It has become a common sight this season: big No. 96, the first one off the ball, crashing into the offensive lineman and destroying a run play.
NFL linemen are often anonymous, but fans and players have noticed the Chiefs’ Jaye Howard, often with an accompanying question.
“Everybody keeps asking me ‘What happened? Where did this come from?’ ” Howard, a fourth-year pro, said with a laugh.
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To a certain degree, that’s a fair question. Howard played in 16 games for the Chiefs last season, starting 10, and finished with 36 combined tackles and a sack. But he was nowhere near as disruptive as he’s been early this season.
Take his performance in the Chiefs’ last game, a 31-24 loss to Denver. The Broncos only rushed for a paltry 61 yards in 22 carries, and Howard led the Chiefs with seven tackles — a big number for an interior lineman.
For a player in a contract season — Howard, 26, is scheduled to be a free agent next March —it’s hard to imagine a better start.
“Man, this is a big year for me and my family. I want to put food on my kids’ table for a long time,” said Howard, who has long drawn motivation from his twin sons. “That’s part of the reason, but I’m also more comfortable in the system and they’re allowing me to play on the field more, so I can make more things happen when I’m out there.”
Through two games, Howard has been on the field for about half of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps. That’s up from last year, when he took over starting duties when Mike DeVito was lost for the season in the first game but still only played 37 percent of the defensive snaps.
“I was in and out last year,” Howard said. “But now the coaches trust me and we have a rotation. It’s going to pay off for us in the long run, (we’ll) keep big Dontari (Poe) fresh. The coaches believe I can go in and play just as well.”
Howard’s emergence has certainly helped Poe, who underwent offseason back surgery for a herniated disk in July. He returned in time for the Chiefs’ season opener, but has played the same amount of snaps — 81 — as Howard.
That’s a significant change from the last two years, when Poe — a 346-pound two-time Pro Bowler — played 1,970 snaps, an absurd total for nose tackle.
But the Chiefs have kept to a true rotation up front this year — of the five defensive linemen to earn snaps, only Allen Bailey has played more than 54 percent of the plays. Howard, who has finally paired his fine quickness off the ball with the strength and technique to win against the run, has been a big part of that.
“He knows how to use his hands, he’s learning how to get off blocks and not just rely on that first-step quickness,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Now he’s becoming a more complete D-lineman from a technique standpoint, and eventually you’ve got to have it if you’re going to survive, because just like anybody, if you become just a one-(trick) type of guy, people will know how to block you.”
Some of this was evident in training camp, when the 6-foot-3 Howard arrived at 330 pounds — 20 pounds heavier than his 2014 playing weight — in an effort to fare better against the run than he did the year before.
“Some plays, I felt like I came off and strike them (fine), but in the end, they could wash me off the ball,” Howard said.
Howard credits his post-practice work with assistant defensive line coach Britt Reid. Starting in training camp, Howard and other interior linemen have spent five to 10 minutes after every practice working on their technique.
“It helps,” Howard said with a chuckle. “You see what’s happening (on the field).”
Sutton has always liked Howard’s pass-rush ability — he already has a sack this year and has flashed a variety of moves — but he says extra work like the time he puts in with Reid is key to his continued development as a run stopper.
“You can’t let your technique erode,” Sutton said. “I always talk to them about being willing to work on your own — I call it O.Y.O. You only have so many minutes in individual (practice periods), so if you have an area you need to work on, it’s important you take time before or after practice to get those things addressed.”
Howard, to his credit, understands that. And with so much to play for, he says you don’t have to worry about him losing focus.
“That’s not going to be a problem,” Howard said. “Like I said, I’ve got kids to take care of and a wife. I’ve got to keep her happy. At the end of the day, I want to be the best, man. I feel like I can be one of the toughest (tackles) in the game.”
Howard, who has also drawn motivation from his friend, Bailey — who played his way into a four-year, $24 million extension from the Chiefs last fall — would ideally like to be that kind of player in Kansas City.
“Seeing him go do it last year, I’m praying that I’ll be the same way,” Howard said. “I’d love to stay here, I hope it works out that way. But yeah, that’s always in the back of my mind. I’ve got to ball.”