Four steps come quick but thunderous, and even in a sport packed with genetic freaks, the heaviest man on the field makes a different sound. Dontari Poe sprints directly into the line of scrimmage — bursting out first with his right foot, then left, then right again, before planting the left and launching his 346 pounds over the bodies below and toward the end zone beyond, one of the rare acts of athleticism that stick out in an NFL game full of them.
The sequence leaves observers asking, “How’d you do that?”
“I have no idea,” Dontari Poe says, and he is smiling, because really, how could he not?
Poe’s Chiefs beat the Chargers 33-3 here on Sunday, and the video image that will live on will be the heaviest man to ever score an offensive touchdown in the NFL taking those four steps, and then the jump — he had a 29 1/2 -inch vertical leap at the NFL’s scouting combine, which is actually higher than about half of the players at the most recent NBA combine. It’ll make for a great trivia question and funny highlight of an enormous man dancing the Nae Nae.
His leap into history carries some nice symbolism, too, a defensive player scoring on offense for a team that’s now 5-5 with realistic playoff chances because of the defense. They’ve run this play in practice before, but never in a full-contract drill, because no coach would voluntarily make his own players try to tackle this man. Poe weighs 80 percent more than the average American male, and is almost certainly faster and more agile than most of the men half his size.
“That’s the Refrigerator Poe,” Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters said, and if you’re wondering, former Bears lineman William Perry was listed at 335 pounds when he scored touchdowns for the 1985 Chicago Bears.
But the best play made by a Chiefs defender Sunday was something else entirely. Justin Houston — who may be the sport’s best outside linebacker now — used a jaw-dropping combination of brains and athleticism for a pick-six that ripped away the Chargers’ last hope.
Houston rushed 8 or 9 yards up-field on Chargers right tackle Joe Barksdale before reading the screen pass, releasing from the block, and blanketing back Danny Woodhead coming across the field. Houston tipped the pass, then grabbed it, sprinting 17 yards down the left side for the touchdown.
When it was all over but the celebrating, Poe and Houston walked by each other in the cramped locker room here, each smiling and yelling over the other about who made the better play.
“Nobody else can do what I did!” Poe said to Houston.
Houston laughed. Later, someone asked about it.
“I told him I earned my touchdown,” Houston said. “His touchdown was given.”
These are the kinds of arguments winning teams have, and this is a long time coming for the Chiefs. They lost five in a row, and that’s when a lot of players on a lot of teams start to make “business decisions,” prioritizing personal futures over the collective “now.” That happens every year in the NFL, actually. The Chiefs have been that team before. Alex Smith played on some of those teams in San Francisco.
But now the Chiefs have won four in a row, and there is any number of reasons for this, ranging from the optimistic to the cynical. But the defense is as good a place as any to start.
The Chiefs gave up 31, 38, and 36 points in losses to the Broncos, Packers and Bengals. Not all of that was on the defense, but it was a startling failure from a team that did not give up 30 points in any game last year.
Starting in week five, the Chiefs have allowed a total of 73 points. That is, by far, the fewest in the NFL. Over the same period, coming into this week’s games, only Denver had given up fewer yards. Only the Giants and Steelers forced more turnovers. In their last six games, the Chiefs have 20 sacks.
Now, again, there is more to it than improved defense. The offense has put the defense in fewer bad spots, with Alex Smith in particular playing better and now setting a franchise record for most passes without an interception.
Also — and this should not be overlooked — the schedule has been much easier. Of the Chiefs’ last six opponents, only the Chargers and Steelers ranked higher than 20th in yards coming into this week’s games. The Chargers are playing with every familiar symptom of a team that has fully given up, and the Steelers started their third-string quarterback.
So you can still want this group to prove something, and after a 1-5 start, wanting the Chiefs to prove who they are is reasonable policy.
But there are some nice signs. Sean Smith, the team’s most established cornerback, missed the first three games on suspension. Peters, who is making a great case for defensive rookie of the year, is growing every week. Tamba Hali looked slow at the beginning of the season and now has 4 1/2 sacks in his last four games.
Making the playoffs will still be a challenge. At the moment, the Chiefs are one of three 5-5 teams in the AFC, all of whom trail the 6-4 Steelers and 5-4 Bills. The Chiefs have the tiebreaker against the Steelers and the 5-5 Texans, and play the Bills this week. Their playoff chances are in their own control, but the margin for error is virtually eliminated.
If there is an advantage in having such a deep and obvious line of demarcation in a season, it is that the Chiefs have 10 games’ of proof about exactly what they are. Perhaps more than ever before, they know they have to avoid turnovers on offense, and make plays on defense.
The Chiefs are without running back Jamaal Charles, and now perhaps backup Charcandrick West, and they have struggled to both convert in the end zone and score with big plays. All of that is true, and they are still winners of their last four, outscoring opponents by more than three touchdowns per game in that time.
Their easier second-half schedule is surely part of that, but just like playing good teams was not a viable excuse in September, playing bad teams now should not be reason to dismiss what’s happening on the field. Because the Chiefs have salvaged their season, and they’ve largely done it with their defense. They just won a divisional game on the road and did not have an offensive player score a touchdown until it was already a blowout in the fourth quarter.
About those touchdowns, too. Poe makes a passionate case for his being more impressive, and he is big enough that he should be heard out.
“He can’t do what I can do, as far as jumping,” Poe said. “I can do what he can do, though, so I feel like I got the best of both worlds.”
He paused, which allowed the question to be asked: You, at 346 pounds, could rush your man upfield, read the screen, peel back, make a juggling interception and run in for the touchdown?
All of that?
“Yeah man, easy,” Poe said. “Easy, man. Smooth.”
Poe smiled, and walked out of the locker room, toward the Chiefs’ bus and charter flight back to Kansas City, where he and Houston almost certainly continued their argument. The kind of argument guys on winning teams have.
Wasn’t too long ago the Chiefs looked like a team that could never have this kind of argument.