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Chiefs' defense shares blame for biggest pass-rush disparity in Super Bowl history

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In the first quarter of Super Bowl LV, defensive end Frank Clark appeared to be on his way to another big postseason game for the Kansas City Chiefs.

First, Clark stayed home on an end around, avoided an attempted block and tackled receiver Scotty Miller of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a loss. Two plays later, he sacked Bucs quarterback Tom Brady.

After that, though, Clark -- like the rest of the Chiefs defense -- produced little, with two assisted tackles.

"Some of the things that are my strengths I wasn't able to showcase because they got up on us and it's a different kind of ballgame when you're playing from behind," Clark said after the game. "I was defending the run a lot."

The biggest reason for the Chiefs' 31-9 loss was the disparity in pass-rush pressure, the biggest in Super Bowl history. The Chiefs pressured Brady four times while the Bucs pressured Patrick Mahomes on 29 pass attempts. The largest previous disparity in a Super Bowl was 11.

Clark and the other Kansas City defenders can't be blamed for Mahomes being harassed on a large percentage of his throws, but they picked a bad time to struggle with generating pressure of their own, even if part of the issue was the speed at which Brady got rid of the ball -- 2.27 seconds according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the fastest for Brady since 2016.

Over the course of the season, the Chiefs put pressure on the opposing quarterback 28% of the time when they rushed four or fewer defenders, which was eighth best in the league. Not surprisingly, two of their lowest games of the year were in losses. Without blitzing, they pressured on 15.8% of the plays in the Super Bowl and on 14.3% of the plays in a Week 5 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Chiefs were second in the league in pressures at 47.2% when rushing five or more defenders. But they didn't produce sacks at nearly the same rate. They were 11th in sack percentage at 5.7 when they didn't blitz and an alarming 29th in sack percentage at 4.1 when they did.

Chris Jones was the only Kansas City player to generate consistent pressure. Jones was 16th in the league in pass rush win rate at 20.4%. He was the team's only player in the top 75. Clark was 76th at 10.6%.

That can explain why the Chiefs couldn't finish a lot of their pressures with sacks.

"It's not just Chris," defensive line coach Brendan Daly said. "It's everybody. Anytime you talk about getting pressure, it's not one person. It all has to work together."

The Chiefs traded for Clark two years ago and signed him to a lucrative, long-term contract to provide a consistent second pass-rush option besides Jones.

"[Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] put us in situations to free us up, to put us in one-on-ones," Jones said. "I kind of know how Frank rushes and how he plays. ... We try to work off each other, and I think as long as we continue to play together we'll continue to get better."

But the plan hasn't always worked as the Chiefs hoped. Jones led the team in sacks in each of his two seasons with Clark.

Clark started slowly in 2019 with one sack in his first six games. In the final 11 games of the season, he had 12 sacks, including five in the playoffs.

In 2020, Clark had six sacks in the regular season and three in the playoffs.

"He brings energy," Spagnuolo said of Clark. "We know that, and I think our guys feed off that. When you're dealing with a quarterback, it's about affecting the quarterback. It's not necessarily sacks. We'd love to have a bunch of sacks, but that's not going to happen. That's not the No. 1 goal. The No. 1 goal is to affect the quarterback to the point that he doesn't complete the pass or get it downfield.

"Frank does that. There are a number of things that go unnoticed from all of our pass-rushers: just being relentless in the pass rush, if they make the quarterback move in the pocket, if they get him off the spot a little bit. Frank's been great that way."