It’s no secret that the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive performances have been pivotal in the season’s 5-1 start — nor is it a secret that the unit’s heart and soul is defensive lineman Chris Jones, who is leading the way with yet another spectacular season.
“Chris is on a mission — like we all are — to play really good defense,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo told reporters on Thursday. “He stayed in great shape when he was away... he’s just naturally gifted and in shape; I don’t think he’ll ever not look good. Even when he is my age, he’ll probably still look like a stud.
“So it begins there. And then he’s always been in the system — it’s Year 5 now. I think those parts are comfortable. I think the guys around him help him out; we have other guys making some production and doing some things that I think help everybody.
“But I give the credit to Chris and what he’s doing.”
Despite missing all of the offseason (and Week 1) with a contract holdout, Jones still leads the team in several statistical categories — including sacks (5.5), tackles-for-loss (4) and quarterback hits (11).
The key to Jones’ production — aside from being a 6-foot-6, 310-pound pass-rushing behemoth with speed, strength and a high motor — is his versatility. Spagnuolo and the Chiefs’ coaching staff can have Jones line up all over the defensive line, creating mismatches he can effortlessly exploit.
“I think one of the things that Coach Spags does a great job [with] is he wants players to get in positions to win one-on-ones — and [then] give them one-on-ones,” explained defensive line coach Joe Cullen. “That’s enabled Chris to move outside, inside — all across the front — in a situation that allows the defense to do that.”
However, as Cullen points out, the ability to seamlessly switch between defensive tackle and defensive end is not as easy as it sounds — which makes what Jones does that much more special. It’s also hard to move defensive ends like George Karlaftis and Charles Omenihu inside — but Spagnuolo and Cullen believe it helps their scheme work.
“When you move an end inside,” said Cullen, “like we do with Mike Danna — like we’ve done with George [and] Charles — sometimes it happens so fast in there. When you’re out on the edge, you have space to work; it doesn’t happen as fast. But inside, it’s tight in there; it’s crowded. Some guys don’t like it — but I think you’ve got to train guys to do that.“
Despite this versatility, however, the Chiefs remain careful about deciding where (and when) Jones should line up in a particular spot. The team will usually move Jones outside on an obvious third-down passing situation, giving him a better one-on-one opportunity to pressure the quarterback. Even so, the team is very confident that Jones can make big plays from both the inside and outside.
This is despite the fact that the 2021 effort to actually convert Jones to a defensive end didn’t work out so well.
“I think he was full-time out there,” said Cullen, who wasn’t yet with the team at that time. “[But now], Chris isn’t full-time out there. He goes out there on some situations in third down. [But] in any of our base [alignments], he’s always a tackle — and there will be situational things where we’ll move him out there and you get a lot more pass rush in those situations.
“But he can rush from anywhere, at any time, in any place. Chris works hard at it.”
While this versatility to play anywhere along the line usually emphasizes Jones’ elite pass-rushing abilities, it also helps him make an impact in other ways that often go unnoticed. Cullen specifically highlighted Jones’ ability to draw double-teams — and be a force against the run — wherever he’s lined up.
“There are times in there where he draws a lot of attention,” Cullen observed. “So he gets a double-team. Or maybe he’ll even have three guys: he’ll have a chipper and then two guys on him right away — sliding to him.
“So some of those situations enable the other guys to get free. And then in the run game — when he’s knocking people back and taking up two blockers — those are some of the things that sometimes you don’t get a lot of credit for.
“But [we] coaches know that it helps someone else make a play.”