The 2019 Kansas City Chiefs dealt with a ton of attrition in their defensive line. Every single defensive lineman except Tanoh Kpassagnon or Derrick Nnadi missed some point of the season last year. It was highlighted by Chris Jones missing 4 games and Frank Clark missing two (being hurt for over 10 week). Alex Okafor, Emmanuel Ogbah, Xavier Williams Breeland Speaks all ended up on IR. Terrell Suggs, Khalen Saunders, Demone Harris, and Mike Pennel were brought off the streets (Saunders was inactive for four weeks). Only Tanoh Kpassagnon and Derrick Nnadi played all 19 games last year for the Chiefs. That amount of attrition led to the Chiefs not really ever having their best unit out there healthy, which hurt their overall production. While the Chiefs were 11th in sacks, they were 28th in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders. According to ESPN, Kansas City was 19th in pass rush win rate, at 41%.
Around week 10 though, Kansas City felt a switch turn on in their defense, and particularly in their defensive line. The DL was performing much better against the run, with Pennel and Nnadi locking down the middle, and Clark setting the edge. The Chiefs were finally getting top tier pass rush production out of Jones and Clark. Somebody besides Ogbah was providing a steady presence as the 3rd pass rusher. When the Chiefs were able to tee off and just go rush the quarterback, they were able to produce one of the best 3rd down defenses in the league.
There is turnover again for the Chiefs upfront, but it all starts with the dominant play of Jones and Clark. Both are back this year, with the hopes that they can stay healthy throughout the season. The Chiefs are going to be getting Alex Okafor and Breeland Speaks back, and they added Taco Charlton and Mike Danna to the mix. Tanoh Kpassagnon has another year to develop. How good can the Chiefs be at pass rushing in 2020? What will their best defensive line combo be? How many different looks could the Chiefs deploy in 2020? All of that will be included here, enjoy!
Defensive Line Combos
The Chiefs had a hard time getting the right four to rush the passer at all points last season. The Chiefs only had their top four defensive ends (Clark, Okafor, Ogbah, Tanoh) play 7 games together all season, and Clark was hurt throughout that entire time. Kansas City had a lot of midseason turnover at defensive tackle, with Jones and Xavier Williams missing games, and Nnadi ailing for most of the season. The Chiefs just could never get their best units on the field at the same time ever.
Around week 10, with more guys returning, the Chiefs were able to finally deploy some more looks from their “NASCAR” packages, utilizing their four best pass rushers, regardless of position, in four different roles. They could run any type of blitz, stunt, or just rush with four. With Clark and Jones finally back, the Chiefs could finally take advantage of the attention both garner, which significantly helped their rush plans.
Injuries still plagued this team though, which caused them to go through 21 different combinations of NASCAR, even though I only charted snaps that had both Frank Clark and Chris Jones on the field. That means they went through 21 different combinations of two players. That was just from week 10 to the Super Bowl. The turnover needed to go through all those lineups is almost unthinkable. Even with all that change in faces, the Chiefs were able to find a high amount of success with these four combinations;
- Group A: Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Emmanuel Ogbah
- B: Clark, Jones, Tanoh, Alex Okafor
- C: Clark, Jones, Tanoh, Demone Harris
- D: Clark, Jones, Tanoh, Terrell Suggs
After charting all the different combinations of defensive line the Chiefs used with Jones and Clark, now was the time to collect data. I started by charting only obvious passing downs for the defense; that would include 3rd down and 4+, 2 minute drills, leads by multiple scores, 2nd and longs, etc. Obviously, this is a pass rushing exercise, so only pass rushes were counted. Then, I charted how the Chiefs called their fronts, going with the simple four man rush, blitzes, or stunts from half or the entire field. Then, I charted pressures, hits, sacks, and batdowns. The numbers I found from the charting were very interesting.
|Group Name||Snap Count||Blitz||Four Man Rush||Stunts from Both Sides||Stunt from half of field||3 Man Rush||Pressure||Hit||Sack||Batdown|
Now, again, this is only obvious passing downs. That’s going to favor the defensive line in general, with guys able to tee off and hit a set target in the pocket, with no worry about rollouts or run fits. So the numbers can’t be reflected across an entire season, and on an every down basis.
