For a pass-rushing defensive end like Mike Catapano, the Chiefs’ first-round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts last season should have been a dream scenario.
Guided by one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, the Colts — who trailed 38-10 in the third quarter — basically spent the entire game throwing the ball out of its three-receiver set.
That game, however, soon morphed into a nightmare for the prideful Catapano, who was trapped on the sideline as the 28-point lead melted away in a discouraging 45-44 loss.
Although Catapano wasn’t playing, he became angry at himself. He’d worked very hard to get to this level, sure, and effort was never a question. But he also knew he wasn’t playing because he simply wasn’t good enough yet, and that really burned him.
“I remember sitting there and watching, thinking I’m never going to be sitting and watching ever again,” said Catapano, who logged all of two defensive snaps in the loss. “I wanted to be out there hunting.”
So this offseason, Catapano — a seventh-round pick in 2013 who contributed on special teams and logged four tackles and a sack in 15 games as a rookie — has been preparing himself for a big sophomore campaign.
“That’s on me, to build the coaches’ trust in me,” Catapano said. “They want to know I’m not a liability against the run. They want to know I’m rocking and rolling on all cylinders.”
When he arrived in Kansas City last May, the 6-foot-4 Catapano weighed about 270 pounds because he figured he might still play outside linebacker. Catapano thrived at the position at Princeton, where he was named the Ivy League’s defensive player of the year as a senior.
But once it became clear to Catapano that the Chiefs saw him as an inside player in their 3-4 scheme, he set about adding muscle to better hold up against the run. He gained 10 pounds and played last season at 281. And he’s gained more weight for the upcoming season. He says he checked in at 291 pounds when organized training began in May.
“A clean 10 pounds, by the way,” he added with a laugh.
Most importantly, Catapano said he was able to maintain his speed and quickness, which he knows he’ll still need to rush the passer in the NFL.
“It’s unbelievable that jump he’s made from last year to this year,” said veteran defensive end Mike DeVito. “Usually, you see a guy put on 10-15 pounds and slow down a bit. It’s not the case (here). He’s more explosive and faster than ever. Mike’s going to be a dangerous weapon, and I’m glad we have him on our side.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton also praised Catapano, who even earned a few first-team reps during OTAs, for the work he put in this offseason.
“He’s worked very hard and stayed in great condition while gaining weight and strength,” Sutton said. “He also has some natural pass-rush ability, a feel for that part of the game. He gives us another piece we can move around. He’s capable of playing inside or outside, and he’s got enough old linebacker skills that you can drop him some. He’s a very versatile guy for us.”
Sutton’s praise for Catapano doesn’t surprise former Atlanta Falcons star Chuck Smith, a pass-rushing mentor of Catapano’s who is also very familiar with Sutton’s defense and philosophy.
Smith, who racked up 58 1/2 sacks of his own during his nine-year career, spent the 2009 season as a pass-rush specialist and assistant defensive-line coach with the New York Jets, where Sutton was the senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach. Smith thinks Catapano is uniquely positioned to have a breakout season.
“He’s an effort guy, and Bob is the kind of guy who likes that,” Smith said. “Guys who give effort are rewarded in that defense … he puts defensive linemen in position to win by bringing one more blitzer than you can block.”
Which means that if the Chiefs’ defensive linemen can also win one-on-one battles, that will puts constant pressure on the quarterback. Smith specializes in helping linemen win those one-on-one battles via his Football 365 training system, which he operates out of Atlanta. Smith is extremely high on the work ethic and potential of Catapano, who started training with him before his senior season at Princeton.
“There’s never been a player I can remember that has ever put in the effort and trained like Mike Catapano,” Smith said. “I have a 100-percent belief that Mike is going to be an absolute huge fan favorite out there with effort he gives and the way he plays.”
And while that might sound like hyperbole, consider this: Smith says he has worked with a number of young defensive linemen over the past few years, including early-round guys from this year like Aaron Donald, Louis Nix, Timmy Jernigan, Stephon Tuitt and yes, even Chiefs first-rounder Dee Ford.
“We spent hours in the Georgia sun,” Smith said of Catapano. “Hours, man. Doing the same moves over and over, running 100-yard gassers with a pop-up dummy placed every 10 yards where we do a swim move, spin move or a rip move past them. He can do all that stuff, man.”
Catapano says most of Smith’s tutelage has been focused on understanding the mental side of pass rushing.
“We talk about the details, as far as steps and hand placement and really getting down to the nitty-gritty,” Catapano said. “In the NFL (your technique) has to be perfect. Sometimes physical freaks can get away with not having it, but (getting there) is a lot faster when you do it right.”
To that end, Catapano is confident that he has a number of pass-rush moves he can go to this season.
“Pass-rushing is a lot like pitching,” he said. “You’ve got your fastball that you rely on, and a curveball to use when people catch on to the fastball and then a change-up every now and then.”
Catapano, however, knows words are just that, words. So with the memory of the way last season ended — with him on the bench and the Chiefs blowing a huge lead — still fresh in his mind, he’s looking forward to showing how much better he’s gotten, and doing so right when training camp begins in mid-July.
“People sometimes think my goals are crazy, even since I was little,” Catapano said. “I was saying when I was nine that I was gonna go in the NFL and people were looking at me like I was weird. But the goal in everything since I was little was to be the best, whether it be school — and that’s how I got into Princeton — or pass rushing — that’s how I got to this level. You don’t get to this level without believing in yourself.
“So I have a goal (for this season), and it’s definitely a high goal. People say ‘Oh, you made the team, you played substantially last year,’ and I just roll my eyes at that stuff. People have no idea what’s gonna come. I’m excited.”