One of the most discussed units for the Kansas City Chiefs this season has been their defensive line.
The group is largely responsible for the success of the Chiefs' defense and will once again be relied upon heavily ahead of the team's AFC Divisional Round matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars this Saturday.
Joe Cullen took some time on Wednesday afternoon to reflect on the production he received from his players during his first year as Chiefs defensive line coach, starting with defensive tackle Chris Jones.
"When you look at Chris (Jones), for us to be where we wanted to be right now in this position, we just said that he had to have his best year," he told reporters during his Wednesday press conference. "We feel — and I've been with him one year — Chris has done everything. He's put the work in. And when you put the work in, usually the results happen.
“He came back in great shape, he worked in the offseason, he had a great training camp, and he just carried it over. He just kept chopping one day at a time, working. And hopefully, he plays his best football here coming up."
Jones is the star of the Chiefs' defensive line and is having himself a career year. His 44 combined tackles are the most he's ever had during his seven-year career, and his 17 tackles for loss nearly doubles the next closest player on the team. Jones recorded a monstrous 15.5 sacks this season which was fourth-most in the league and tied his career-high.
Jones’ performance this year earned him spots on the Pro-Bowl team, Players' All-Pro team, and AP NFL All-Pro team — accolades that Cullen says are well-deserved based on all the work he has put in this season.
"Chris (Jones) works hard," Cullen said. "It's like the defensive line, they've all worked hard, and Chris has worked hard. Like I said, when you put the work in as an individual and as a group, usually you tend to have good results. And that's the big thing."
Cullen went on to discuss Kansas City defensive end Frank Clark. Despite a suspension that cost him two games this season, Clark's production has increased under Cullen, as he trails only Jones for most tackles for loss and quarterback hits amongst Chiefs defensive linemen this season.
Clark's effort and leadership stand out the most for Cullen — something he hopes will carry into the postseason for massive results.
"Well, I'll tell you Frank, right from the start of training camp, he's a great leader - number one. And he goes full speed all the time in everything that he does – on the practice field, in games. And he plays with reckless abandon – not everybody can do that. He's come back this year and throughout the year [with] just a great frame of mind. And [I'm] excited to where he can get rolling in the playoffs."
Cullen concluded his presser discussing the quietly productive season of Chiefs first-round rookie George Karlaftis. The first-year defensive end struggled early this season but slowly found his rhythm as the season progressed. Karlaftis finished the year second on the team with 6.0 sacks, nearly all of which came during the final seven games of the season.
Cullen praised Karlaftis for embracing a challenging starting role that is usually not set up for rookies to succeed in.
"I said it before, like Frank told George — he had to wait three years to be the starter," explained Cullen. "He had to work his way in. Rush inside, then go outside. Same with Chris (Jones). Early in his career, he wasn't a starter right away. He had his spots where they played him, but George was thrown in the fire right away as starter, and each game, he's gotten better. I think he's playing his best football right now.”
All this being said, Cullen is hoping for the Chiefs' defense to repeat the five-sack outburst they had against Jacksonville earlier this season in Week 10. The production from the defensive line will be critical for this week's playoff matchup against a Jaguars offense loaded with first-round talent.
"They got playmakers all over the field," Cullen noted. "Their running back Travis Etienne has had a phenomenal season. [Jaguars tight end Evan] Engram, their tight end has had a great year. And you look at their wideouts – both Jones (Jaguars wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. and wide receiver Zay Jones) have done a great job and then [Christian] Kirk with what he's added. And they got a strong offensive line.
“It'll be a challenge, but we're ready for it and excited to get rolling."