The Kansas City Chiefs surprised many people by taking pass-rusher Dee Ford with the 23rd overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft. Ford’s best fit is at outside linebacker in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense, but the Chiefs already have two very good players at the position.
One of the many mantras in the NFL is that you can never have too many pass-rushers. When one of them is turning 31 and will make $11.5 million in 2014, it’s wise to have his replacement ready. In theory, Ford will likely take over for Tamba Hali as the starter at outside linebacker next season.
In the short term, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton must be creative. Sutton has to figure out how to utilize all three of his edge rushers despite there being only two edges of an offensive line.
Sutton’s creativity will be vital to getting the most out of the Chiefs’ first-round pick. If he is successful, Ford could very well be the key to the Chiefs’ defensive success in 2014.
“He’s somebody that we add into Bob [Sutton’s] defense and he really becomes a guy that can mix in with Tamba [Hali] and Justin [Houston] and all of the good rushers, [Dontari] Poe, that we have,” head coach Andy Reid said via the team’s official website. “You need that in the AFC West, along with the divisions we’re playing this year.”
One option is to rotate Justin Houston, Hali and Ford at outside linebacker. Using a rotation keeps everyone fresh, which means more production late in games.
While this doesn’t seem to require much creativity, knowing when to make substitutions does require prior planning and some intuition. There may be some scenarios where the Chiefs will want Houston and Ford and others where they may want Ford and Hali.
If we assume every defense faces about 1,000 snaps per season and that about 60 percent of them are passes, then there are about 1,200 snaps to split between the three players. That’s about 400 snaps per player against the pass.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hali was second in the league with 573 snaps against the pass in 2014. Houston was 19th with 430 in just 11 games.
Of those snaps, Hali rushed the quarterback 500 times and Houston 332 times for an average of 32 per player per game. Divide 64 snaps among three players and Houston and Hali are going to be closer to 400 snaps in 16 games than 500. Ford will likely come in at around 300.
|Projected Snap Counts in a Rotation|
|Player||Pass Snaps||Coverage Snaps||Pass Rush Snaps|
|Snaps Per Game||76||14||64|
Although it’s a reduction of snaps for Houston and Hali, it would likely be pretty close to their totals in 2012. More productivity when they are on the field could also offset a 15 percent reduction in snaps.
Had Houston or Hali played 15 percent fewer snaps last year, it would have likely cost each player at least one sack. However, if they were able to be 15 percent more productive on 15 percent fewer snaps, they would, in theory, be able to replace their sack totals.
That may seem optimistic, but there were several players last year with sack rates 15 percent higher than Houston and Hali. Realistically, it’s going to be hard for Houston or Hali to replicate their performance in last season against better competition, so having fresh legs in the fourth quarter may help.
In coverage, not much would change. Hali dropped into coverage about five times per game and Houston about nine times per game in 2013. In total, the Chiefs needed to drop an outside linebacker about 14 times per game. It would make sense if the rookie Ford didn't drop into coverage except for maybe once or twice per game just to keep opposing offenses guessing.
Of course, the Chiefs didn't just draft Ford to be a part of a simple rotation. Maybe on first and second down it makes sense, but it would be an awful waste to leave a good pass-rusher on the bench in pass-rushing situations.
The Triple-Edged Sword
There are going to be many situations where the Chiefs want to get Hali, Houston and Ford onto the field together. This is especially true on third downs.
The only way is to take a defensive end off the field and have one of Houston, Hali or Ford slide inside. This isn’t a new concept, but it has been a successful one.
Although both 4-3 defenses, both the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks used a speed-rush package on their way to winning a Super Bowl in recent years. Both defenses defused some of the most explosive offenses in league history.
Imagine Tamba Hali as Michael Bennett, Dee Ford as Chris Clemons and Justin Houston as Cliff Avril. Vance Walker, the 305-pound defensive tackle the Chiefs signed in the offseason, will likely fill Clinton McDonald’s role in the speed package.
The trio of Seahawks didn’t have 500 snaps each rushing the passer in 2013, but they were a part of the best defense in the league. The Chiefs were close to having a great defense in 2013, so the addition of Ford and a speed package could get them there in 2014.
Where Sutton can get creative is with the usage of nose tackle Dontari Poe. He could add a wrinkle with Poe instead of Walker or one with Poe and Walker along with the three pass-rushers. In such a scenario, a running back is going to have to block Houston or Ford coming off the edge.
A package with Poe and Walker would be stronger against the run and useful on shorter third downs where the Chiefs still want the added pass rush. Sutton might even consider a similar package with defensive end Mike DeVito and Poe clogging up the middle “two-gapping” on third and five or less.
Ford might be all speed right now, but that may be all he needs initially to be very productive in Sutton’s defense. Given the choice, most offensive lines are going to choose to double Hali or Houston over a rookie.
In a five-man protection, the opposing offensive line could only double one player. In a six-man protection, the Chiefs would add an extra rusher. If Walker or Poe are getting a lot of pressure up the middle, the offensive line may have double them just to make sure their quarterback has a chance to get rid of the ball.
|Speed Rush (NASCAR) Package Comparison|
|Technique||9||4 (Inside Shade)||2 (Inside Shade)||7|
|Chiefs 2014||Dee Ford||Tamba Hali||Vance Walker||Justin Houston|
|Seahawks 2013||Chris Clemons||Michael Bennett||Clinton McDonald||Cliff Avril|
There’s been a lot of talk that Ford was simply the “best player available” when the Chiefs were on the clock and that’s why he was a surprise pick. There’s been a lot of talk about how Ford might replace Hali in 2015 and beyond. While those points could be true, it’s just as likely that the Chiefs studied how the Seahawks stuck it to the Broncos in the Super Bowl and decided they needed another pass-rusher so they could do the same.
If you believe this to be the case, the signing of Walker in free agency makes a lot of sense. Reid also didn’t mention that Ford was the best player available after drafting him—something the Chiefs usually go out of their way to mention.
“We identified him a while back and liked him and [general manager John] Dorsey felt very strongly about him, and we went with it,” Reid said via the team’s official website. “There were three or four players there that were very close [on the board].”
It’s also worth noting that getting three pass-rushers is yet another trend within the division. The Oakland Raiders signed Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley to play defensive end, but they also drafted Khalil Mack to play outside linebacker and put his hand in the dirt on passing downs. The San Diego Chargers traded up in the second round to draft outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu to pair with Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney.
Last year, all the AFC West teams drafted an offensive tackle in the first two rounds to slow down pass-rushers. This year, they all drafted pass-rushers in the first two rounds. This isn’t just a coincidence.
What will separate the great defenses from the good and the bad defenses is how they build upon these speed-rush packages. Sutton proved he was willing to be creative in 2013 by blitzing so many defensive backs—a positive sign for the Chiefs going into next season.
Unless otherwise noted all snap data and statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).