Arguably the season's biggest story is the improved play of the Kansas City Chiefs defense. Through six weeks, it’s proven to be elite. Through six weeks, the Chiefs rank sixth in expected points added (EPA) and success rate on defense. Even while playing tough offenses like the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, the defense has proven capable every week.
There are many reasons for this. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is playing great. Cornerbacks L'Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie have blanketed top wide receivers every week. The addition of linebacker Drue Tranquill, along with internal development at the position, has led to some of the best linebacker play the Chiefs have enjoyed in years.
However, one part of the Chiefs' defense has gone underrated: nose tackle Derrick Nnadi. After seeing his snaps reduced for four straight years, Nnadi has suddenly looked like his old self again. He's been a force against the run this season in a way he hasn't been since 2019.
So, what is Nnadi doing that is causing his resurgent play? Let's dive into the film on what Nnadi's play has looked like:
Playing with closed hips
It's anecdotal but Nnadi's overall torque and agility just seem improved this year. This play is impressive. Combo does move him some but keeps hips closed, low base, able to keep outside shoulder free to help on the tackle pic.twitter.com/vRmzIRY4TN— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 17, 2023
When you're playing nose tackle, it's critical to be able to play with "closed hips." Keeping your hips parallel with the line of scrimmage is critical to establishing proper leverage, particularly against zone blocks. If you have your hips parallel to the sideline in an "open" stance, that leaves you vulnerable to cutbacks since you aren't able to spin around and tackle the running back.
Keeping your hips closed while maintaining your anchor is difficult, and Nnadi had struggled there in recent years. However, he's looked so much more comfortable keeping a proper stance this year. Nnadi doesn't have overwhelming length, but his thick lower half and squatty stature help him keep good leverage.
Through six weeks, Nnadi has been excellent against zone blocks, which starts with his leverage and torque.
Improved explosiveness and strength in hands
Truly wonder if just being healthier made the difference for Nnadi, because the overall pop and explosiveness he's playing with is so impressive. Pad level is significantly better as well, getting underneath pads and using his getoff to win at the POA pic.twitter.com/zuFsWSK8vU— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 17, 2023
Nnadi has dealt with various injuries through the years, and I felt the biggest deterioration in his game was his first step. Nnadi was slow getting off the snap, which made everything much more difficult for him. He couldn't get hands on offensive linemen first, which put him at a major disadvantage in every situation. If you're playing slower and reacting more, it's almost impossible to function as a nose tackle.
However, Nnadi has looked more explosive this year. His first step looks quicker, and he fires into blocks with heavy hands to reset the line of scrimmage. Nnadi has never been the quickest player, but it's still a major step up from recent years.
Tracking the football
Nnadi's always been good at IDing the ball but the improved strength and leverage has helped him with these zone blocks. Notice his eyes on the outside shoulder as his outside shoulder is free to fallback. Late disengage is perfect, but he's always been good tracking the ball pic.twitter.com/27cqqzdrZN— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 17, 2023
One aspect of Nnadi's game I've always appreciated is his ability to track the football. One underrated part of playing defensive line is that you have to be able to mirror the running back, which requires you to have your shoulder free to peek and identify where the ball is. Even with Nnadi's struggles in recent years, he's always been capable in this area.
This play is a good example of this.
The Jets are running a zone run to the right, and Nnadi is playing the backside A-gap. He keeps his outside shoulder free, pinning the center's inside shoulder and not allowing him to wrap his hips around him. Once the running back cuts back inside, Nnadi's ready to disengage and tackle him. By keeping a good pad level and tracking the ball, Nnadi reduces the gap for the running back and helps make the tackle on the play.
Nnadi's game vs. Minnesota
Highlight of clips vs. Minnesota for Nnadi. He was outrageous in this game. Being able to defend the run from 2-high is hard but when your nose is making the plays Nnadi was in this game, that tradeoff is so much easier pic.twitter.com/A93IPRWY7c— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 17, 2023
Before I decided to write about how the Chiefs limited Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson, I considered just writing about Nnadi's performance against the Vikings. The Chiefs predominantly played out of 2-high safety shells, which meant they were down a run defender to stop the run. Minnesota tried hard to take advantage of this, deciding to go under center and running the ball to attack the Chiefs' light boxes.
However, Nnadi had other plans. He consistently blew up what the Vikings were trying to do in the run game. Nnadi was a consistent issue for the Vikings, who couldn't come close to blocking him in their zone-blocking scheme.
The Chiefs have predominantly based on 2-high safety shells for two years now. It allows them to keep a lid on explosive passes and change the coverage looks postsnap. That type of defense is in vogue in the NFL right now, but most teams struggle running that defense, since they lack the nose, tackle to reset the line of scrimmage. Nnadi proving he can handle that again changes the calculus for the Chiefs' defense.
The bottom line
I'll own my incorrect take: I was mad the Chiefs didn't replace Nnadi this past offseason.
I was pleading for them to upgrade at nose tackle. After the draft, when it was clear the Chiefs weren't adding any help at that position, I was very worried about what that spot would look like this year.
Nnadi has proven me wrong in every way. I've been critical of his play these past few years, but he looks healthy and rejuvenated. His play has radically improved this year, and I'm unsure if it is just better health.
Coming into the year, my biggest concern about the defense was the nose tackle position. I was worried about the lack of depth and talent at the position. I wasn't expecting Nnadi to have a resurgent season, but he has been terrific so far. Staying healthy and consistent is essential, but in my opinion, Nnadi's improved play is the last puzzle piece to this defense being elite. If he continues to be a force against the run, I struggle to see how to beat the Chiefs' defense.