Still, it’s pretty clear what the situation is here; put Frank Clark and Chris Jones on the field, and they’re dominant when allowed to tee off. As long as they have two defensive ends with good explosion and stunt versatility with them, they’re going to dominate the field every time they step on it. The amount of blitzes Spagnuolo can send at an offense with the attention Clark and Jones require changes how offenses play their protection calls. They can’t double Clark and Jones, and have enough to take away the blitz coming. Even with max protection to help, you’re now only sending 3-4 guys into the route, with 5-6 defenders behind to take those guys out, and the ball must come out quickly. Terez Paylor always say it; “You must have two good pass rushers on the field at all times”. When you can’t double two players, and you have open rush lanes for others, teams can’t stop that.
Based off film though, which unit seemed to perform the best in 2019 though. And, can they duplicate that success in 2020?
The first group had Clark, Jones, Tanoh, and Ogbah. Unfortunately, we only got 7 reps of these four healthy playing together. It’s really sad to know that, because in that short time they had 3 pressures/hits, 2 sacks, and a bat-down. Tennessee had no answers at all for this four man group. The skillsets of all four matched each other really well. This combo all carried very explosive first steps, incredible mass in their upper bodies, and the burst to work well in the stunt game. Length is the name of their games, all carrying incredible wingspans for their positions. That type of unparalleled reach allows for plenty of batted passes.
Kansas City also knew how to draw up favorable looks for this four. They took advantage of the strong lateral agility up front, working in a lot of longer developing stunts, using Tanoh and Jones as the knife players in the stunt, quickly getting off the ball and upfield. Ogbah, with a ton of experience with stunts from his days with Gregg Williams, knew how to hide himself behind blockers, and had the burst to be able to creep inside, and the speed for the easy sack.
Unfortunately, of all the guys we kept this offseason, we couldn’t get Ogbah back. He signed with Miami. But I think Kansas City got two guys who profile well as replacements for him. One is Taco Charlton, who in terms of career arc and athletic makeup fits pretty well into what Ogbah was, except Charlton was just bigger and longer than Ogbah. I think Ogbah packed more in upper body strength and mass, but I do think Taco fits that general mold of a player.
Another option is the new draftee, Mike Danna. Danna doesn’t fit the body type Spagnuolo typically looks for from his defensive ends, but he plays just like one. He’s explosive, plays with a ton of energy and burst, and is super intelligent. Michigan asked a lot out of him playing inside, and in spurts he looked very strong. No offseason hurt Danna, but in terms of football intelligence and burst, he profiles as someone who could easily fit into the Ogbah role quickly.
For me, Charlton’s the guy to fit the Ogbah role as the 2nd edge opposite Frank Clark. Charlton isn’t exactly what Ogbah, but in terms of bend, length, and agility, he should mesh well with the rest of the unit.
Alex Okafor had a rough 2019. He dealt with an obscene amount of injuries (something common for him) and only really had a 2-3 game stretch where he was fully healthy in 2019. He dealt with ankle, hip, and shoulder issues at points of the year. He eventually tore his pec. It was a rough year for him. Still, when he was finally healthy and got to tee off with Clark, Jones, and Tanoh, that was a deadly combination for the Chiefs.
In 15 dropbacks, the Chiefs got pressure 8 times, with an obscene 7 hits and 4 sack rate. Even against two bad offensive lines in New England and Denver, that’s insane production. And similar to Ogbah, the four of them just fit together pretty well as players. Jones and Tanoh fit the mold of ridiculously long players, with crazy reach and explosion in their games. Frank Clark fits as the speed rusher of the team, and the best speed-to-power player on the team. Alex Okafor found a role as the Power player on the other side, winning with more heavy hands. His clubs and chops are really deadly, and while his hips and ankles are as stiff as a board, his general explosion off the ball and his power in his hands. With Jones and Tanoh disrupting the middle, Clark and Okafor did well collapsing the pocket, keeping the pocket as tight as possible.
Nearly everything for Alex Okafor was bad in 2019. He could never get into a consistent rhythm as a rusher, and couldn’t fit his game from New Orleans. But by the New England and Denver games, he found his mojo back. He was playing like what I expected for him. We don’t win that New England game without him. I understand he had issues in 2019, but if Okafor’s healthy, his ability to set the edge and provide the power in his hands to collapse the pocket will get him on the field in 2020, with much better performance.
