Last week, I wrote about the Kansas City Chiefs' improved four-man pass rush. The Chiefs were generating more sacks, blitzing less and still generating a good amount of pressure. When your pressures and sacks are better while sending fewer blitzes, that's typically an indication of an improved pass rush.
As it happened, I couldn't have written that at a worse time.
One week later, all the warts of the Chiefs' four-man pass rush showed up. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was touched once the entire game, and that play was entirely Burrow's fault. On 32 dropbacks, Burrow had a clean pocket on 25 attempts.
This problem of not being able to generate pressure on Burrow remains. In the AFC Championship game, the Chiefs only sacked Burrow once on 16 pressures. The Chiefs did generate four sacks in week 17 last season, but Burrow was pressured on 37% of his dropbacks. The linemen couldn't finish plays against an awful offensive line.
It's not that Burrow is a difficult player to sack. Coming into the week, Burrow was sacked on 27% of his pressures — the third-highest in the NFL. The Bengals give up the fifth-most sacks in the league. According to ESPN, the Bengals' offensive line ranked 30th in pass block win rate.
Even given all those factors, the Chiefs can't seem to affect Joe Burrow. One thing stood out in particular when watching the game: the lack of an edge rush. In three games against Burrow, the Chiefs' edge rushers have 2.0 sacks. The lack of pressure was even more glaring this week.
But it's not that the defensive ends are problems every single week. For some reason, Burrow seems to be the kryptonite for the Chiefs' pass rushers. Why is that?
I think it's simply the archetype of the defensive end on this roster. Let's discuss:
What do the Chiefs want from their defensive ends?
To discuss why the archetype of the Chiefs' defensive ends is a problem, we must first define what the Chiefs typically look for.
When looking at defensive ends, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo cares about three main traits — height, weight, and arm length.
Spagnuolo tends to gravitate towards longer, heavier pass rushers when picking defensive ends. Spagnuolo wants to crush the pocket with his defensive ends, which limits a quarterback's ability to scramble outside the pocket. When it's obvious third-down situations, Spagnuolo will align one or two defensive ends inside, which theoretically gives an athleticism advantage against a smaller/slower guard or center.
Spagnuolo doesn't ask his defensive ends to have the flexibility to turn the corner or the explosiveness to win on a quick rush but to keep good contain on the edge while compressing space in the pocket. Spagnuolo's best defensive ends bring explosiveness and power, but as long as you don't give up inside contain, you'll work in his scheme.
Why is this a problem vs. Joe Burrow?
The Chiefs haven't been super productive off the edge since Spagnuolo has taken over, but it hasn't been a problem against any quarterback except Burrow. Even when the edges weren't winning enough, it wasn't a detriment to the team as much as it was against him. Why is that?
There are three main reasons why Kansas City can't touch Burrow:
1. Lack of flexibility/speed to turn the corner
Issue #1 with our defensive ends: lack of flexibility up arc— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 6, 2022
When KC tried rushing up arc, they simply don't have the juice from their DEs to work upfield and condense space at all
Danna, Dunlap, and Karlaftis couldn't turn a corner all day, and lack the range to chase Burrow pic.twitter.com/dfQsc9NDPh
When the Chiefs' defensive ends tried rushing up the arc, they had no success. Mike Danna, George Karlaftis and Carlos Dunlap each had multiple reps of them getting completely stuck trying to go around the corner. Kansas City had two pressures all day when the guys tried turning the corner.
Based on the athletic profiles that Chiefs' defensive ends have, they simply lack the bend, speed or flexibility to try and turn the corner. That's a trade-off when you're getting bigger defensive ends, but against the Bengals, it's a problem.
Burrow will sit and hold the ball deep in the pocket, but if you can't force him to step up and move, then he's going to dissect zone coverage all day. The Chiefs don't have a pass rusher that can even threaten the arc outside of Frank Clark, and it was a massive problem Sunday.
