KANSAS CITY, Missouri. As a starting quarterback, Juan Thornhill is usually left out when the Kansas City Chiefs are trying to pressure the opposing quarterback by using more than the usual four pass rushers. He said he still likes being called.
“The ball comes out fast,” Thornhill said. “Quarterbacks get a little nervous in the pocket and start tossing the ball and that allows us to play more.
“The quarterback has guys in front of his face all the time and he’s uncomfortable. He sees the opposite color. He is trying to find a way to hit the ball and that gives us the opportunity to play with the ball. make it as uncomfortable as possible.”
The Chiefs pulled it off last week against one veteran quarterback, 37-year-old Matt Ryan of the Indianapolis Colts. Ryan was sacked five times and fumbled twice against the Chiefs, who played well enough defensively to win. But mistakes on offense and special teams cost Kansas City a 20-17 loss.
On Sunday night in Tampa Bay, the Chiefs will take on another veteran defenseman, this time 45-year-old Tom Brady of the Buccaneers. They guard their game plan as always, but the centerpiece is without a doubt the pressure on Brady, one way or another. Tampa Bay only allowed Brady to apply pressure 19.3% of the time he dropped out, the second-lowest in the NFL behind Cleveland’s Jacoby Brissett.
“By nature, it would be nice to always apply strong pressure,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo said. “I just think it challenges offensive lines and quarterbacks. [Brady is] one of those guys who thinks pretty fast, so you have to pick your seats. … He gets out very quickly. So it’s hard to get him confused about what everyone says they want to do with Tom Brady.”
The Chiefs’ pass rush started well, which was a priority after Kansas City finished 29th in the NFL in sacks last year (31). This season, the Chiefs are tied for fifth with 10. They also put pressure on a 33.6% drop rate, sixth in the league.
Blitz played a central role in the improvement. In three games, the Chiefs didn’t shine much — just 29.2% of the opponent’s pass snaps, 12th in the NFL. But they are one of the most productive teams when they do a blitz. Kansas City ranks sixth in pressure (52.5%) by sending at least one extra pass rusher.
Against the Colts, the Chiefs landed 13 flashes out of 42 dropbacks and pressured Ryan eight times. Four different players had at least one sack, including cornerback L’Jarius Snead, who also made a fumble.
Snead often lines up as a slot fullback, meaning he is relatively close to the ball. But this season, he’s leading the team with two sacks, and the Chiefs love to send him into the blitz because he’s shown a knack for it.
“This guy is explosive,” Thornhill said. “He gets to the quarterback so fast it’s like before the quarterback can put his feet up, he’s there. He’s fast, he knows how to lean and lean with a good curve, and that’s why he gets to the quarterback so quickly.”
Sneed said that he sought guidance from his teammates Chris Jones and Frank Clark on improving his technique. He spends his time working with all of the Chiefs’ pass rushers in their hand practice.
“I know I’m faster than the hitters,” Snead said. “My speed is a big advantage. They don’t like to fall low to the ground, so I like to fall low so they can’t get to me.”
The Chiefs faced a dilemma over Brady, who was fired six times in three Bucks games. He usually tries to get rid of the ball quickly – his 2.4-second pass time is the fastest in the NFL this season – so throwing at him often might not be the best strategy.
“He’s going to kick the ball out of his hands,” said Snead, who played against Brady and the Bucks as a rookie in 2020 and later that season in Super Bowl LV. “He doesn’t want to be touched. So the ball comes out quickly.”
The Chiefs have overcome almost a third of their total sacks in 2021 in three games this season. But they still have room to grow. Four of their 10 sacks came off the line, including two each from Sneed and linebacker Nick Bolton.
But then again, the Chiefs’ pass rush also wasn’t entirely dependent on Jones and Clark, as it has been in recent years. They have been 1-2 on the sack team in each of their last three seasons. Instead, six players have at least one sack. Jones (2) and Clark (1) scored three. Veteran defenseman Carlos Dunlap, who has 98 career sacks, is the fourth Chiefs player with two sacks.
“It’s great to watch Carlos on his way to 100 sacks, to watch Chris break 50, to watch our inner guys kick in,” Clarke said. “You have Halen Saunders, one of those guys that we don’t talk about much, but he had one of his best games last week, probably the best of his career.
“We lost [to the Colts]so a lot of the way some of these guys played goes under the rug. A lot of good things are happening, but it’s still early, so there’s nothing to talk about right now. We kind of lowered our heads, chopping wood.”