Will Dee Ford Step In and Step Up?

Every year in the NFL players are called to step up in place of injured or underperforming starters. For Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford that time to step up comes at the beginning of this season. Jon Ledyard examines the third year linebackers skills to see if he will be able to make Justin Houston’s injury a minor blip in the defense’s title plans.

Tuesday was a tough day for Chiefs fans, as news broke that Kansas City star outside linebacker Justin Houston will miss training camp and possibly the beginning of the 2016 season while recovering from an ACL injury (not a tear) that cut short his 2015 campaign last fall. Former first round pick Dee Ford will step into the starting lineup in place of the veteran, and while no one can replicate the impact that Houston has snap-to-snap, Ford’s steady improvement over the course of last season suggests reason for at least a little optimism during these trying times.

It was admittedly a rough first season for Ford in 2014, who played just 122 defensive snaps and earned only one sack. Ford obtained social media notoriety for a play against the 49ers in which he perplexingly ran away from Frank Gore despite the running back heading in his direction.

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The learning process was a tough one at first for the athletic speed rusher, but the 2015 season carried with it increased opportunity and production for the now third-year rusher.

Improvements

Notching four sacks in five starts and 480 snaps, Ford’s best trait is still his burst off the ball, as his quickness makes him a tough matchup for less athletic offensive tackles. That was the case in Week 14 against San Diego during Ford’s second career start, as the edge rusher ate up the Chargers’ subpar offensive line for three sacks and seven tackles. Where he’s really improved is in his hand usage at the top of the arc, showing the physicality and technique to get offensive tackles off balance while winning the edge.

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While Chris Hairston isn’t a normal starter or even an adequate NFL offensive lineman, I love seeing Ford incorporate that arm chop despite the fact that he could probably just fly by the Chargers’ tackle on most snaps. Ford called on the move again later in the game, swiping a violent right arm down on Hairston’s mitts to double-over his opponent and track down Philip Rivers for a sack.

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Ford’s implementation of proper technique and hand usage to cut the tightest path possible to the quarterback is commendable, and something you wouldn’t often see from him in college at Auburn. Now the outside linebacker is constantly battling at the top of the arc, which is huge for a pass rusher that lacks elite bend like Ford does. It’s unfortunate given his excellent quickness off the ball, but Ford just doesn’t have that lower body flexibility to win the edge without incorporating a little more work into his rushes.

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Ford’s quickness gets Ravens’ right tackle Ricky Wagner over-extended trying to reach and protect the edge, but the pass rusher just doesn’t have the bend to get low to the ground, dip under minimal contact, and flatten to the quarterback. Ford still hustles admirably to get a hit on quarterback Jimmy Clausen, but Wagner’s slight push is enough to send the upright defender stumbling off his path a bit. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s that subtle ability to bend the edge consistently that makes pass rushers like Houston and Denver’s Von Miller so valuable. Not many have the physical and athletic gifts that those two do, let alone the technique.

So while Ford will always have to rely on his burst and quickness as an edge rusher, his ability to read and process the game at a higher level opened up new possibilities for him as a pass rusher in 2015. After being denied on the edge by Wagner throughout the first half of their game, Ford noticed the offensive tackle oversetting in order to be in position to reject Ford’s speed rush. In college, Ford would have stubbornly continued to attack the edge (Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree has this issue now), refusing to take advantage of the inside rush lane sitting there for him to exploit. In his second year in the NFL however, the Auburn product is much more aware of his opponent’s weaknesses, exploiting the B gap twice at Wagner’s expense.

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Wagner almost has to grab the defender’s waist to keep him from getting to Clausen , and while you’d like to see Ford power through contact and finish, you still appreciate the awareness to take the inside lane and force a hurried incompletion.

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An even stronger, more assertive move by Ford here, who slides by the oversetting Wagner easily to get a hit on Clausen. Smart players recognize and attack their opponent’s mistakes, and it was clear that Ford was becoming that type of player down the stretch last season.

Not a Finished Product

Despite his improvements as a pass rusher, Ford is still too reliant on his inconsistent ability to win the edge, and needs to develop more of a speed-to-power game. He has the initial burst and natural leverage at only 6’2″ to get under most offensive tackles, but his hand placement is erratic at best. Ford consistently attempts to utilize his upper half, but his attacks can be wild and unrefined, something that should improve with time and repetition. When it does, the opportunity for spins, counters, and bull-rushes should become more readily available.

Where Ford really needs to improve is his run defense, as the linebacker lost outside containment far too often, even getting bullied off the line of scrimmage by tight ends in several games. It isn’t a strength issue so much as a recognition and hand placement concern. Ford has to be the contact initiator more often, but that begins with quick processing skills, something he is still learning to do as a run defender. If that part of his game doesn’t improve this season, Kansas City’s defense will suffer as a result.

No one will confuse Ford for Houston if he’s in the starting lineup to begin the season, but the third-year defender has the ability to be a steady force on the edge for the Chiefs, especially if his mental processing and technique have continued to improve. This opportunity is a big one for Ford, who will be seeking to prove that he was worthy of the first-round selection Kansas City spent on him. Year two revealed some bright spots in the young pass rusher’s game, but Ford will have to make even greater strides in year three in order to help keep the Chiefs defense among the premier units in the NFL.

Follow Jon on Twitter @LedyardNFLDraft. Check out his article on impact running backs from the 2016 Draft Class.

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All video courtesy of NFL Game Pass.

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