Sam Mellinger

Chiefs film analysis: Frank Clark, peak Frank Clark, is needed now more than ever

This is a column about the Frank Clark problem. This is now a thing. It’s not a huge thing, at least not yet, but it is a thing.

We know this even as Clark and the Chiefs downplay it. Clark talks about playing as a team and the Chiefs will offer that Clark is often double-teamed. And there are elements of truth to all of that, but here is the bigger truth:

The Chiefs aren’t getting what they paid for, either in draft capital or money, and a third of the way through the season and with Chris Jones now injured ahead of a difficult stretch of the schedule, this team needs its investment to pay off now more than ever.

If the problem was simple this would be a simple column.

This is not a simple column.

I charted all 169 of Clark’s snaps with the Chiefs so far. Clark has not been bad, or ineffective. He’s been ... fine.

Let’s emphasize: This is not a Frank Clark hit piece. He has made some nice plays, and he has attracted some extra attention from opponents. His sack against the Ravens helped secure a win. Again. He’s been fine.

But the Chiefs didn’t use first- and second-round picks and $63 million in guarantees for fine. They thought Clark would be a plug-and-play star, a pass rusher on the tier directly below Khalil Mack.

He has not been that player for the Chiefs, which is affecting the way opponents attack them. Consider this fact from Pro Football Focus: The average time to throw against the Chiefs is 2.75 seconds, which is the sixth-longest in the league.

Put another way: Opponents are not respecting the Chiefs’ pass rush, which means they’re able to extend routes and put extra pressure on the secondary.

These things are somewhat subjective, but I have Clark down for 13 pressures so far. PFF, just for comparison’s sake, credits him with 12. A year ago, as he played his contract season in Seattle, Clark did not have any five-game stretch with fewer than 14. Including the postseason, he averaged a little more than four per game for the Seahawks.

That’s just one measurement, but affecting the quarterback is a pass rusher’s most important job ... and using PFF’s numbers, Clark is on his least disruptive five-game stretch since his rookie season in 2015.

Clark built his reputation for pressuring quarterbacks in every way imaginable: one-on-one, with stunts, through double-teams or chips, from either end and up the middle. The Chiefs did not see Dee Ford as a fit for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s preferred 4-3 and saved $14 million in cap space by cutting Justin Houston.

The front office’s search for a pass rusher quickly focused on Clark. The best pass rushers in the draft would not be available for the Chiefs’ pick at No. 29 and, besides, the scouts saw Clark’s NFL tape as more impressive than what the prospects saw in college.



Effective with stunts:

That hasn’t showed up yet in Kansas City, and the film shows at least two explanations:

1. Clark is attracting disproportionate attention. On 93 pass-rush snaps after removing screens and extremely quick throws, Clark faced two or more blockers 37 times.

Here’s an example:

2. But, just as true, Clark has not made enough of the remaining opportunities.

Here’s an example:

A disclaimer that applies to all film reviews: We do not know play-calls or assignments. That’s particularly relevant with Clark because there are many snaps on which he utilizes a straight line bull rush. Some of those are his call, either because he believes it the best way to attack or at times as a strategy to set up later moves (more on that in a minute). Others are being coached — to contain a quarterback’s scramble, for instance.

Only the coaches and players know which are which, and how much of each we’re seeing.

Before we get too far into what’s not happening, let’s acknowledge Clark’s strengths. His contract and the defense’s overall ineffectiveness — they’ve trended the wrong way as a group the last two weeks — have created this false impression that he’s ghosted the first five games.

That’s just not true.

He consistently sets the edge against runs to his side and has shown the ability to beat his blocker and make the tackle.

He is a smart player, too, some combination of film study and instincts informing his moves. You can see hints of that on many of his snaps, but it’s perhaps most obvious against screens.

He has also been close to several big plays.

He has just one sack, but it was a beauty against the Ravens. He avoided a chip by the running back, pushed a strong right tackle upfield and then spun back into Lamar Jackson for a third-down sack in the red zone. There is an element of IQ and feel here, too, because the spin had been set up by bull rushes.

But, again, there just hasn’t been enough of that. Almost getting to the quarterback can be a positive sign, but only if there’s a payoff later when the quarterback goes down.

When a player of Clark’s talent and reputation gets to rush against just one man, he must take advantage. Too often, Clark hasn’t.

This is all a process, and we’re not close to the end yet. One area in which it would be fair to expect significant improvement is with stunts. Clark did a lot of this in Seattle, and on both ends of the pass-rusher equivalent of an alley-oop — the one crashing into a teammate’s blocker or the one looping through an open lane and into the quarterback.

At least by my count, Clark has only been involved in 11 of these. A few have been somewhat close, but too often the pressure has simply been late or ineffectively executed.

The trade and contract cannot be honestly judged off five games. This season has always been about the playoffs, and specifically getting past the Patriots. It makes sense that Clark might need some time to learn a new scheme and adjust to new teammates, and that the Chiefs’ coaches might need the same time to learn how to help him better use his specific gifts.

You can see flashes of what the Chiefs paid for, but those flashes so far do not justify the cost. That was always the burden Clark would carry with the Chiefs.

That job will be more difficult now without Jones and more crucial with a run of formidable opponents ahead. We always knew it would be a process with Clark and the defense.

But it’s time for the process to pick up speed.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.