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Film Review: George Karlaftis is ending his rookie year with a bang

In recent games, Kansas City’s young defensive end has been turning it up.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the season, the Kansas City Chiefs’ rookie defensive end George Karlaftis had his fair share of growing pains. But during the last six games, he has exploded for five sacks — showing that he is on his way to a productive NFL career.

When evaluating film, watching a rookie player turn the page is a lot of fun. It’s great to see them go from making rookie mistakes — sometimes from playing out of their comfort zone — to becoming impact-makers, demonstrating their individual growth and the team culture into which they have been immersed.

With five and a half sacks, seven tackles for loss, seven passes batted down and 19 quarterback pressures, Karlaftis has been among the more productive rookie defensive ends selected in the 2022 draft. Of the four defensive ends taken before him, only Aidan Hutchinson of the Detroit Lions has more sacks.

Let’s take a look at what Karlaftis did during Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Denver Broncos.

Setting the edge

Karlaftis wasted no time setting the tone. He made his presence known on on the game’s second play.

Reading the play perfectly, he quickly engages the right tackle, driving him into the backfield. The play is designed to be a toss to the outside — but since the play-side tackle has been blown up, the running back has to take a wider path to get to the outside. This gives the Kansas City defense a chance to swarm. Karlaftis makes the play by destroying the blocker in front of him, getting off the block and making the tackle.

We have seen some instances where Karlaftis has struggled to set the edge on outside running plays. But on this snap, reading the tackle’s reach block — and then opening his hips and working laterally to the outside — allowed him to quickly recognize (and attack) the play.

Rushing the passer

While stopping the run is important for winning games, rushing the passer — and finishing those rushes — is critical for winning them. On Sunday, the Chiefs’ defense was able to collect four sacks. Karlaftis was part of the party.

Denver uses heavy formations (extra backs or tight ends) to run the ball — but the team also uses them to create play-action passing opportunities for quarterback Russell Wilson.

On this play, veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap gets past the pulling guard and then works around the running back to force Wilson off his spot. On the other side of the line, Karlaftis starts out by rushing wide — but once he recognizes that Wilson is getting ready to move out of the pocket, he puts on the brakes, disengages from the left tackle, restarts his blind-side rush and smacks Wilson down.

The motor

All season, Karlaftis’ effort has been just as it was advertised coming out of Purdue. During a critical moment in Sunday’s game, his relentlessness helped him make a big play.

With just 16 seconds left in the first half, the Broncos have the ball on the Kansas City 30-yard line. At the very least, they are in position for a field goal attempt before halftime.

Not one to sit on his heels, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dials up a well-timed blitz, using Karlaftis and defensive tackle Chris Jones to occupy the offensive line’s attention — allowing rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie to get through the line untouched and deliver a vicious hit that knocks the ball from Wilson’s hands.

Even as the blitz gets home, Karlatifis does a nice job. He gets around the left tackle by bending the edge to get close to the quarterback. When he realizes the ball is on the ground, he turns on the jets and charges forward to get it.

This turnover — taking place when Denver was in a position to score — made a huge impact in the game, which Kansas City won by only three points. Karlaftis’ all-out hustle and effort earned him his first career fumble recovery — and helped earn his team a victory.

The bottom line

With the postseason just ahead, the Chiefs will need Karlaftis to step up and play bigger than a rookie. With 16 games under his belt, it looks like his confidence is growing game by game. His effort and motor have always been there, but now he is beginning to reap the rewards of his hard work.

Facing elite quarterbacks in the postseason, Kansas City’s pass rush will be critically important. While Jones is leading the way — and looks like a candidate for defensive player of the year — he cannot do the job alone. Karlaftis’ late-season emergence is particularly encouraging. With the attention that Jones receives on a weekly basis, Karlaftis will be getting more favorable matchups.

Despite his early-season struggles, Karlaftis is turning in a respectable rookie season. But in the NFL, the playoffs are the true proving ground. In the coming weeks, the rookie will have ample opportunities to prove he can be more than just an average player.

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