They came in waves, one after the other. Scores of large men, wearing white jersey with numbers in the 70s and 90s, came and went in between almost every defensive snap.
The Chiefs used a six-man rotation along their interior defensive line in their 29-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Sometimes three players were subbed out at a time, hockey-style.
“Yeah, that’s something new we’re doing,” nose tackle Dontari Poe said. “We’ve got numbers, and we’ve got people who can play all across the board. So we’re just rotating them in and out and getting fresh people in there to play.”
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Chiefs coach Andy Reid said the move was necessary as the Chiefs attempted to keep everyone fresh against one of the league’s most dangerous uptempo offenses.
“Well, we trust a lot of guys, so up front, you might as well use them, right?” Reid said. “We’re comfortable with all of them … the air in a dome has a tendency to dehydrate you.”
Atlanta ran for 128 yards in 30 carries on Sunday, but the Chiefs’ defense stiffened in the red zone, yielding only seven carries for 12 yards to running backs.
Against the league’s highest-scoring team, they’ll take that performance, especially when you consider Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey, two well-paid, high-performing interior linemen, are on injured reserve and Poe is playing through back spasms during a contract year.
Perhaps that’s why, after the game, the six linemen were laughing it up in the visitors locker room.
“Just to see how we interact with each other … you could see the smiles and the conversation, it’s genuine,” Rakeem Nunez-Roches said. “Nobody is a loner or on all the outside. We’re all amongst each other and with each other.”
Their stalls were right next to each other, and — in a rarity for a sport that builds internal competition — they could all say they had directly contributed to a Chiefs win. It was the first time this season the Chiefs had that many players at one position log at least 10 snaps in a game. Poe played on 48 of 73 possible snaps, Chris Jones had 43, Nunez-Roches had 38, Kendall Reyes played 19, newcomer T.J. Barnes had 17 and Jarvis Jenkins had 16.
The starting — Poe, Jones and Nunez-Roches — and second groups — Reyes, Jenkins and Barnes — played together. In nickel situations, Poe and Jones got most of the work with Nunez-Roches and Jenkins serving as the second platoon.
But there were times the groups got mixed up. Players on the sideline were tasked with watching their on-field counterparts and subbing in at a moment’s notice when a guy got up slow, tapped his helmet (a universal indicator for “I need a break”) or looked gassed.
“You’ve got to watch a player — can’t leave them on the field,” Nunez-Roches said. “When you see them tired, see them winded and he starts tapping, you get ready to sub.”
Nunez-Roches typically doesn’t get tired; he’s one of the Chiefs’ most enthusiastic players. But even he had to sub himself out once Sunday. Poe said the strategy helped the group’s mindset and physicality.
“It just lets you know that once you’re in there, you’ve got to make plays, because you’re coming in and coming out,” Poe said.
The additional substitutions also helped keep the interior linemen fresher for their Thursday night showdown against the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders love to run the ball, and it’s going to be chilly, around 20 degrees at game time.
In other words, it’s a game that will be won up front, and the Chiefs’ interior linemen don’t lack confidence after they all chipped in for a big win Sunday.
“Right now, each and every week we’re coming together in the D-line room,” Nunez-Roches said. “It’s not so much an ‘I’; it’s a ‘we’ right now.”