I never thought it would get to this point.
Thoughout the offseason, I never even considered the possibility that the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive tackle Chris Jones wouldn't be available when the team kicked off against the Detroit Lions on Thursday night.
But right now, that’s the reality facing the Chiefs.
Last Tuesday, Kansas City put Jones on the “Reserve/Did Not Report” list, meaning he’s not currently a part of the team’s active roster. While Jones could report at any time — with or without a contract extension — there’s no guarantee he’d be available on Thursday. The Chiefs can also request a two-week roster exemption for Jones, allowing them to have another player available as Jones ramps up to play.
In short: we have no idea when Jones will begin playing. Whether he holds out until Week 8 (like he’s threatened) or he only misses a week or two, the Chiefs now have to prepare to play without him.
General manager Brett Veach has said the team feels confident defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton — who has been recovering from last season’s ACL injury — is going to play against the Lions. So the Chiefs will have veterans Wharton and Derrick Nnadi, rookie Keondre Coburn and newly-acquired veteran Neil Farrell available to play on the inside. Veteran Danny Shelton could also be elevated from the practice squad for up to three games.
On early downs
The first concern is how the Kansas City will deploy its defensive tackles on early downs. In 2022, Jones played the run better than any other year in his career. He also played whopping 80% of the team’s defensive snaps. That made him a presence on any down, regardless of play-call. Teams had trouble running at him — let alone trying to stop him from getting pressure on the quarterback.
So without Jones, the first question is run defense. The only other 3-technique player on the roster — that is, a player who lines up between the offensive guard and tackle and is considered a good pass rusher — is Wharton. He’s s a nice utility pass rusher, but asking him play against the run is less than ideal; he lacks the density or length to hold up at the point of attack. If Wharton is on the field on first down, teams are going to run at him ruthlessly. Given his skillset, keeping him in a rotational pass-rushing role seems ideal.
If you’re not playing Wharton, you’re putting two nose tackles on the field on early downs. On paper, that sounds great. Having two defensive tackles plugging the gaps allows you to keep your linebackers flowing to the ball more quickly because they don’t have to take on interior blocks. In theory, the Chiefs’ run defense would likely improve with any combination of two nose tackles.
Here’s the problem: play-action passes.
With any pairing of their nose tackles, the Chiefs aren’t going to generate significant pass rush. So if an offense runs play-action passes, it’s going to have all day to find open space against Kansas City’s defense.
Blitzing your linebackers isn’t a solution, either. If a linebacker must blitz to cover for the defensive tackles, that’s one less second-level defender working against play-action. In theory, having two big defensive tackles should allow linebackers can play the run more slowly in order to stop routes behind them — but that isn’t the best way to use the Chiefs’ linebackers. And even that assumes both nose tackles could hold up against the run — which I am not convinced would occur.
On passing downs
Finally, the biggest question about the Chiefs’ defense without Jones is the pressure it can produce on obvious passing downs — specifically, the lack of interior pressure. This concern was compounded when we learned that defensive end Charles Omenihu would be suspended for the first six games of the season.
But compared to the issues with the run defense, I feel better about the Chiefs’ options to rush the passer from the interior. Last season, defensive end Mike Danna found a role as an interior pass rusher — and Wharton is back. We might even see linebacker Leo Chenal get some pass-rushing opportunities — something he did exceptionally well at Wisconsin. Between those three, the team would have some options for interior pressure.
The problem is that when he’s on the field, Jones attracts a lot of attention.
Without him, you’re asking Danna, rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah and second-year player George Karlaftis to win without any help. Kansas City can’t scheme as many advantageous looks without Jones, so these young players are going to have to step up.
So we can expect that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will blitz. While this has its drawbacks, Spagnuolo can find some success by being creative with his pressures. And once it gets to third down, the Chiefs’ pressures can speed up the quarterback enough to compensate for Jones’ quick pass rush wins.
The bottom line
Without Jones, things are going to look rough. Spagnuolo (and defensive line coach Joe Cullen) can draw up some plans without him, but there’s just no easy way to replace an All-Pro pass rusher in the middle of the defensive line.
Plain and simple: without Jones, the Chiefs' defense will struggle. The hope is that the offense can compensate for it. For Kansas City to repeat as Super Bowl champions, it’s likely that the team is going to need Jones on the field... sooner rather than later.