In this weekly series for Arrowhead Pride, I'll ask one big question about the Kansas City Chiefs’ season. Last week, I wrote about whether the Chiefs should extend cornerback L'Jarius Sneed.
This week, we're discussing the impending return of one Chiefs defensive end:
What does Charles Omenihu's return mean for the Chiefs' defense?
The most significant story about the Chiefs' season through six weeks is their defense. Regardless of your metric, the Chiefs have been an elite defense this year. Through six weeks, the Chiefs rank sixth in expected points added (EPA) and success rate, third in dropback EPA and second in dropback success rate. The run defense has lagged, ranking 29th in rushing EPA and 23rd in success rate. However, if you remove the Week 6 game against the Denver Broncos, the Chiefs are 17th in rushing success rate but remain 29th in rushing EPA. While the advanced stats aren't great by any means, the Chiefs haven't been killed by the run, not allowing a 100-yard rusher through six weeks.
Before the season, I asked whether this Chiefs' defense was the best they've produced since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired in 2019 — and through six weeks, the answer is definitively yes. Every part of this defense is playing well. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is playing just as well as last year. Cornerbacks L'Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie are blanketing top wide receivers. Defensive end George Karlaftis has taken a step forward. With the addition of linebacker Drue Tranquill alongside internal development, the position has never been better for the Chiefs since Derrick Johnson left.
Typically, most teams can't get a boost in personnel without a trade, but the Chiefs are in a rare position to add talent to an already formidable defense. After serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, Omenihu returns to give the Chiefs a talent boost on the defensive line.
When the Chiefs signed Omenihu in free agency, I was rather excited. Omenihu brings an element to this defense they haven't had in recent history. Omenihu does bring positive traits as a defensive end. His build resembles a pterodactyl, with his endless wingspan (85 1/2" inches) and arm length (36"). His extraordinary length gives him untapped upside as a run defender. If defensive line coach Joe Cullen can teach him the fine points of that role, Omenihu can be a dominant force against the run.
But it wasn't the length that made me ecstatic about signing Omenihu. It was rather his ability to rush the passer from the interior. For the 49ers, Omenihu was a tremendous weapon as an interior pass rusher. His length overwhelmed most guards, but he also had crazy balance and agility for such a large man. Omenihu flashed the ability to squeeze through the tiniest of gaps. Combine that with his strength and length, and Omenihu wrecked a lot of game plans on third downs.
(green light again, sorry)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) March 15, 2023
I mean look at Omenihu lol. His penetration skills and ability to get narrow going upfield from a 1T is insane lol. Great balance and speed pic.twitter.com/Old7k1xInV
Omenihu's can cover so much ground in short distances on the interior. Two-hand swipe into slide protection generally shouldn't be split by a guy who's 6'6 and 280 lbs, but Omenihu's so explosive and has such a dynamic swipe move to win on three surfaces - inside, outside, power pic.twitter.com/dBdqQIioyM— Nate Christensen (@natech32) March 15, 2023
In terms of what role he plays on this defense, I don't have many questions.
It's difficult to parse too much from the preseason, but Omenihu's preseason is particularly notable since the Chiefs wanted to get him as many reps as possible, knowing he'd be gone for six weeks. In that limited sample, Omenihu's role was quite clear: be a big defensive end on base downs against the run, then kick inside to defensive tackle to rush on third downs.
As he ramps up and gets more reps, Omenihu's role may closely resemble that. Omenihu has already proven he's more than capable of playing that role in the NFL, and the Chiefs have always found utility in those players. Defensive end Mike Danna has filled this role quite capably, proving to be a positive run defender on early downs while being a force rushing inside. Omenihu has even more talent than Danna, so I expect him to thrive in that role.
My only real questions about Omenihu's addition relate to how the Chiefs play their other defensive ends. Defensive end George Karlaftis's role won't change, but I do have questions about what this means for Danna and Felix Anudike-Uzomah.
How much run does Omenihu get on early downs? Will the Chiefs reduce Danna's role in order to insert Omenihu against the run? Danna's been a proven run defender for years, but the team has a vested interest in getting Omenihu on the field. Will Omenihu even be an upgrade over Danna as a run defender?
Ultimately, the tape will sort this out, but I'm curious to see if the Chiefs view Omenihu as a third-down specialist or a full-time defensive lineman.
Speaking of third downs, Omenihu's role is pretty clearly defined. He's going to be an interior pass rusher for the majority of obvious pass rush snaps. It's his best attribute as a player, and the Chiefs have already explored that heavily in the preseason. The significant change comes with Danna against Anudike-Uzomah.
In theory, Anudike-Uzomah makes sense as a guy who wins around the corner with speed and flexibility to complement the Chiefs' other pass rushers. However, Danna is just playing better than him right now. Anudike-Uzomah isn't playing poorly, but Danna's been tremendous all year.
Are the Chiefs willing to sacrifice some of Anudike-Uzomah's reps to get Danna on the field?
Ideally, you want to give Anudike-Uzomah as many reps as possible to develop, but their best pass-rush package likely doesn't involve him. This shouldn't be a concern; he's a rookie. Most rookie defensive ends aren't on the field on critical pass rush downs. For me, it's more interesting as a tracking point for Anudike-Uzomah's development. The Chiefs have a vested interest in developing Anudike-Uzomah, but they're pressed for opportunities currently. How they distribute snaps will be interesting to monitor.
The bottom line
The Chiefs' defense is already one of the best in the NFL, and they're adding a proven talent as a pass rusher. It generally costs teams assets to bring in pass-rush help with a trade, but Omenihu didn't require that. I'm excited to see how he looks in this defense.
Omenihu's absence wasn't a deterrent for the Chiefs through six weeks, but his addition adds another layer to this defense. To win playoff games, you need as many tools in your toolbox as possible, and Omenihu's return adds to that.