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Examining the Chiefs’ pass rush against the Lions without Chris Jones

Chris Jones ended his holdout on Monday. How did the Chiefs' pass rush stack up without their star player in their first game?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Kansas City Chiefs fell short in their opening game of 2023, losing to the Detroit Lions 21-20. The offense drew most of the scrutiny, but the defense put together an interesting performance without their star pass rusher.

While Chris Jones was still holding out (he has since signed), the defense had to get creative to fill the void.

Breaking it down

The defense only allowed 14 points total in the game, and the defensive front played a role. The Chiefs ran a few different defensive line fronts, but they mostly went with their base front and their sub front, which is a speed rush package.

The base front was good against the run but could not generate pressure without blitzing. The sub fronts were significantly better, generating eight pressures and a sack.

To make sure they could hold up against the run and also pressure on key downs, the Chiefs had to run their base front on early downs and running situations while employing their sub fronts in passing situations. This worked early, but as the game went on, the Lions started to mix up when they chose to throw the ball.

The second half of the game saw the Lions drastically increase the number of passes they threw on early downs, which gave them chances to throw with little resistance from the Chiefs’ base front.

Base fronts

The Chiefs started the game with George Karalftis and Mike Danna at the defensive end positions with Derrick Nnaddi and Matt Dickerson at the 1-technique and 3-techniques, respectively. Detroit boasted a strong offensive line and run game in 2022, so the Chiefs had to ensure that they would not be blown off the ball and going with this run-stuffing front seemed to be the answer.

The Lions only averaged 3.5 yards rushing for the game, so the heavier base front did its job, but they did not have the same success in the pass rush department. In the fourth quarter, the Lions ran a play-action pass out of heavy personnel on first down that went for 33 yards and would set up the game-winning touchdown.

With Nnadi and Dickerson on the inside, it was apparent that the Chiefs were looking to play the run. Felix Anudike-Uzomah and Malik Herring were lined up on the edge and provided little pass rush after initially looking to play the run.

Goff had all day to set up and throw the ball, and he found Josh Reynolds on a deep comeback route. This play illustrated the Lions being able to take advantage of the Chiefs having to play situational fronts based on down and distance.

Sub fronts

The Chiefs found their best success rushing Goff with sub-fronts, and their most successful were Anudike-Uzomah, Wharton, Danna and Karlaftis.

The Chiefs’ “speed” front put Danna in a wide 3-technique, in which he utilized quickness and leverage. On the snap, he fired off the ball and landed an inside hand on the chest of the left guard. Using excellent leverage, he pressed the guard into the pocket, making Goff uncomfortable.

Goff did like what he saw and stepped up, but Danna quickly disengaged, bringing down Goff for the only sack of the game.

The little pressure that the Chiefs created off the edge was created by Anudike-Uzomah. In only 13 snaps as a pass rusher, he displayed what he was able to do with a small sample size.

On third down-and-long, the Chiefs come out with a sub front and show blitz with linebackers walked up on the line of scrimmage. As the ball is snapped, Anudike-Uzomah fired it off, landing inside hands on left tackle Taylor Decker. With great leverage, he drove Decker into the backfield and disengaged the block to force a faster throw from Goff.

The pass was complete, but it was short of the sticks. Seeing flashes this early into Anudike-Uzomah’s career is encouraging for what is to come.

Unfortunately, with the lack of pass rush out of base, the Chiefs tipped off their possible pass-rush plans as the game progressed. On a critical third down, the Chiefs used their speed front to set up a blitz.

L’Jarius Sneed lined up in the slot but came firing into the backfield on the snap. On the opposite side of the field, Karlaftis dropped into coverage. Sneed gets close, but he cannot get home, and Goff finds his man just over the arms of Karlaftis.

Even though the Chiefs' speed front did apply pressure, Spagnuolo did not trust them to get home on one of the biggest plays of the game and elected to blitz. Seeing Sneed line up near the line of scrimmage would have given the Lions the indication they needed, and Goff stuck with his progression long enough.

The bottom line

The Chiefs' defense was far from the reason they lost to the Lions, and the defensive line did an admirable job of stopping the run and helping keep the team in the game.

Even though they did play well it was apparent that they were missing their key disrupter, especially late in the game.

With the holdout over for Jones, he is now headed back to a defensive line that turned in a good showing vs. a potent offense. With Jones back in the mix, the Chiefs will now have a game-changing force, that will allow them to be less predictable, and make Spagnolo’s creative fronts and pressures even harder to get a bead on.

It should also be encouraging that there were bright spots from players like Danna and Anudike-Uzomah, who showed flashes and substance all game.

The front came up just short on Thursday. This weekend, we will have a chance to see the pass rush near its full strength.

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