Increasingly scrutinized and scoffed at as the Chiefs’ 2014 first-round pick who has yet to blossom, linebacker Dee Ford shrugged away some of the doubt with an adventurous performance against San Diego on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
After largely resembling a wallflower standing in for the injured Justin Houston in his first start a week ago, Ford unleashed a team-leading seven tackles and amassed three sacks after previously accumulating 1 1/2 in two seasons.
He also earned a nod for tight pass coverage on Danny Woodhead in the end zone on San Diego’s foiled final play in the Chiefs’ grinding 10-3 victory.
“Woodhead’s a great player. He’s a mismatch for linebackers,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “(But) on that play, he wasn’t a mismatch for Dee Ford.”
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Added Johnson: “This team this year has been about ‘next man up, next man up.’ And Dee Ford really showed the definition of ‘next man up.’ … Hat’s off to that young man.”
Just the same, a fuzzy and fickle line separates a breakthrough performance from what might be considered an arrival in the NFL.
No one knows this better than Ford, who even after a triumphant day remained resolute about canceling out potentially contaminating noise of any sort: good or bad.
“I’m just a player that’s getting better in this league, and that’s what it’s all about: It’s just all about getting better,” he said.
He paused, smiled and added, “See, that was some noise right there.”
Ford knows it wouldn’t have taken much for this week’s noise to have a different tone.
Start with the offside penalty he incurred with 5 seconds left after Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers on fourth and 10 connected with Vincent Brown for 22 yards to the Chiefs’ 1-yard-line.
That gave the Chargers an extra tick or two on the clock, which may have been why they were able to get off two more plays instead of one.
Meanwhile, the reason he lagged into the penalty spoke to a silly lapse of Ford’s focus.
“Yeah, I was trying to watch the (video) screen, look at my last rush,” he said. “Yeah, can’t do that, can’t do that.”
Then on the decisive play launched with two seconds left, Woodhead got behind Ford and could well have caught it despite Ford nagging at him.
To be sure, Ford was in good position and jostled Woodhead.
But the narrative would be different if Woodhead made the play.
Asked if that was the ideal matchup, Chiefs coach Andy Reid smiled and said, “I’m asking for another question.”
None of which is to say this wasn’t a substantial step forward for Ford, whose hushed rookie season was underscored by a play he misread against San Francisco that left him running away from ballcarrier Frank Gore.
“Terrible play … Unacceptable,” Ford wrote on Twitter at the time. “Watch how I respond …!”
It’s been in fits and starts, really.
But maybe that was to be expected more than we might realize.
Especially since one of the reasons Ford hasn’t been as visible his first two seasons is because of the mentors playing in front of him now — Houston and Tamba Hali — who will be influential in his presumably bright future.
“A lot of football has been played in that (linebacker) room,” safety Eric Berry said. “So (they) give him a lot of nuggets, and if you just pay attention to it, that helps out a lot.”
No doubt Ford is attuned to that, which explains his gestures of tribute to Houston after his first sack.
“That’s just me speaking to God (about) getting him back healthy. It’s love,” he said. “And I did Tamba’s celebration, too. I just think about everything that I’ve been through with those two: training me and showing me everything.”
Moreover, the learning curve always lurks early in an NFL career.
Being under the microscope of instant expectations as a first-round pick doesn’t accelerate the process.
“It’s not all peaches and cream at the beginning of it,” said Johnson, the Chiefs’ 2005 first-round pick who now is their career leading tackler.
Instead, it has to be seen as a gradual and sometimes tedious process.
“When you get opportunities like he did today, seize the moment,” Johnson said. “Get better from there. There’s plenty of things you can get better from.”
And so Ford did on Sunday.
Even if some of his success hinged on exploiting struggling Chargers backup left tackle Chris Hairston.
Even if there were moments that could have gone otherwise and changed the noise he’ll hear this week.
Because it was all another step: toward expanding his game past being a “one-trick pony” as a pass rusher; toward being in the right place at the right time.
And essentially coming through in the crucible of a clock ticking down … in the end zone … on a game’s decisive play.
“Through last year and this year, you have to be patient,” Ford said. “With whatever your role is, you have to fill it out.
“Be man enough to humble yourself and learn from two of the greatest linebackers in this league. And I’ve been able to do some things.”
With more to come, one step at a time.