(Editor’s note: This story appears in The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also starting that day on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
On summer days at Missouri Western State University, a dozen or so Chiefs linebackers pour into a room at the indoor football complex for daily film sessions.
The man in charge of these meetings is linebackers coach Gary Gibbs, a tall, gray-haired man of 64. He is a teacher, and a straight shooter; the stakes on Sundays are too high not to be.
“We don’t hide from the truth,” Gibbs said.
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It is here, in these reviews of the day’s on-field practice work, that anxiety about the state of the Chiefs’ edge rush begins to come into focus.
Injuries to Pro Bowl outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have thrust third-year pro Dee Ford into a starting role, and, well … let’s just say Ford receives a lot of attention in these sessions.
“Coach Gibbs puts the pressure on him — he really does,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Yeah, (Dee) hears it. He hears it the most out of anybody in the room.”
Not that you would know this by asking Ford, 25. He has a high opinion of himself, and to him, the extra attention is just an indication of that.
“The most talented players need hard coaching,” Ford said. “He’s really coaching me scenarios because he knows if anybody can make the play, I can.”
But after two seasons as a reserve behind Houston and Hali, in which Ford has recorded a modest stat line of 31 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks, the time has come for him to prove it.
In March, Hali casually mentioned that he wanted to see Ford “take the next step in being a professional,” adding that it’s up to the Chiefs to make sure he “understands why” he and his teammates are in the building and “what needs to be done.”
“So, Dee works hard, but there’s a different level that you have to put it on to be a starter in this league,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid explained. “He’s never just been told, ‘Hey, you’re the starter.’ There’s a certain day-in and day-out pressure that comes with that, mentally and physically.
“So you’re at that place where you’re either going to take it up a notch, or you’re gonna be an average guy. That’s what it comes down to.”
This offseason, Ford says, he worked on his much-discussed weaknesses, such as his awareness and physicality against the run, not to mention his inability to win consistently at the line with anything other than a speed rush. He also tweaked his training to aid his less-discussed weaknesses, like his lack of hip flexibility, all in hopes of finally turning his big potential into big production in the NFL.
“People have a tendency to rush your process,” Ford said. “They don’t understand that … a process takes time.”
Shortly after the Chiefs selected Ford with the 23rd overall pick in 2014, team chairman Clark Hunt mentioned that he’d been told by front-office personnel that Ford’s rare burst off the snap was, without making a direct comparison, somewhat reminiscent of former Chiefs great Derrick Thomas.
Yet, the art of rushing the quarterback is about more than “get-off,” as Ford’s first two seasons have proved. One glaring difference between the two players is hip flexibility, which affects a rusher’s ability to “bend the corner” after the initial get-off and gobble up ground toward the quarterback. This one trait often spells the difference between a quarterback pressure and a harmless overrun of the pocket.
Ford, who recorded four sacks in a career-high 565 defensive snaps last year, concedes he missed many sack opportunities because of this flaw.
“I needed flexibility,” Ford said. “I always worked on everything in the gym. But sometimes, as football players, we can get into a strongman competition.”
Flexible hips are often something a player either has or doesn’t — Denver’s Von Miller is a terror because he combines natural burst and natural bend.
Still, Ford said he did what he could to improve there, including practicing yoga, in hopes of being the exception.
“You ever seen a guy who was really big but he’s stiff?” Ford said. “That was me, because I focused solely on being strong.”
The Chiefs also ask their outside linebackers to cover in space, and flexible hips help in that area, too. The 6-foot-2, 253-pound Ford was a 4-3 defensive end in college, so he will never be a natural cover linebacker. But he has shown potential. His coverage of San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead on the decisive play of a 10-3 win last December remains the highlight of his pro career.
“Yeah, he’s more flexible — I think he’s better in man coverage,” Gibbs said. “It’s an ongoing process for all those guys, especially those guys who are defensive ends in college that are coming into the NFL trying to be outside linebackers.”
An embarrassing 7-second lowlight in 2014 illustrated how far Ford had to go as a run defender as a rookie.
During a Week 5 loss at San Francisco, the 49ers ran a sweep toward Ford’s side, only to see Ford — who was supposed to have outside contain — retreat to find receiver Anquan Boldin in coverage. He was fooled badly as Frank Gore rushed for 9 yards right at the spot Ford vacated.
The Chiefs’ coaches defended Ford after that game, but the gaffe turned into a Vine video with millions of loops. Even Ford, who consistently says he doesn’t listen to outside criticism, felt compelled to type out a response on Twitter, writing, “Terrible play … unacceptable … Watch how I respond … !”
