Khalen Saunders is Providing a Spark Opposite of Chris Jones on the Interior of the Chiefs’ Defensive Line

As Chris Jones continues his dominant tear through 2022, Khalen Saunders has emerged as a high-level contributor for the Chiefs.

Chris Jones is on an absolute tear and looks to be having a career year halfway through the 2022 NFL season. With seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and three batted passes he is the best player on the Kansas City Chiefs defense and should be getting national attention for Defensive Player of the Year. The entire Kansas City game plan revolves around Jones, and his ability to win one on one matchups.

What makes this season so special for Jones is that among the league leaders in sacks, and pressures, most of them are coming from players who either line up as a traditional defensive end or the hybrid edge spot. Of the top 20 leaders in sacks, only Jones, Quinnen Williams, Vita Vea, and Javon Hargraves are listed as defensive tackles.

Lining up as mostly a three-technique Jones gets a lot of attention on most plays, but this year he has added a new element to his game, and the Chiefs have fully embraced him using his powerful bull rushes to crush the pocket on obvious passing downs.

This has been an excellent way to let Jones create havoc with his rare power that most offensive tackles are not accustomed to seeing from other edge players. Jones has improved his sack numbers and is pacing for a double-digit season. Jones has had just one double-digit sack season in his career, which was his monster 15-sack campaign in 2018. Since then he has come close, but what has separated him from the other elite pass rushers in the NFL is the sack numbers, which combined with no postseason sacks have led some to question whether he is worth the large contract the Chiefs are paying him.

This year he has proven he is worth every dime, and as of late the attention that teams have been paying to him from double teams has opened up an opportunity for another pass-rushing threat to emerge.

Through the last three games, Khalen Saunders has burst onto the scene as not only a viable run-stopper but has also shown off his pass-rush arsenal, with two and a half sacks. Saunders has struggled to see the field during his three seasons in the NFL, but now fully healthy he has made a case every week for more playing time and looks like he could be both a two-down run stuffer and also a rush specialist on pass-downs.

Most teams will not leave the bodies in protection to do much more than double Jones and provide some outside help from chipping backs or ends on the edge players, which gives a huge schematic advantage with an inside pass rusher. Saunders is as stout as they come, but because he is light on his feet he can blow past guards right off the snap, or use quick hands to beat them, much like Jones.

Another productive interior pass rusher opposite of Chris Jones gives the Chiefs another added dimension, because if Saunders can continue to prove that he can win one on one blocks then teams can double Jones all they want, but it’s going to leave them with a lesser athlete, presumably a guard matched up with a very quick and explosive player. Combine them with the ageless wonder Carlos Dunlap, a re-energized Frank Clark, and rookie George Karlaftis, we are seeing the defensive line improve in front of our eyes.

Preseason showed some early promise

Jones is elite, but he needs help. The wear and tear of carrying the pass rush have left him drained at the end of the season in years past and has not kept him fresh for the team’s biggest games. This year must be different if they want to hoist another Lombardi. With help from other pass rushers, it will take some of the weight off of Jones’ shoulders, and will make the front harder to stop.

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