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Chiefs’ batted passes have been a key to defensive success

Kansas City’s front seven is among the league’s leaders in batted balls.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Through 16 weeks of the 2022 season, Pro Football Reference (PFR) data says six players from the Kansas City Chiefs’ front seven have batted down a total of 19 passes — compared to nine in all of 2021. That ranks third in the league behind the Cleveland Browns (21) and Tennessee Titans (20). The team’s oldest and youngest defensive linemen — Carlos Dunlap and George Karlaftis — are ranked second and fourth. Dunlap has seven batted passes this season, while Karlaftis has six.

It’s been a point of emphasis for the team’s new defensive line coach Joe Cullen.

“Yeah, Joe covers that,” confirmed head coach Andy Reid on Wednesday. “If you’re not able to quite get to the quarterback, get your hands up — at least one [hand] — and try to bat the ball down. So that’s part of his repertoire of things that he does in there with them.”

But Reid pointed out that Dunlap’s influence on his teammates has also played a role. PFR has only been tracking batted passes since 2019 — and since then, Dunlap has led the league with 26. (During his career, Dunlap also leads all defensive linemen and linebackers with 75 passes defensed).

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

“Well, they know the history of him doing it,” said Reid. “I know the history of him doing it. He’s batted a few of ours down, [so] I’m glad he’s on our side. So they know — and Carlos is a smart guy. [He] talks to everybody, so I’m sure he’s helped in that area.”

On Thursday, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo recalled the importance of one of Karlaftis’ recent batted balls.

“There was one that was real early in the game,” said Spagnuolo, “I think it was this past game — that if he doesn’t do that, the coverage on the outside was a little loose; I think it would have been a first down. I think he saved us on that.”

Spagnuolo’s memory was correct.

It was a fourth-and-3 play from Kansas City’s 41-yard line with 4:16 left in the first quarter of last Saturday’s 24-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Without Karlaftis’ heads-up play, quarterback Geno Smith could easily have completed a pass for a fresh set of downs in Chiefs’ territory — which might have led to the Seahawks tying the game 7-7.

“Good pass rushers not only put pressure on the quarterback,” continued Spagnuolo, “but they have a timing in their brain on when to put their hands up — when the quarterback is going to release it. It’s a natural thing — and George obviously has a good knack for that.”

Up until the last five games — when the former Purdue Boilermaker had accumulated only half a sack through 10 games — these batted passes were the rookie’s most significant contributions.

“The stat everybody looks at is sacks, right?” noted Spagnuolo. “And when it wasn’t happening, Joe and I both felt that there were a number of times when he was almost right there — or he missed one because he didn’t sink his hips. I think there were a few in there that he missed that he could have had. And now I think he’s learning that — and maybe the speed of the game, he’s getting used to it.”

Karlaftis has now collected four sacks in the last five games — the most recent of these on a third-and-11 play in the second quarter of Saturday’s game, ending another Seahawks possession with a nine-yard sack.

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

“I look at George the same way I look at myself: just never being satisfied,” teammate Frank Clark said after the game. “I tell him that all the time: ‘Don’t be satisfied with being drafted in the first round. Don’t be satisfied with your family or everyone voicing your head up. Don’t ever get satisfied — don’t ever listen to it. There’s always more work to do.’”

The relationship between the veteran pass rusher and the first-round rookie is something we’ve been watching since before the season began. But in Spagnuolo’s mind, now is the time that Clark’s influence on Karlaftis matters most.

“At the point we’re at in the season right now,” he explained, “being the veteran that’s kind of been through it — what we expect, how we need to operate — he’s been really good that way; he’s been vocal that way. Joe tells me that he’s been really good in the D-line meetings with that — studying film, getting ready for the next opponent and pointing out some things.

“[It’s] real valuable to have vets on your team that have been through what we’re in the middle of — and hopefully go through — going forward. I think that’s huge.”

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