There's no question that the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs enjoyed a defensive resurgence under first-year defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. A unit that finished 30th in overall defense per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics in 2012 shot up to ninth last season. The team's pass defense moved from 31st to seventh, and the run defense improved from 28th to 15th. Sutton made the most of what he had, a roster packed with Pro Bowl-level talent, by adding different coverage concepts and making the defensive line schemes far more multiple. Everyone from safety Eric Berry to nose tackle Dontari Poe benefited, and few Chiefs defenders were more impressive in the first half of the season than bookend edge-rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
However, when Hali started getting nicked up in the second half of Kansas City's 2013 campaign, and Houston was lost in Week 12 to a dislocated elbow, the defense regressed. The same Chiefs team that started 9-0 (the first franchise in any major professional sport to win its first nine games after finishing with its league's worst record the year before) ended their season with a 2-8 record, including a heartbreaking playoff loss to the Colts in which the Kansas City blew a 38-10 third-quarter lead. The Chiefs had 47 sacks overall, but just six total in their six losses, and by all metrics, the defense fell off disturbingly. Hali was double-teamed far more when Houston was out, and he had just two sacks in his last nine games -- both against the Redskins on Dec. 8.
It was clear that, while the Chiefs' pass rush has a great deal of talent at the top (both Hali and Houston registered 11 sacks last season) depth was needed -- and reserve Frank Zombo wasn't going to get that done. So, with the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2014 draft, Kansas City selected Auburn edge-rusher Dee Ford, a 6-foot-2, 252-pound speedster who put up 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
At his first Chiefs press conference, the man who once said that Jadeveon Clowney "plays like a blind dog in a meat market" and claimed that he was better than Clowney because he paid more attention to fundamentals and technique, proved that his graduation to the NFL hadn't diluted his confidence.
“Well, this is the home of Derrick Thomas," Ford said of the franchise's all-time greatest pass rusher, who amassed 126.5 sacks in 157 starts over an 11-year NFL career from 1989 through 1999. "I know you all remember that speed. That get-off is so vital and so deadly. Just the speed rush itself -- it opens up everything. I have a lot of counters, and there is definitely a lot of things I’m going to learn in the league, all of the vets here. I love speed rush. Love the speed and power. Love to spin. Pass rush is an art and it’s all about what you put into it. You can do whatever you want with it. It’s pretty much an art form.”
Comparing himself to one of the greatest ever at his position was a bold move for Ford, but teammate Hali was on board after seeing the rookie in minicamps.
“His first step," Hali said May 28, when asked what stood out to him about Ford. "If anybody reminds you of Derrick Thomas, that kid should pretty much remind you of Derrick Thomas’ first step. He gets off the ball so fast, it’s scary. I just kept rewinding it yesterday just looking at his first step and it’s almost like as soon as the ball snaps, he’s with it. I don’t know if he times it, but his first step is incredible.”
While Hali weighs around 275 pounds and Houston is 260 (both at 6-3), Ford dropped eight pounds from his 255-pound frame after his combine weigh-in in an attempt to be even fast at his pro day. And based on the tape, Ford does indeed have a great deal of functional speed. When I wrote his report for the SI 64 series of scouting profiles, I was impressed by his velocity off the snap, his power for his size, and his overall technique. Unlike some collegiate speed rushers, Ford didn't just run straight ahead -- he can stunt inside and loop outside effectively, and he's got the "dip-and-rip" to peel around tackles and invade the pocket. He could use his hands more violently, and he doesn't have the pure strength to beat blockers without the leverage advantage.
So, how does that all fit into Kansas City's defense, and how can Ford help to prevent the kind of meltdown that happened to the Chiefs in 2013? First, let's take a look at what makes Kansas City's pass rush effective when Hali and Houston are both healthy.
Most importantly, Hali and Houston each bring a full array of moves. They can each turn the edge against blockers, stunt through gaps with alarming quickness and bull-rush opponents back. Kansas City's 26-16 win over the Eagles on Sept. 19 provides as many examples as you could want. Hali had one sack, and Houston registered 4.5. Hali also had eight quarterback hurries to Houston's three -- against left tackle Jason Peters, one of the league's best. The Chiefs played a lot of base 4-2-5 nickel to counteract Chip Kelly's offensive system, which left Hali and Houston to get their pressures without a lot of blitz help. Hali's sack was a textbook example of how you move around and inside off the snap, force the tackle off his bearings, and make the pocket your own.
When Hali first came off the snap, Peters had him and pushed him out of the pocket. But Hali reset his rush, adjusted, and shot inside to the back half of the pocket. By the time Hali was on Michael Vick for the takedown, Peters was five yards behind.
Houston's most impressive sack may have been his first, at the two-minute warning of the first half. This, folks, is how to establish your territory with pure physical strength, and then switch to the open gap to create an opportunity. Lane Johnson, Philadelphia's first-round pick in 2013, thought he had Houston contained to the outside. And then, he got a very specific education in the value of the inside counter. (Note also the choke hold Peters put on Hali to prevent him from joining Houston in Vick's pocket).
Still, both Hali and Houston need free space to make plays, and that's where Ford comes in. Against Texas A&M on Oct. 19 of last year, Ford had two sacks, including this late-game marvel that sealed the deal for the Tigers in a 45-41 win. Ford looks a bit like a Houston clone on this play, in which he bull-rushes A&M's right tackle, and then disengages quickly to chase Johnny Manziel all over the field. The speed of his first step, and the quickness with which he changes direction, are both readily apparent.
Still, there are times when Ford is still a project -- and prospect -- under development. Against the SEC's more physical offensive lines, he could have used better counter moves, seemed to lose leverage and momentum when he had his hand off the ground, and got lost in the wash too often. It's encouraging that he's always looking for an opening, and that he's learning to disengage, but there's work to be done.
“I’m learning maturity," Ford said of his development on June 12. "The pass rush is all about mentality, [more than] just straight pass rush, because at some point they’re going to figure out what you can and can’t do. So it’s all about changing it up and deception. We talk about deception all the time. We want to deceive the offense. It’s just another level of mental training that I’m learning from Tamba.” One way to create the space that Ford will need to accelerate cleanly into disruption is to have him on the field at the same time as both Hali and Houston -- to create overloads that force offenses to play the pass rush too hard, and to eliminate opportunities. Given Sutton's creativity, and what he learned about blitzes from Rex Ryan as the former Jets linebacker coach, you'd expect to see some of that. More importantly, Ford could (and should) provide an insurance policy for a Chiefs defense that has proven that it's among the league's best with both of its premier pass-rushers -- and problematic when either one is out of the picture.