2. No push on the pocket
Issue #2 with DEs:— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 6, 2022
You can blame Spags's for his preferred archetype of DE (long, stiff, slow, big), but if you're big and unable to crush the pocket (90 second compilation), then you're accomplishing nothing with that size
That's not on Spags. That's a Veach problem pic.twitter.com/Iguv2aqsZW
Here's what bothers me the most regarding the Chiefs' defensive ends — yes, they lack the speed and flexibility to turn the corner. We know that about their athletic profiles. What drives me insane is the lack of pressure when the Chiefs try to collapse the pocket with a bullrush.
On Sunday, there was absolutely zero push on the pocket from any defensive end. Clark had multiple opportunities to push a tackle backward and literally gained no traction. Dunlap got stood up numerous times. Mike Danna and Karlaftis weren't generating any power as well.
If you're going to have bigger defensive ends on the field, they have to crush the pocket. The problem? The Chiefs don't have a defensive end with the explosiveness or power to consistently condense space. If they can't win up the arc, they have to condense space, but the Chiefs can't do either against the Bengals. That lets Burrow just stand still all day since he never has to worry about backing up and scrambling outside the pocket.
3. Subpar closing speed
Issue #3 with DEs— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 6, 2022
It's two plays, I get it
But watch Frank try and close on Burrow vs. Ossai. The difference in range and flexibility is huge when chasing a mobile QB
I wonder if Ossai was available for the Chiefs to draft...oh no pic.twitter.com/dpSxQCEGPY
The last issue has to do with Burrow specifically.
The Chiefs' edges have struggled three straight games now to chase Burrow when he decides to scramble. Even when the Chiefs — and mainly Chris Jones — are able to get pressure on Burrow, they haven't been able to bring him down, and I attribute that to the edge rushers.
Kansas City's defensive ends lack the range or speed to close on Burrow.
He's a slippery athlete, but when the edges are asked to break down in space and chase Burrow, they don't have the flexibility or range to do that. Clark has struggled with that for three games now, but it's an issue for all Chiefs defensive ends. Yes, the Chiefs get little pressure on Burrow, but when they do, they don't have the athletes to capitalize on that, and Burrow is able to make plays out of structure.
The bottom line
For the context of this season, there's nothing the Chiefs can do.
No pass rusher with the explosiveness/bend to help chase Burrow down will suddenly become available. The defensive ends currently on the roster will be the same for the playoffs, so the Chiefs will have to figure it out or hope it doesn't manifest in a bad way again.
The Chiefs could change the way they view the defensive end position this offseason. I know we're only going off a three-game sample size, but the Chiefs' inability to impact Burrow off the edge has been a theme in every matchup. Two is a coincidence, but three is a trend. Burrow isn't going anywhere soon, so the Chiefs have to change their defensive ends to get more pressure on him long-term since that's his only weakness against them.
Some of it is on Spagnuolo. The insistence on heavier and longer defensive ends puts you in a real bind from an evaluation standpoint. It would be awesome to get the biggest, fastest and strongest guys who have all the tools, but unfortunately, those guys don't become available with where the Chiefs pick in the draft every year. The freaks of nature that are Nick Bosa and Myles Garrett never become free agents. If you want heavier defensive ends, you're going to sacrifice functional athleticism most of the time.
This isn't all on Spagnuolo, however.
The Tennessee Titans are another team that builds their defensive ends around length and power, but they never have issues getting pressure. Why? Their defensive ends crush the pocket. Bud Dupree and Denico Autry are constantly restricting space. The Chiefs don't have a single defensive end who can crush the pocket consistently. You can blame Spagnuolo for his preferred archetype, but it is fair to say the front office has done a poor job getting the right guys to fill that archetype.
Regardless of who's to blame, there has to be some change.
If the Chiefs want to beat Joe Burrow, they need to get faster and more flexible off the edge. The Chiefs need defensive ends with the range and speed to not let Burrow sit in the pocket but also have the closing speed to finish plays and bring him down. Burrow is too elusive for the Chiefs' defensive ends to chase him down, so they now have to get different defensive ends who can do that.
That's something that'll have to happen in the offseason, and it needs to be priority No. 1 for this front office.