Two years later, Ford has made some improvement in this area, and he correctly points out that the Chiefs wouldn’t have kept starting him during their five-game winning streak after Houston’s injury if he wasn’t getting the job done most of the time.
Yet, he still has edge-setting lapses, something the two Pro Bowlers ahead of him on the depth chart — Hali and especially Houston — do infrequently.
“You’re going to give up plays — everybody gives up plays,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “But it’s got to be a minimum.”
Sutton, who never criticizes his players, called Ford’s run defense “OK” in the preseason. There were at least three instances in the first two games where Ford did not secure the edge, instead collapsing too far on inside running plays and allowing the back to bounce out to his side.
“I’m not going to tell you he had his best game — that’s not what I’d tell you,” Reid said following a 17-16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Aug. 13. “There are plays he’d wish he had back.”
Reid, however, added that Ford followed the Seahawks game with two “tremendous” practices, and while he did lose contain once in the Chiefs’ second preseason game, a 21-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 20, he generally played better.
“I still had a play today where I peeked inside that really ticks me off,” Ford said after that game. “But I was able to make a few tackles. It felt good.”
What Ford was unable to show in that game — and in the Seahawks game — was much of a pass-rush. Reid attributed some of that to the Chiefs’ opponents’ getting the ball out quickly.
But Ford’s past pass-rush issues go deeper than his lack of hip flexibility.
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey likes to stalk the practice fields in St. Joseph, and you won’t find a man more interested in their near-daily one-on-one pass-rush drills.
Dorsey is looking at everybody, but he’s definitely eyeing No. 55, because Ford’s pass-rush future depends on his ability to develop at least a few dependable complements to his speed rush.
“That’s learning, that’s part of the growth now going into your third year,” Dorsey said of Ford. “Now, you should be able to have a counter, inside stab. You should have multiple pass-rush moves.”
Ford says he now has two moves he feels comfortable with, maybe three. One move he likes is the long-arm power rush, which is a nice one for Ford because opposing tackles sometimes struggle to set against speed rushers, occasionally allowing a defender to strike their chest and bull them off-balance.
Mitchell Schwartz, one of the league’s top right tackles last year according to Pro Football Focus, saw Ford’s recent emphasis on speed-to-power firsthand during a practice a few weeks ago. Ford bulled him backward near the quarterback’s drop area.
“I think he’s an awesome player — he makes me better every day in practice, having to block him,” Schwartz said. “He’s not just straight-line. He’s also got some great moves … he’s definitely added some stuff.”
But that was just one rush on one day, and lots of players in the NFL can “flash,” or look good on a particular play. The good ones do it consistently.
And for all the attention he receives in film sessions, and all the scrutiny he receives on the practice field, the only one who can make Dee Ford live up to these expectations is Dee Ford.
After the Chiefs’ preseason game against the Rams, Ford was one of the last players to emerge from the cramped visitors’ locker room at the LA Coliseum.
No surprise there. Few Chiefs dress slower.
Ford’s cool, detached style was again on display as he walked up the tunnel ramp toward the team buses, sporting a gray hoodie and a smile.
It was there that Ford reiterated that he does not feel any pressure to deliver this year.
“(You feel) pressure when you’re not prepared,” Ford said. “I’m anxious, but there’s no pressure.”
That’s not just bluster for the media.
“He doesn’t get frustrated easy,” said Johnson, the Chiefs’ veteran inside linebacker. “Like, coaches are on him. They put a lot of pressure on Dee. And Dee’s kind of like, ‘Hey man, I’ve got it.’ He’s got a confidence about him that’s kind of old-school.”
Johnson also sees in Ford a sense of urgency that wasn’t always there, a reinforcement of Hali’s statement in March and Reid’s explanation of it.
“I used to see him just kind of, you know, go through practice and sometimes make a play, sometimes not, like whatever,” Johnson says. “But the lackadaisical, kind of, ‘Hey man, I’ve got it,’ cool vibe, is not out there on the field. You see him sprint to the ball. ... When he’s on the field, he’s working his tail off.”
So yes, the Chiefs are hoping Ford rewards them for their faith come the regular season. It’s time to be a good player, as Reid said, or an average one … and everyone knows what average first-round picks end up being called after three years.
Asked about this last Saturday, Ford shook his head and laughed in the breezy California night.
“Me coming under Justin and Tamba, these are big shoes to fill,” Ford said. “A lot of people would dissipate under those circumstances. But I’m just me. I’m me. I know I’m gonna make my mark as Dee Ford.”