When the Chiefs’ scout-team defense lines up against the first-string offense, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton likes to watch closely.
Playing on the scout team can be a thankless job, carrying out the next opponent’s plays and giving the first-stringers a good look.
But in his 40-plus years as a football coach, Sutton has realized that you can learn plenty about a defensive player from his habits on the scout team.
“If you do your assignment on the card, that’s fine — you’ve fulfilled your obligation,” Sutton said. “But I tell them ‘Hey, the Chiefs are training you, they’re giving you a chance to improve yourself right here, rather than saying ‘I’m servicing them by being the Denver Broncos look team.’ It’s how you look at your opportunity.”
And one Chief who has approached his scout-team duty with a full heart is rookie edge rusher Tanoh Kpassagnon. His combination of size (6 feet 7, 280 pounds) and athleticism (he was one of the top scouting combine performers at his position) enticed the Chiefs to select him in the second round of this year’s draft despite being a raw prospect out of Villanova.
“He’s done a great job,” Sutton said before the Chiefs’ win against Denver on Oct. 30, uncharacteristically emphasizing the word great. “He’s over there working on his rush everyday and he’s getting better at it. I’d say for the last four weeks, he’s really invested himself in that process, trying to get better as a player.”
If you talk to Kpassagnon, it doesn’t take long to see what Sutton is talking about. The 23-year-old is jovial and upbeat, which isn’t always a given at this point for rookie because the season is a grind.
“We actually study other players and try to play like them, too,” Kpassagnon said. “It’s actually pretty cool.”
That means Kpassagnon has had an opportunity to play like Denver star outside linebacker Von Miller, for instance. This has been helpful because Kpassagnon — who played with his hand in the dirt as a defensive lineman in college — is listed as an outside linebacker and has played in a two-point stance during his limited in-game work this season.
“I am an outside linebacker now, for sure,” Kpassagnon said. “I’m getting way more comfortable with it.”
Kpassagnon said assistant defensive line coach Mike Smith has been instrumental in helping him refine his technique in a two-point stance.
“Just learning my steps, when to make moves, stuff like that,” Kpassagnon said.
Kpassagnon is also working on his eyes as an edge rusher, which he needs to refine because the Chiefs’ outside linebackers are asked to drop in coverage.
“Coverage is something that I’m working on a lot more, and I feel like I’m learning it,” Kpassagnon said. “Just being able to know the defense and know where your help is helps you so much.”
Kpassagnon also has been working as a down lineman on the scout team — a five- or three-technique — which has helped him learn the importance of leverage and gap discipline, two areas he’s needed to improve on against the run.
If it sounds like a lot, it is. Kpassagnon not only has to get the first-string offense ready to play on the scout team, he’s also a backup on defense. So he has to know the defensive game plan.
But in his limited in-game work — 14 snaps — he’s fared well enough for Chiefs coach Andy Reid to compliment him.
“I would tell you that he didn’t hurt his chances,” Reid said when asked if Kpassagnon has earned more playing time following a 10-snap performance against Denver. “He did a nice job.”
Kpassagnon, however, didn’t log any defensive snaps in the Chiefs’ next game, a 28-17 loss at Dallas. Such is the nature of NFL life for rookies, especially raw ones like Kpassagnon, who are willing to do anything — including gain or lose weight — his coaches ask.
“Even if I need to cut down, just to be able to move a little better, it would be easy for me,” Kpassagnon said. “I’ll see what I look like this year and go from there.”
Kpassagnon says he could get up to 300 pounds if he really needed to, but it would actually be easier for him to shed 20 pounds and get down to 260.
“I lose weight like, easy,” Kpassagnon said. “I have to eat more to keep this weight on. So if I just eat normally, I’ll lose weight.”
But his readiness to play will come down to more than his frame. It will come down to his understanding of the Chiefs’ defensive concepts and ability to process and diagnose plays.
And while he knows his readiness will be determined by the coaches, he’s optimistic about his progress.
“I’m not that far,” Kpassagnon said. “I feel like I’m pretty ready.”