Earlier this week, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sidled up to nose tackle Dontari Poe in a meeting room at the team’s practice facility. Sutton has been particularly pleased with Poe’s play of late, and he wanted to tell him so.
“He said ‘You’re getting back to (being) the old Poe,’ ” said Poe, who agreed.
The moment actually meant a lot to Poe, a two-time Pro Bowler who missed all of training camp because of a herniated disk in his back and admits it has taken him a while to return to his normal dominant self.
“You love when the D.C. says that, because that’s the point you’re trying to get to,” Poe said. “When somebody else notices, it means something.”
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Sutton said it would be hard not to notice the way the 6-foot-3, 346-pound Poe has been playing.
“I think the last two or three weeks has been his best football,” Sutton said. “He’s starting to really come along, and is playing much more explosive in there … He’s had some great individual plays inside — some really good plays.”
One, in particular, stood out to Sutton in the Chiefs’ 17-13 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Poe was lined up between the center and the left guard, when the guard pulled to Poe’s left while three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack attempted to downblock him.
Poe was too strong. He proceeded to walk Mack back several yards right into the hole the run was designed to go into, and running back Duke Johnson Jr. was hauled down for a mere 2-yard gain.
“There were no lanes to run the ball,” Sutton said. “It’s those kind of things that make a big difference in your defense.”
Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson remembered the play, too.
“That’s one of the plays (where), when I saw it on film in the locker room, I’m like ‘Wow, that’s a good look for an inside ‘backer,’ ” Johnson said. “He’s a problem in there.”
Poe certainly was against the Browns on Sunday, recording a season-high six tackles.
“It’s crazy, crazy,” Johnson said of Poe’s return. “His confidence is (through) the roof, he’s trusting everything now. Last game, he had a heck of a game. That’s him, it just took him a little while.”
On the season, Poe has recorded 38 tackles, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and two sacks in 14 games. That’s slightly off the pace he set in the last two seasons, when he averaged 48 tackles, five sacks and almost eight hurries per year.
Some of that, at least, has to do with the herniated disk that robbed Poe of the preseason and most of organized team activities. When asked if he was feeling the effects of it earlier this season, Poe said he was.
“I mean, yeah, that’s normal — anybody who had (that) surgery, they’re going to feel it,” Poe said. “It’s stuff that you can’t put your mind on. That was the reason I wasn’t talking about it, you know? It was just part of the process.”
When his injury was announced in July, David Chao, who spent 17 years as an NFL team physician, noted that herniated disks are harder on linemen because they are bigger human beings — “just because a guy is 350 pounds doesn’t mean the structure of his spine is twice as big as that of a 175-pound guy,” he said — and because there is constant stress placed on the area because of the pushing and pulling interior linemen go through.
Chao added that a three-month recovery time line — which would have put Poe in the mix to return in mid-October — was reasonable.
Yet, Poe fast-tracked his rehab, which consisted of “intense core strengthening” and “task-specific muscle training” throughout August, and returned in time to play in the Chiefs’ regular-season opener against Houston.
Poe showed signs of being his old self even that early. During a crucial fourth-and-1 situation in the third quarter against the Texans, he was one of the players that held strong at the point of attack and stuffed Alfred Blue short of the first-down marker.
“He stood up the whole pile,” defensive end Jaye Howard said.
But Poe has gotten stronger over the course of the season, which he attributes to the meticulous work — particularly core strengthening — he has done to maintain his powerful physique.
“It’s consistent massages, consistent chiropractors, consistent ab work everyday,” Poe said. “Ab work helps strengthen all the vertebrae in your back, help protect it. So I (do it) every night … if I miss it for about two or three days, I’ll feel it. That’s how serious it is.”
Poe said he does hip stretches, leg stretches and planks — three sets on his front forearms, 45 seconds on each side.
“This is the ab workout that puts the least pressure on your back, because most of the time when you’re crunching, you’re putting the stress on your lower back,” said Poe, who said he has been doing these for roughly four months now.
Poe said he started to feel like himself sometime in October, when the game finally slowed down again for him.
“First coming back, it was bullets — it was fast everywhere,” Poe said. “Your body’s not the same, so you’ve got to learn how to move again. So it’s a process, but about the past five or six weeks, it’s been pretty smooth.”
That only serves as a boon for an defensive line that also features Howard, Allen Bailey and Mike DeVito. Howard, for one, has seen more single blocks since Poe started to re-emerge in recent weeks.
“Which I definitely haven’t seen in a while,” Howard said with a laugh. “It’s hard to get those (one-on-one blocks).”
The challenge for the Chiefs going forward is managing Poe’s workload. Before this season, Poe logged an almost absurd amount of snaps the last two years — 1,970 combined, 752 more than the next closest Chiefs interior lineman — but has only 733 this year.
“We’ve tried to give him rest because he doesn’t like rest,” Sutton said. “But for the picture, the next four or five weeks, that’s important (to remember) that ‘Hey, you need to come out a little, take some plays off.’ ”
But Poe isn’t crazy about sitting. Back in the summer, he wanted to return from back surgery as soon as possible because he believed this is a Super Bowl team.
Now, with the Chiefs — winners of nine straight — sitting with a 10-5 record entering their regular-season finale against Oakland at 3:25 p.m. Sunday — their big man in the middle believes that more than ever, and he’s adamant about doing his part.
“That was the goal, there was no other way,” Poe said. “I set the standard for myself by playing good the past couple of years, so it’s something you can’t go back from. Once you get there, you’ve got to stay there and get better.”
So while Poe might be back to his old self, to him, that just means he has to strive for even more.
“The old Poe is not good enough, man,” Poe said. “I’ve got to be better than I was.”