A big reason why Kansas City performed better after week 10 in pass rushing was the blitzes Spagnuolo was drawing up. He was bringing everything you could imagine. The simulated pressure packages he brought from the Giants were on another level for a lot of the late-season run for the Chiefs. Spagnuolo brought some of his best pressures in the Chicago game, exposing Tribusky’s lack of pocket awareness and IQ to set the protections right.
By shading the MIKE on the strong-side of the line of scrimmage, Chicago’s protection already is shading left. Chicago decided to shade their protection completely left, in a quick throw to the Trips side of the field. Spagnuolo counters this by dropping Niemann and Suggs, taking away the hot read for Trubisky. On the other side, Tanoh and Dan open up the B gap by completely throwing themselves in the phone booth, and Clark threatens the corner enough to keep the running back from covering the open B. This leaves a wide open lane for Bashaud Breeland to come screaming in for the hit, with Jones to finish. By sending two players and dropping two others, Spagnuolo liked to use these simulated pressures to take advantage of inexperienced quarterbacks who don’t have the pocket awareness to handle them.
One thing I noticed going back to the Chargers game was that Spagnuolo introduced a new type of blitz package, called the Coffeehouse blitz. These blitzes are rare and new to the NFL, but they’re pretty effective. It’s very similar to the Hesi move in basketball, where pass rushers will get a half get-off from the ball and turn their head to appear to drop in coverage. This is to get the OL to veer their eyes to another rusher, or give more help to your tackles or center. Then, you turn your head and snap your feet to the ball. With the guard’s reaction time being slower, you’ll have a way quicker angle to the ball. For immobile quarterbacks this blitz works well.
Now you see this more in the NFL with linebackers. You need someone with the long speed and explosion in their movements to rocket through a gap for the sack. Still, with Kansas City having Jones and Clark, two players built with exceptional explosiveness, they could provide this type of blitz. Willie Gay Jr. profiles as somebody who could do this very well, as his blitzing grades out of Mississippi State were very high.
Jones and Clark
Regardless of what Kansas City decides to bring out for their NASCAR packages, every one will always include Frank Clark and Chris Jones. Reid and Veach have talked about this at great lengths, but what the two bring as pass rushers is rare to see in the NFL. Both complement each other incredibly well. Jones wins with more reach, speed, and first step explosion, while Clark wins with more of a power and effort game. It’s hard to find a 3 technique and defensive end that can really complement each other, but Clark and Jones fit each other’s skillset well.
Having two other pass rushers besides them is obviously helpful. But do we need to overspend to get two other rushers on this team? Absolutely not. As long as you have two somewhat competent veterans alongside Jones and Clark, if they’re healthy, they’ll be a top 5-10 pass rush unit in the league. Combine that with two excellent safeties, and that’ll carry the Chiefs defense enough to win.
I was very excited to see Kansas City’s pass rush last year. The new faces, especially at defensive end, excited me a lot. Daly and Spags are known as excellent guys for pass rushers who get the best out of what each player has. With a heavily designed pressure scheme built around blitzes, with Jones and Clark as your individual winners as pass rushers I thought the Chiefs would have a top 5 defensive line unit. Unfortunately, we just never saw that because of injury.
Luckily, most of these guys are back. Emmanuel Ogbah did leave, but Kansas City brought in Taco Charlton and Mike Danna to replace him. Everyone else from the Super Bowl lineup is back. Alex Okafor and Breeland Speaks are here to compete. There will be nonstop competition in training camp, and the top 9 is already basically set. I really only have the 10th defensive line spot open, and even then, you potentially have Breeland Speaks there.
What is the Chiefs’s best pass rush lineup? I think it’s the Group B, with Clark, Okafor, Jones, and Tanoh. I think they just complement each other the best. Spagunolo wants to play more from a head-up technique off of more power and explosion in their first step. That group provides the best group to do that. That being said, it’s matchup dependent. If the Chiefs are facing two heavier, stiff tackles, put in Taco and Frank to turn the corner and win with speed. It’s a matchup thing, but I think Okafor is going to have the edge again.
As long as Jones and Clark are healthy, this defensive line will feast and have plenty of opportunities from the offense. Expect a much better performance in 2020 in terms of production, and Sack Nation should feast this season en route to a repeat.