at the level, staying alive in the hunt... the biggest thing is just don’t chase the sacks; do your job. Coach Spags calls the defense, whether it’s a pressure of a four-man rush, do your job. When you do your job, great things happen.”
Cullen’s right: if each rusher won their assignments more often, the effectiveness would go up — and would also naturally force offensive lines to not just focus on Jones.
With the current group, that is much easier said than done.