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The Chiefs were patient with Dee Ford and it’s paying off

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Kansas City’s third-year pass rusher is in the middle of a big breakout.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Your third season in the NFL is the make or break it season. There are a different set of rules for first-round picks, but most of us weren’t first-round picks. If you’re not a starter by year three, you probably won’t be. If you’re not a contributor on the team, i.e. special teams, you are gone.

The path I took through the NFL is a common one for a low draft pick. Practice squad my first season. Second season, on the roster, dress each week, and start three games. By my third season, I started and played every snap.

Why is the third season is a measuring point?

Your rookie season can be overwhelming. You’re entering a brand new world of football. It’s faster, more violent, and more physical than college. The playbooks aren’t even comparable. There are plays with built in checks/alerts, protections that can change quickly, and that’s just on the install. Now, you must figure out the defense and how that changes the play. It comes at you fast.

You’re moving to a new city, often far away from family and friends. How do I prepare my body for this beating? You will hit a rookie wall. One-hundred percent guaranteed. Organizations understand that a rookie season is tough.

Entering your second season, you’ve had a whole offseason in the program. The playbook has been installed four times before the first preseason game. You should know what to do and how to do it. Maybe your technique still needs work, but you can get by.

There’s an older veteran at your position so you start rotating in with him on defense. Or he’s hurt and you spot start. This season you start forming your weekly routine. Figure out what works for you. How do I prepare my body for the season? So now you’re comfortable in the city. Your play should improve.

By the third season, you’ve heard the plays a zillion times now. You have seen all the looks the opponent can offer. Your technique is honed and the body is prepared for the long haul of camp and the season. This is your time to shine. It’s now or never.

This time table is how most career arcs run for lower draft picks. This isn’t always the case for first-round picks. Because of the lack of veterans on the playing field, first-rounders are often looked at to make an immediate impact. That doesn’t often happen.

Look no further than Dee Ford of the Chiefs. He was drafted to make an immediate impact as a third-down rusher and eventually push out Tamba Hali or make it easier to let Justin Houston walk in free agency. It didn’t go as planned early on.

Dee Ford barely saw the field as a rookie. Only playing 122 snaps, recording 1.5 sacks and seven total tackles. Last season, in year two, 565 snaps, four sacks and 23 total tackles.

While not the best stats, his production started to pick up late in the season when he became a starter for the injured Houston. He posted one monster game with three of his four sacks against Oakland later in the season. This gave the organization hope Dee would blossom into the player they expected when he was drafted in the first round out of Auburn.

Now, in year three, the Chiefs have been rewarded for their patience. With Houston sidelined recovering from an ACL injury, Ford has balled out. Playing on one of the top defenses in the league, he has nine sacks through eight games with the bulk of those coming in the last two games.

To be successful, a defensive lineman either needs two incredible pass rush moves — like Dwight Freeney with speed/rip and spin — or more commonly, three decent pass rush moves.

As an offensive lineman, if I know when you rush up the field, you’re going to just outside rip and turn the corner, I can prepare. Or if it’s a bull to a rip when you go inside. Those are easily prepared for. But if you’re going outside and then can hump back inside, that’s a third move, and it’s tough to prepare for.

When young, quick, and fast rushers enter the league, like Ford, they assume they can just use their speed to beat tackles. Nope. We might look slow footed, but handling a speed rush is easy.

So here is Ford against the Colts, using his speed to set up the inside move for sacks.

Here’s Ford in the middle of the second quarter, over the right tackle. He’s aligned wide and angled at the quarterback. The tackle takes a good set. If Dee continues to just rush upfield with a simple rip, the tackle will just wash by him. A younger defensive end would do that, but Ford now has more tools in his box.

He uses a long arm, then a rip. The long arm gives him separation from the tackle. Using two arms, a typical bull rush, and you’re closer to the body of the tackle.

Try it against the wall. Press the wall with two arms, now just one. With one, you can turn your body, still maintain power, and you’re further away. Once he creates distance, and some push back, he rips that right arm limiting the surface to punch for the tackle and turns the corner for the sack.

I want you to take notice of one more interesting tidbit on this. Check out the other defensive end, Tamba Hali, an excellent veteran pass rusher. He has the same rush, against a much better player, and he does the same thing, but adds a hand swipe to knock down the left tackle’s outside hand. This is something Dee Ford will eventually progress to using because Hali will pass that move on. Having veteran leadership in a position room with talented, young players is priceless

Fast forward to the fourth quarter. Remember that rush Ford got the sack on, speed and long arm to rip? That’s still in the mind of that right tackle. On this play, the tackle has help from the tight end and still over-sets because he feels threatened by the speed rush. Even though there’s no way Ford takes the edge, he still sets it up. Then inside swat (it’s a baby hump move), sack!

As Ford gets stronger and more comfortable with this rush, he will start being able to throw offensive tackles. It’s a tough move to stop. The lineman must have suburb balance.

Last week against the Jags, Ford followed up his three sack performance against Indy with two sacks of Bortles. As you can see, he’s starting to figure out what works for him. He’s been evolving as a pass rusher and will only get better.