In 2021, the Kansas City Chiefs finished with the fourth-fewest sacks as a team in the NFL. They had one of the league’s highest pressure rates and quarterback-hurry percentages, but the unit failed to convert that disruption to sacks enough. It came to fruition at the most important times of the season.
The pass rush has to be more productive, but it’s difficult to determine if they are truly set up to be. They lost impact players with the departures of edge rusher Melvin Ingram and defensive tackle Jarran Reed but countered those moves with the additions of rookie George Karlaftis and veteran Carlos Dunlap.
In order to determine how good this unit can be, let’s look at each piece of the puzzle.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones
With no time wasted experimenting as a full-time defensive end of this year, there’s every reason to believe Jones can be the dominant pass rusher we know him to be from Week 1 through the final game.
Once he switched back to primarily playing on the interior in Week 9 of 2021, he wreaked much more havoc: Jones created pressure on 16.8% of his pass-rush snaps from Week 9 on, a higher rate than players like Myles Garrett, Aaron Donald, the Bosa brothers, and Maxx Crosby in that stretch. Six of Jones’ nine sacks for the season also came in that time.
It’s simple: guards and centers cannot individually block Jones. Even with help, it’s nearly impossible to keep him from penetrating their pass protection. If the lineman stays engaged as he’s driven back, Jones’ size is still enough to make quarterbacks uncomfortable and force them to move off their spot in the pocket.
Whether he’s touching the quarterback or not, Jones’ constant threat right in their face can lead to panicked footwork and off-timed throws. It also leads to clean-up sacks for his teammates, which are the situations that need to be finished more often this year.
Defensive end Frank Clark
Clark is the experienced leader of the defensive end group, meaning he’ll likely lead the defensive end position in snaps. On passing downs, it will be his speed off the ball that will be his biggest asset.
When Clark is at his best, it’s because he can explode off the snap and earn that step on the offensive tackle as he drops in his pass set. The more pressure Clark can put on tackles to get depth in their drop, the more they’ll be vulnerable to inside counter moves. At this point in his career, Clark has to win with finesse; Winning with power is solely set up by speed.
Frank is the best of the #chiefs Edge rushers on these Tex stunts, where he loops inside behind the DT’s penetration to the B-gap
When Jones is on the opposite side, he’s going to draw the center’s help most of the time, maximizing the seam for Clark to run through pic.twitter.com/iN6DWPAbmo
— Ron Kopp Jr (@Ron_Kopp) August 4, 2022
One of the best ways to take advantage of Clark’s burst and quickness — something he has worked to improve this offseason — is using him on Tex stunts, a term for Tackle/End twists.
The interior rusher towards Clark’s side would penetrate the guard’s outside shoulder to the offensive tackle’s inside shoulder, which gives a seam to his inside so that Clark would loop behind him. The faster the end can get to the interior seam, the more likely he will get through free.
Defensive end George Karlaftis
We know Karlaftis will be playing on the edge as a traditional defensive end. What we don’t know is how creative they get with his alignment as a pass rusher on obvious passing downs.
From our brief look at training camp, it appears he has the power to be disruptive in any one-on-one blocking scenario. That gives them the ability to push him inside if need be, in scenarios where they prefer two other edge rushers on the field like Clark and Dunlap.
For a thorough breakdown of who he was as a player in college, Matt Stagner evaluated Karlaftis before the draft for Arrowhead Pride.
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap
The veteran pass rusher is bound to make an impact for the Chiefs as a situational pass rusher off the edge — or maybe even more? I laid out what to expect from Dunlap at the time of the signing.
Defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton
Wharton has proven capable of providing a spark as an interior rusher. He has the quickness and natural bend to really put a different kind of stress on a guard in a one-on-one situation. He usually gets those because Chris Jones demands the center’s help on the other side.
Important to have rotational depth pieces that do more than just eat snaps. They can make game-changing plays in their limited opportunities
Wharton fits that bill. He’s forced 3 fumbles in his career so far, and had the helmet interception last yr. Just a chaos creator pic.twitter.com/ZhECpz3eIX
— Ron Kopp Jr (@Ron_Kopp) August 4, 2022
Wharton has steadily progressed in his two-year career. He increased his pressure rate from 6.3% in 2020 to 8.6% last year, while forcing two fumbles and earning his first career interception last season.
Defensive end Mike Danna
Danna’s going to be a bit of an X-factor now that he’s a little more buried on the depth chart
You can see why they’d want to use him as an inside rusher situationally. The strong, powerful hands , just a strong dude that will give the OL all he wants to handle #chiefs pic.twitter.com/TmB4IAKFfA
— Ron Kopp Jr (@Ron_Kopp) August 4, 2022
Danna has earned a reputation for being stout on the edge, with strong hands and a high motor that help him be a weapon in the pass rush as well.
The third-year edge defender is comfortable out in the flat and in space, athletic enough to make open-field tackles. At the same time, his foundational strength allows him to be pushed inside for certain pass-rush packages.
That versatility may be utilized even more now that he is slotted lower on the depth chart; Danna has talked about being used as an interior rusher during training camp.
Putting pieces together
So now we have the pieces, we can find the best ways to fit them together.
This is what could be considered the normal, pass-down lineup. It is the projected starters, with Wharton replacing nose tackle Derrick Nnadi. Clark and Jones — on the same side — can demand a lot of attention with the twists and stunts they could deploy, leaving advantageous one-on-one situations for Wharton and Karlaftis.
This could be the preferred version of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s well-known personnel strategy for pass rush: the NASCAR package. It brings defensive ends in to rush from the inside, maximizing the amount of pure pass-rushing talent that’s on the field.
In this alignment, the quarterback has to deal with extraordinary length, and one of the league’s best at batting passes down at the line — on both sides of the ball. Jones and Dunlap both finished in the top six for that category last season, per PFF.
If the Chiefs want to run Tex stunts with Clark, one aspect to consider is making sure the stunting tackle is capable of following a potentially-scrambling quarterback out into space if Clark’s pressure flushes him out. Danna would be perfect — but you can envision Karlaftis filling that spot as well.
On the other side, Jones will likely demand the center’s attention, giving Clark an even better chance at getting through on the stunt.
Taking Clark off the field for this lineup allows the edges of the pocket to be collapsed by power rushers like Dunlap and Karlaftis, while Jones and Wharton can work to penetrate from the front. That combination of power could make it collapse in a hurry; it’s also worth pointing out the nightmare of length that is Jones and Dunlap on the same side of the ball.
The bottom line
I believe it’s fair to expect the pass rush to be more productive this season, mainly because they have a higher number of quality players they can throw in the rotation. I also believe Jones will have a better season playing at his natural, all-pro position from start to finish, which will naturally raise the floor for the rest of the group.
We have an idea of how each talent could be utilized on a particular play, but this group has enough versatility for spags to stay unpredictable with the alignments.