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How the Chiefs can manage without DE Charles Omenihu in Super Bowl LVIII

The injured defensive end was one of Kansas City’s top pass rushers, so the team must plan for his absence.

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NFL: JAN 13 AFC Wild Card - Dolphins at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into Super Bowl LVIII this Sunday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the Kansas City Chiefs will be without a significant contributor: defensive end Charles Omenihu tore his ACL during the first half of the team’s 17-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. It happened on the very next defensive snap after Omenihu had forced a turnover with a strip-sack of quarterback Lamar Jackson.

That play demonstrated the tools Omenihu has used to become one of the Chiefs’ most impactful pass rushers: he won around the outside edge, finishing the play with a textbook chop at the ball. It wasn’t his first strip-sack of the season — and it’s just one of the things Kansas City will miss during Sunday’s matchup with Omenihu’s former team: the San Francisco 49ers.

The Chiefs’ defense will also have to adapt against the run: Omenihu’s large frame could have eaten up a lot of space, slowing San Francisco’s rushing attack. But passing downs are where his absence will be the most obvious.

Let’s see what Kansas City could do to make up for his loss.

Empowering the starters

In the playoffs, Omenihu has primarily been aligning as an edge rusher. A lot of his big plays this season have come from that position — usually on the left side opposite fellow defensive end George Karlaftis.

After he left the game in Baltimore, the Chiefs began to align defensive tackle Chris Jones on the left edge more often. On Sunday, we’ll likely see Jones there at least some of the time — where he’ll match up against All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams.

In those cases, the responsibility for disrupting the pocket will be on the interior rushers: defensive linemen Tershawn Wharton and Mike Danna. Quick wins from the inside could throw off the timing of San Francisco’s passing plays — especially if the 49ers are giving Jones extra attention on the outside.

But matching up with Williams too often will waste opportunities for Jones to blow up a play. So the Chiefs should continue to allow Jones to pick his spots on passing downs — especially later in the game. While the 49ers might not double-team Jones when he’s matched up against Williams, they must do it when he rushes from the inside.

So the Chiefs will probably get creative on the left side — but on the right side, it might be pretty simple: let defensive end George Karlaftis cook. During the playoffs, he has earned pressure on 12% of his pass-rushing snaps while batting down one pass and getting a sack on another passing play. But since he has also had to contain quarterbacks Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson when they scrambled, he has also had to play smart — which he has done.

At times, we have seen Karlaftis take chances from his contain rush, fighting inside to collapse the pocket from the right edge. If it’s out of control, this can be dangerous — but the second-year player sets up his counter moves well and keeps blockers on their heels by threatening with speed.

He will be matched up against the 49ers’ right tackle Colton McKivitz, who has allowed a team-high eight pressures over two playoff games. San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy can use his mobility to make pass rushers pay for being too aggressive — but Karlaftis has the movement skills to track him as he rushes.

Utilizing the rookie

Last week, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo revealed that rookie defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah will ‘probably’ have to step up in Omenihu’s absence.

It won’t be the first time the Kansas State product has had to fill in. Omenihu was suspended for the first six games of this season, so Anudike-Uzomah got some playing time. He collected nine tackles, half a sack, four quarterback hits and a forced fumble on 99 defensive snaps, which was only 28% of the total in those games.

In these plays, what stands out is Anudike-Uzomah’s ability to attack an offensive lineman’s inside shoulder to create penetration toward the front of the pocket. That could be helpful against the 49ers. Anudike-Uzomah could line up over Williams — and then quickly shoot inside, trying to catch the interior blockers off guard.

When the rookie is lined up over the left tackle, that will be the best way to use him; in general, Williams is likely to bully him. So when No. 97 is on the field, watch for him to be used like a battering ram, disrupting the pocket to create opportunities for others.

Selective blitzing

Of course, the Chiefs will also be blitzing on passing downs. Over the last two games, the team has generated pressure on over 19% of its blitzes by off-ball defenders.

But the 49ers’ skill-position players are more dangerous than any group the Chiefs have faced in this postseason. So blitzes will need to be called carefully — and should primarily come from the edge through outside linebackers or slot defenders.

The 49ers will want to attack the middle of the field — and blitzing to the front of the pocket can leave that area too exploitable. So being without one of its edge defenders, the defense will need to be creative in how it attacks the edge.

All season, linebacker Leo Chenal has shown a knack for getting after the quarterback. Linebacker Drue Tranquill leads the second and third levels with four postseason pressures. Using either of them as the fourth pass rusher in a formation with three down linemen could create another layer of deception.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ defense won’t need to change much during Omenihu’s absence — but in Sunday’s passing situations, players (and coaches) will need to step up their games.

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