Every time a quarterback drops back to pass, the individual battles between pass-blocking offensive linemen and pass-rushing defenders start anew.
Any one of those games within the game taking place along the line of scrimmage — a test of wits, balance and footwork combined with hand-to-hand combat — can drastically change the outcome of a game.
This weekend, Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Josh Rosen will be in the eye of the storm when the Chiefs (8-1) take the field. The Cardinals have allowed the ninth-most quarterback hits this season (57 in eight games), and Rosen has been sacked 16 times in six games (five starts).
Through nine games, the Chiefs’ defense ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks (26). Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford comes into the weekend as one of nine NFL players with at least eight sacks, and he’s tied for fourth in quarterback hits (16). Defensive lineman Chris Jones’ five sacks put him 1 1/2 sacks shy of his career high with seven games remaining.
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Jones, who has a sack in each of the past five games, said the fun really doesn’t start until you’ve stopped the running game. While that seems somewhat counter-intuitive, Jones explained his rationale.
“After you make them one-dimensional, then you can just pass rush,” Jones said. “You can come up with games. You can come up schemes to set the O-line up, get in their head. The game plays in your favor then.”
The Cardinals (2-6) rank last in the NFL in rushing (yards per carry and per game). Combine that with the Chiefs’ knack for scoring early and often, and the Cardinals could be in catch-up mode for most of the game. That means the race to get to Rosen could be in full swing by halftime.
Ford, who had a three-sack game two weeks ago against the Bengals, had a sack taken away last week on an offside penalty. However, replays showed he’d simply gotten off the ball with such suddenness that the referees were caught off-guard.
The 6-foot-2, 252-pound Ford could have a plethora of chances to introduce himself to young Mr. Rosen on Sunday.
Pro Football Focus grades Ford as the fourth-best overall edge defender in the league and top-rated edge pass rusher going into this game. He earned AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October. Ford has credited outside linebackers coach Mike Smith for fine-tuning his pass-rushing skills.
This is the first season the Chiefs’ outside linebackers have had their own position coach instead of just one linebackers coach overseeing both the inside and outside linebackers.
Ford, a former first-round draft pick out of Auburn (2014), has spent portions of his career finding success rushing the passer off pure strength and athleticism. Now, he feels confident that he’s developed and sharpened the mental acuity to complement his physical gifts.
“It’s not necessarily the move, it’s the mindset,” Ford said of how he’s changed as a rusher. “It’s a maturity and being more efficient with what you do. Those are the small things we work on, steps, hand placement. It’s like the small, finer details, and that’s where your game can really improve.
“That’s where you can go from getting eight sacks to 10 sacks to 15. You’re not just doing it off of luck. You’re not just going to have a three-sack game one week and disappear. It’s consistency now, because you’ve worked on those details.”
Even from the sidelines, Smith sees the wheels turning inside Ford’s brain as he lines up on game day. This season, Smith notices Ford looking at the feet, knees and hands of offensive linemen before the snap. He’s searching for any inkling of what’s coming. Ford is processing the formation and what tendencies the offense may have out of that alignment.
The finer points and details that Ford referred to, such as hand placement and footwork, are only part of the equation. The finer points of understanding the opponent have become just as important.
Smith and his crew, which could see Justin Houston return to the lineup after having missed four games, spend Thursdays going over how they want to attack each of the tackles on the opposing team — how they set up to pass protect, what to look for, what they do that Chiefs can use against them.
“We have a detailed game plan,” Smith said. “Usually, we can find some tendencies. That’s just going to make you a better football player. You just go into a play blind — thinking this is run or this is pass, or if this is pass I didn’t really study all week (and) I don’t really know what to do against this guy — it’s tough.”
Consider Thursdays at the Chiefs facility the football equivalent of Sun Tzu’s passage from “The Art of War”: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
The gregarious 6-foot-6, 310-pound Jones preferred a different analogy.
“It’s like a chess game — have the lineman guessing,” Jones said. “If he’s not guessing, then you’re guessing. So it’s all about making the next move your best move.”
Jones benefited from having veterans like Tamba Hali and Houston on the roster when he entered the league. They served as sounding boards, advisers and examples. They also pushed him.
Of course there were other lessons Ford could only get through experience. With playing time came a sense of knowing how to rush, how to set up a guy, how and when to hit a move, and knowing when to throw out what you think you know about an opponent.
“Film doesn’t always tell the truth because you may see them doing this this week and next week you’re a different type of guy, so they’ll set you differently than they set the last guy,” Jones said.
Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has been on the other side of the conflicts at the line of scrimmage. A two-time Associated Press All-Pro, he’s experienced success against some of the best pass rushers in the league, such as Von Miller, and he’s played nearly 7,000 consecutive snaps.
While the job of keeping pass rushers at bay is very different than being the one trying to disrupt the offense, his approach is remarkably similar.
Schwartz starts by examining how rushers work tackles who take pass sets similar to him, and he charts every pass rush his opponent makes so he can boil it down to what percentage of the time the player does a certain type of move in a certain situation.
Much like Jones, Schwartz admits there’s a point where a player can over-think things. Either side can fall victim to paralysis by analysis if they get too locked into a scouting report or what they saw on film.
Get too far out of character either in the way you block or the way you rush, and your opponent figures to benefit. After all, there’s something to be said for forcing somebody beat you while playing to your strengths.
“At the end of the day, you just kind of block for where the quarterback is supposed to be, and you kind of do what you trust and feels right,” Schwartz said. “If the guy is going to alter his plan, theoretically he’s going away from what he does best to try to alter it. It’s usually to your advantage if a guy is trying to do things that are a little unnatural.”