Sam Mellinger

Dee Ford’s critical season for the Chiefs begins with ... not much

The Chiefs are hoping for big things from outside linebacker Dee Ford, but he didn’t show much in the team’s first exhibition game.
The Chiefs are hoping for big things from outside linebacker Dee Ford, but he didn’t show much in the team’s first exhibition game.

Except for major injuries there is nothing that can happen in the first preseason game to change an NFL team’s course, but with this particular Chiefs team in this particular season they are going to have to address something.

Two years after Clark Hunt brought up Derrick Thomas’ name in describing Dee Ford, the Chiefs need their young pass rusher to produce.

The Chiefs lost to the Seahawks 17-16 in front of a lot of empty seats on Saturday, an appropriate audience for what amounts to an expensive scrimmage, and Kansas City’s best roster in years showed plenty of positives.

The offensive line was good. The first possession ended in a touchdown, giving Alex Smith the rest of the night off. Marcus Peters intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line. Chris Jones, the top draft pick, was a problem for the interior of the Seahawks’ offensive line.

Tyreek Hill shook Richard Sherman at the line of scrimmage, though he couldn’t catch what should’ve been a better pass from Nick Foles. Rod Streater made a terrific back-shoulder catch. The backup quarterbacks could’ve been better, and the Chiefs are still without several of their best players, but overall, pretty good.

But, in terms of the Chiefs’ outlook in 2016, the most curious development in this game was always going to be Ford.

“The first thing comes in having confidence in yourself,” Ford said. “I have the ultimate confidence in myself. I’ve always known I’d have this opportunity. So I’m kind of following suit with my own plan. I’ve always planned on having this opportunity.”

If this roster has a fatal flaw, it’s the edge pass rush, particularly until Justin Houston returns from knee surgery — which could be a while.

Everything the Chiefs do on defense is based on disrupting timing. The first and best way of doing that is by pressuring the quarterback. In defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s three seasons here, only the Panthers have more sacks.

Houston is the most important player in that — obviously — and if the pass rush doesn’t come, then an inexperienced secondary is asked to cover too long and a ball-control offense is asked to take more risks. Ford is replacing Houston in the lineup, and in the parity of the NFL, this is the type of thing that could swing a season.

It’s critical for the Chiefs to get some production from Ford.

The team’s decision makers have talked of Ford in confident and optimistic terms. Ford has just 5  1/2 sacks and 24 tackles since being drafted in the first round two years ago, but pass rushers develop at different paces, so it’s always been fair to see what Ford does in his third NFL season.

The knock on Ford has been the lack of a counter move to a terrific speed rush. He’s blessed with more talent than most, even by NFL standards, but at this level technique is required to let talent shine. Ford has had two full seasons to learn from Houston and Tamba Hali, two of the best in the league. He’s had more opportunities than most to put in extra work, to study the subtleties that separate stars from washouts.

And, in a very small sample size, Ford did not distinguish himself before exiting with most of the rest of the first-team defense after Seattle’s first two drives.

The closest he came to an impactful play was a bull rush in which he raised a hand close enough to perhaps get into Seahawks quarterback Trevone Boykin’s vision, but it would be more than a generous stretch to say Ford caused the incompletion.

When the coaches review the video, they’ll see Ford being easily controlled on most snaps by a single blocker. On most snaps, that single blocker was Garry Gilliam, one of Pro Football Focus’ worst-rated tackles from last year. Gilliam took out Ford’s legs on the first snap, and spent most of the rest of his time confidently standing his ground.

At least twice, Ford failed to hold the edge. One of those would’ve been a third-down conversion but for a holding penalty. On the other, Ford allowed himself to be pushed too far upfield, and by the time he shed the block it was too late, and the Seahawks had an 8-yard run.

In Ford’s defense, there was very little game planning this week. Two series is a small fraction of a full game, and pass rushers often talk about needing a rhythm.

Again, this is not a call for alarm. It’s just two drives in one preseason game. Four weeks remain until the real games start. Hali is expected to be healthy by then, and the Chiefs have enough talented defensive linemen to generate some pressure inside. Sutton can get creative with blitz packages, so even if Ford is a disappointment the Chiefs can recover.

But it would be made much more difficult, at least until Houston returns. The simplest way is for Ford to be a productive pass rusher. He’s always had the talent, and this season will have the opportunity. We’ll see.

“All pass rushers need counter moves — me especially,” Ford said. “I don’t shy away from that. It’s not an easy thing. That comes with experience. I have counter moves, it just hasn’t been shown. In due time, people will see.”

That time is now. It needs to be. Ford understands that, at least.

“This is it,” he said. “Everything’s out on the table.”