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Dontari Helps Chiefs To Poe-fect Start

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The play of defensive lineman Dontari Poe is a major reason why the Kansas City Chiefs have gotten off to a 3-0 start. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
The play of defensive lineman Dontari Poe is a major reason why the Kansas City Chiefs have gotten off to a 3-0 start. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Dontari Poe has emerged as one of the premier talents on the Kansas City Chiefs defense. He already has 3.5 sacks, providing a very valuable asset in the pass rush. While not only can he take up multiple offensive linemen, providing Justin Houston and Tamba Hali more freedom in attacking the quarterback from the outside, but he can get after the QB, too. Hali and Houston are so good getting up the field when blitzing, quarterbacks will usually have to step up in the pocket, where Poe is waiting. 

Much of what Poe’s job is as a nose tackle is subtle. His ability puts opponents in really tough situations. Hali and Houston are such talented pass rushers on the outside that they warrant extra attention from opposing offensive lines. But if those offensive lines give them extra attention, whoever is left to guard Poe will be overmatched.

Poe’s impact doesn't always show up on the stat sheet. Take for instance a play in the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. It was the third play of the Eagles’ second drive. In the five preceding plays, Poe was double-teamed every single time, usually by the left guard (Evan Mathis) and the center (Jason Kelce). On each of those plays, Poe taking up two of the linemen gave other players better chances at getting to Michael Vick. But on this play, Mathis took Poe one-on-one and Poe immediately got past him. Poe forced Vick to step up, and the QB was sacked by Houston. Poe didn’t end up on the stat sheet on that play. But with an average replacement at nose tackle, it is very conceivable that Houston wouldn’t get the sack. 

The Chiefs’ second sack occurred in the second quarter. Unlike on the first Vick sack, the Eagles doubled Poe this time. That left Jason Peters to single-handedly block Hali, who sped past Peters with ease. And with nobody else to help Peters, Hali got to Vick without any trouble. 

The Chiefs defense isn't perfect. Only seven teams have allowed more yards on the ground. And no team has allowed more yards per carry. But this isn’t as damaging as it may seem. Only four teams have been run on less. Opponents have averaged only 22 rushing attempts a game. That’s because the Chiefs have played with a lead for much of their games. This forces teams to pass the ball, which is Kansas City’s defensive strength. No team has more sacks, only four teams have forced a lower completion percentage, and only two teams have forced a lower average yards per attempt. 

The Chiefs have played defensively the way they want to. They play wanting to stop the pass and will occasionally give up some yards on the run. They will have the cornerbacks play press coverage and send Hali and Houston after the quarterback. This can allow running backs to pick up big yards if they get into the second level. That's exactly what happened when the Eagles’ LeSean McCoy scored from 41 yards out last week. And while Kansas City’s approach didn’t work on that one particular play, it worked throughout the rest of the game, for the most part. 

Poe has become a huge (literally and metaphorically) asset in the center of the defense. He provides great strength in the middle of the line. All season long, they will most likely force teams to pick who’s going to beat them: Hali, Houston, or Poe. They can get pressure on the quarterback inside and out. It is the biggest reason the Chiefs’ success so far is legitimate. 

In the Chiefs’ first three games, they have been somewhat fortunate. (It also appears facing the 0-3 Giants in Week 4 will be quite helpful). The Jaguars are one of the league’s worst teams, and according to Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings http://www.footballoutsiders.com/dvoa-ratings/2013/week-3-dvoa-ratings, it’s not close. However, the Cowboys and Eagles are, at the very least, decent. Both teams are the two likeliest candidates to win the NFC East. Currently, both teams sit in the middle of the DVOA rankings. 

Those same rankings are high on the Chiefs. Football Outsiders has the Chiefs ranked as the NFL’s third-best team. They have a comfortable margin over Indianapolis and New Orleans, but are far behind Denver and Seattle. I think the key is in the defensive specific rankings. On that list, the Chiefs’ rank third behind the Seahawks and Jets. 

This Chiefs team is built to play a certain way, which is in line with its overall strengths. Kansas City is not going to throw the ball 50-plus times because that’s not QB Alex Smith’s best skill. As a team, one of the Chiefs’ best skills is rushing the passer. After three games, no other team has brought down the quarterback more. One of the pass rush’s best weapons is Poe. The Chiefs’ 3-0 start isn’t only because of Poe's breakout season, but his breakout has certainly been important to it.