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The Chiefs’ unselfish defensive line helps Chris Jones dominate

In 2023, Kansas City’s star pass rusher has been getting a boost from a strong, selfless supporting cast.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It has been five weeks since the long, drawn-out contract negotiations between the Kansas City Chiefs and defensive lineman Chris Jones finally concluded. In the five games played since then, Jones has 5.5 sacks. That leads the team — and is tied for the league’s seventh-most.

That’s a positive sign for Jones, who agreed to statistical incentives in his reworked contract. But his individual dominance has only been one part of a Kansas City defense that has begun the season as one of the NFL’s top units.

The Chiefs have allowed the second-fewest points per game — and the fifth-fewest yards per play. While Jones has racked up sacks, the unit also has the league’s second-best pressure rate (29.7%).

While it may sometimes look like a one-man show, Jones is making it clear that his success depends on his teammates.

“I’m super grateful for the guys in the room,” he shared with reporters on Wednesday. “We have an unselfish group who allows me to play free — and be free — among the defensive line... The guys [are] buying in; they allow me to do that, so it’s a collective effort.”

Jones’ flexibility has been a key to the defense’s early success. He has lined up over (or outside) the offensive tackle on 64% of his snaps — and outside the tackle 20% of the time. His opportunities off the edge are primarily coming on passing downs, allowing him to find the best pathway for him to penetrate the pocket and disrupt the quarterback.

“Somebody as good as he is, you have to move him around a little bit,” head coach Andy Reid explained to reporters on Wednesday. “He’s a good-enough athlete where he can do that; [he] has a good-enough feel for things where you can do that with him. Not everybody can do that, but he gives you that flexibility.”

According to Reid, this gives defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Joe Cullen opportunities both outside and inside — to “mix it up a little bit.”

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

But in order for Jones to move around the defensive formation so much, his teammates must also be versatile. When Jones kicks outside, defensive ends George Karlaftis and Mike Danna often slide into interior positions.

That’s where Cullen comes in. He’s spent his two seasons in Kansas City teaching his players to be positionless.

“Joe is a great defensive line coach” declared Reid. “He understands what it takes to play both, he trains all the guys to do that... They all have a little piece of that, working inside and outside... That’s a different animal when you get inside there; you’re surrounded.”

Jones believes his fellow defensive linemen — particularly the younger ones — are stepping up to a tougher challenge than many fans may realize.

“We’ve asked people to mature a lot,” he reflected. “George Karlaftis [and] Mike Danna [both] getting a starting role for this year — George coming in his second year; the first year he is a starter. We’re asking those guys to mature.”

Jones also noted that veterans like Tershawn Wharton and Matt Dickerson are also stepping up.

“We have a lot of guys that have been in [and] around this system, know the ins-and-outs of this defense, and [are] comfortable with this defense. I think comfortability is a huge thing in being successful — especially among a defensive line. Because when players are comfortable, they can play lights out without thinking.”

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

No player seems as comfortable as Jones, who looks like an elite pass rusher when coming from any position. In fact, he sees himself as a “hybird” in Kansas City’s scheme.

“I can play inside [or] I can play outside; [there’s] no specific position,” he explained. “We did the ‘end’ thing for a whole year. Now it’s more back-and-forth — and I’m very comfortable with it. I had a couple [of] years in Spags’ defense — [to] where I know the end position [and] I know the tackle position. I know when I can take my chances.”

As Jones picks and chooses his spots from snap to snap, his teammates adjust to him — understanding that it’s not just about Jones padding his box score. Instead, it’s helping the whole defense succeed.

“Everyone is unselfish,” reiterated Jones. “I think that’s a huge part of it: playing for one another — [and] not, per se, chasing stats. I think that’s where success happens: when everyone is focused on one goal. It’s more achievable than everyone being focused on different things.”

“I think we’re all focused on one goal: that’s about being better than we were last week — adding our 1% every day. By the time we make it to January or December, we’ll continue to make strides — and be where we want to be.”

Jones is on pace to hit some of the incentives in his contract — including being named a first-team All-Pro player. Even after missing the season’s first game, he now leads all interior defensive linemen in sacks.

If he does reach those numbers, it won’t be at the expense of the unit as a whole. It will be because his teammates in the back end are covering well — and his partners in the trenches are earning attention from their opponents.

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