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What Has Happened To The Chiefs' Pass Rush?

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Defensive end Tamba Hali (91) of the Kansas City Chiefs kneels on the ground after spraining his right ankle against the San Diego Chargers last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Defensive end Tamba Hali (91) of the Kansas City Chiefs kneels on the ground after spraining his right ankle against the San Diego Chargers last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Whether Tamba Hali and Justin Houston will be able to suit up Sunday for the Kansas City Chiefs is unknown. K.C.’s star outside linebackers both left last week’s game before halftime. Hali has been diagnosed with an ankle sprain, and Houston has something called a subluxed elbow. 

With another matchup against Denver looming, the Chiefs will be in a tough spot if the two linebackers are unable to suit up. Even if both are able to play, the Chiefs may still be in a tough spot. Only one game stands in between the last time the Chiefs and the Denver Broncos played. Houston and Hali were active for that game, and neither provided much stress for Peyton Manning. Not only was Manning not sacked, but he was never even hit. 

Time and time again this season I have made the point about how the Chiefs’ pass rush has not only been the linchpin to the success of the defense, but to the success of the team as a whole. Kansas City is tied with four other teams (Baltimore, Buffalo, Green Bay, and New Orleans) for the league lead in sacks with 37. That includes the two sacks Kansas City has recorded in the last four weeks. The pass rush was so dominant for the first seven games of the season that even taking four weeks off didn’t knock the Chiefs down the rankings. 

The lack of sacks in the past four games isn’t the sole reason the Chiefs are 2-2 in that stretch, but it is a major reason why. During that four-game stretch, two of the Chiefs’ opponents have had very good offensive lines (Denver and San Diego), one mediocre line (Cleveland), and one terrible one (Buffalo). 

Using a number of different metrics, the Broncos and the San Diego Chargers both have very good lines. Both are in the top 5 of Football Outsider's rankings. Denver is in the top 5 in both Win Probability Added (WPA) and Expected Points Added (EPA), according to advancednflstats.com. San Diego ranks in the top 10 for both of those statistics. Denver and San Diego allow the fewest hits to their quarterback and are both in the top 5 in sacks allowed. 

It is completely reasonable and logical to expect the Chiefs’ pass-rush performance to slip in those games. But it didn't just slip, it was nonexistent. In the games against the two toughest offensive lines on the Chiefs’ schedule, the pass rush registered only one sack and four quarterback hits. The offensive line clearly won the battle. You wouldn’t expect the Chiefs to haul down Manning nine times like they did Terrelle Pryor, but not getting to him at all makes winning a difficult matchup even harder. 

The troubling thing for the Chiefs is that they’ve also struggled against offensive lines that shouldn't have given them a struggle. Using the same metrics applied to the Chargers and Broncos, the Bills and Cleveland Browns have two of the league’s worst offensive lines. The Browns rank dead last in quarterback hits allowed and second-to-last in sacks allowed. The Bills are only slightly better. They rank 29th in quarterback hits allowed and 24th in sacks allowed. The advanced stats websites have both teams ranked better than the raw numbers dictate, but only slightly. Football Outsiders has both teams on the lower end of middle of the road. Advancednflstats.com has Buffalo near the bottom in the league in WPA and EPA and Cleveland in the middle of the league. 

In their games against Cleveland and Buffalo, the Chiefs recorded the same number of sacks and quarterback hits as they did against Denver and San Diego. The decline of the Chiefs’ pass rush has occurred not only in Kansas City’s matchups against good offensive lines. 

According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Chiefs blitzed 34% of the time during the first seven weeks of the season. Over those seven games, the Chiefs recorded 35 sacks. In the next three games, the Chiefs blitzed 26% of the time and recorded only one sack (this information was released before last Sunday’s loss to the Chargers). 

The Chiefs have been sending fewer defenders at the quarterback, and the result has been fewer sacks and quarterback hits. The struggles of the Chiefs’ defense are due not only to pass-rush issues. The Bills ran for 241 yards against the Chiefs, averaging more than 6 yards per carry. Denver exploited a rookie cornerback – Marcus Cooper -- for big gains in the toughest matchup of his professional career. San Diego followed suit the following week. 

For the Chiefs to get back to their winning ways, the success of their pass rush will play a major part. Even a small uptick in performance when playing against the toughest teams will give them a solid chance of winning. Kansas City was close in Denver. Better pressure on Manning would have made a difference. A sack or two won’t be the difference between winning and losing, but it could help push them one way over the other. And that’s why the (potential) losses of Hali and Houston have such huge ramifications for the Chiefs down the road. 

Because of differences in defensive strategy, two of the best outside linebackers in the league saw their numbers and effectiveness drop. While both are still effective and cause concern for opposing offensive coordinators, Houston was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate when he was sacking the quarterback more than anybody. Even if Houston’s candidacy is a little weaker, losing him, as well as Hali, is a major blow. Even if both suit up, there’s no guarantee they will be playing at full strength. And that’s what the Chiefs really need if they want to start winning games against the league’s elite.