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Why the Chiefs have recently been struggling to rush the passer

In recent games, Kansas City’s pass rush hasn’t been up to the standards it had established in 2023.

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

For most of the 2023 season, the Kansas City Chiefs’ pass rush has been a great complement to its elite secondary. Defensive tackle Chris Jones has continued to produce like a Defensive Player of the Year and second-year defensive end George Karlaftis has been becoming one of the league’s more productive pass rushers. Defensive end Mike Danna is having a career year — and since finishing his suspension, Charles Omenihu has provided a nice inside-out option for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

In the past two weeks, however, the pass rush has been off. The Las Vegas Raiders and Green Bay Packers were way too comfortable in their pockets, which allowed deep downfield concepts to develop. While the defensive line generated more pressure in the second halves of both games, it has made few contributions since Week 11 — when it destroyed the offensive line of the Philadelphia Eagles.

What’s been going on? Should we be concerned about the playoffs? Let’s look at the film.

Four-man rushes have struggled

In recent weeks, the entire defensive line has had difficulty beating one-on-one blocks. While Karlaftis and Danna have had terrific seasons, both have been struggling to win their matchups. In particular, it seems like Karlaftis’ pass-rushing repertoire has fallen off; he’s mainly been relying on his bull rush, rather than mixing in the counters he’s flashed all season.

Outside of Jones, Omenihu is the only defensive lineman who has been winning with any regularity. While he’s recently been using his length and power to find some success, it simply hasn’t been enough.

As we see in these reps against the Packers, quarterback Jordan Love is able to take many extra hitches — simply because nobody is pressuring him in the pocket.

It’s easy to say, “The Chiefs just need to win more pass-rushing reps” — but that’s just the way it is. As a group, they have to find a way back to what they’ve been doing for almost two years.

Designed pressures have also stuggled

But it’s not just about the four-man rush. In recent weeks, Kansas City has also struggled with its designed pressures. Stunts, blitzes and simulated pressures just haven’t been creating the same amount of chaos.

On this play from Sunday, the stunt is designed to get Jones from a wide alignment to the back side A-gap. Omenihu (and linebacker Jack Cochrane) both slant to occupy the front side A and B-gaps, but they don’t create a lot of extra space for Jones to come through. On top of that, it takes Jones a long time to travel across three or four gaps before he can come close to hitting home.

To me, this is just a poorly designed pressure. Asking Jones to cover that much ground leads to Love having enough time to progress through all of his reads.

Even when the Chiefs are sending extra bodies in the last two weeks, they’re not creating the same amount of pressure we have typically been seeing.

This play is a good example. The Chiefs are sending six: all four of the defensive linemen (and Cochrane) through their aligned gaps, plus safety Mike Edwards coming from 10 yards of depth.

None of them, however, create any pressure. While Edwards’ blitz is designed more to deal with a quarterback scramble, no one else creates any pressure, either. Love has time to take multiple hitches — and progress back to the back side post for the touchdown.

That’s unacceptable on every level — and it won’t fly in the playoffs.

Play-action reps can be tricky, since teams often move the pass-rushers’ launch points — but on Sunday, the line’s performance against play-action was abominable. On most of Love’s play-action snaps, he wasn’t even close to being touched.

Just look at these plays. Love is able to sit back and take multiple additional hitches to let downfield concepts develop; he can throw wherever he wants. Nobody on the defensive line is producing any pressure — which makes it impossible for the secondary to stop these concepts.

Make no mistake: defending against play-action is difficult. But if the defensive front cannot win their matchups, no coverage can stop it. Unfortunately, this play-action issue is now on tape — and I would expect teams to hammer it until Kansas City can find a way to once again create havoc against it.

The bottom line

363 days ago, I wrote about how the Chiefs needed to change everything about their defensive end evaluations to deal with Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow in the postseason. After the team’s 27-24 regular-season loss to the Bengals — where the pass rush couldn’t do anything — I panicked about how the unit would perform in a postseason rematch.

I was very wrong!

So this time, I’m not going to panic. The Kansas City pass rush has had two straight bad performances — but the overall talent is too good (and Spagnuolo is too crafty with his scheme) to consistently be beaten on designed pressures. If my optimism is misplaced, I’ll own it — but right now, I’m still feeling good about the Kansas City defensive line.

That said, it needs to get better fast. On Sunday afternoon, the team will face the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, who might be playing his best football. Against him, the defensive line can’t afford another bad day.

In the past, the Chiefs have been able to pick it up against the stiffest competition, so I don’t doubt they’ll do it again. But once Sunday’s game begins, Kansas City’s pass rush will be the main thing I’m watching.

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