Chiefs pass rush impresses in pre-season opener

The Chiefs won their pre-season opener in San Fransisco on Saturday, and one unit stood out among the rest.

It was a pre-season football game much like any other. A less than electrified, but still enthused crowd packed into Levi Stadium as both the Chiefs and 49ers got ready for their first exhibition of 2021. It looked and felt like a pre-season football game, for both teams. Turnovers, dropped passes, and less than stellar execution, but the one unit that stood out from both sides, and seemed to be playing at the highest level was the Chiefs pass rush, which of course starts upfront with the defensive line.

Chris Jones didn’t play much in the contest, but on a third down, he was able to destroy the right guard from defensive tackle. Jones looked good on the edge as a run defender, but he didn’t play enough for us to get a preview of what he will be able to do as an edge rusher. We know what Jones is as an interior pass rusher, and he showed us all very quickly what he will be capable of in 2021.

If any Chief has looked improved or looked like they have developed their game in, it has to be Tershawn Wharton. After jumping into the lineup as an undrafted rookie free agent, Wharton proved not only could he last a full NFL season, but that he has the potential to be a solid contributor in the future.

After looking impressive in the early parts of camp, Wharton was able to have a good showing against the 49er’s coming away with a big-time strip-sack. His natural athletic ability was on full display, but he showcased a more refined set of pass rush moves, that he can continue to build off.

We saw the Chiefs blitz a lot during the game, particularly with outside pressures coming from free rushers, a lot like the play that Omari Cobb gest the sack on below. Cobb will get credit for the play, but it was third-year defensive tackle Khalen Saunders that created the initial pressure.

We also saw third-year defensive end Tim Ward record two sacks on the day, picking up where he left off after an impressive Week 17 career debut last season.

For both Ward and Saunders, this preseason is huge.

Saunders was a third-round draft pick in 2019, but up to this point, whether it be due to injury or being buried on the depth chart, he has not been given much of a chance to see the field. This will be his best shot to earn more playing time, but also to make the roster. Right now Saunders is on the roster bubble, but if he shows more strong play he will have a great shot to make the team, and hopefully pay.

Ward has been a project player, spending the majority of the past two seasons on the practice squad. It looks like his development over the last two years has started to pay off, and with more strong play in the pre-season Ward looks to try to crack the active roster. He looks quicker off the snap and used his size and length to win rushes off the edge.

The Chiefs defensive line development has taken a backseat to the reloading of the offensive line this offseason, but it is very possible that this unit is the strongest overall positional unit we see during the 2021 NFL season. They still don’t have an elite rusher off the edge, and with Frank Clark set to miss the remainder of the pre-season it will weaken the unit from an edge-rushing perspective.

That being said the depth of the unit is great, as well as the good combination of youth and experience.

Jones could have his best season ever, Jarran Reed and Wharton look like they could dominate along the interior as well as Nnadi and Saunders. With Clark down, it will open up more opportunities for younger players like Mike Danna, Taco Charleton, Josh Kaindoh, and Ward. This unit will be good during the 2021 NFL season, as well as one that will continue to work and improve week in and week out.