It was the winter of 2009 when Scott Pioli was given the keys to the Kansas City Chiefs’ storied franchise. It had endured a tumultuous 2-14 season and like any other bad team, it had a myriad of issues. One of those issues was a struggling defense.
It had given up nearly 28 points per game, good for 29th in the NFL, and needed a new direction. Pioli, previously a longtime New England Patriots VP of player personnel, knew what a good defense looked like. He’d worked under one of the greatest defensive masterminds ever in Bill Belichick at various stops since the early 90s and saw many top notch gameplans. Unsurprisingly, Pioli went the route that Belichick did, installing a sturdy two-gap, 3-4 defense instead of continuing the lax one-gap, 4-3 defense that the Chiefs had been playing in the years prior.
There were some pieces to work with on that side of the ball, such as lineman Glenn Dorsey. Dorsey was the No. 5 overall selection a year earlier and had major upside. He’d come out of Louisiana State University known as an interior pass-rushing menace, possessing the ability to break through the core of the pocket with quickness and explosiveness from the Tigers’ four-man front. He was expected to be the next dominant three-technique in the Chiefs’ 4-3 defense, but was now set to play in a new scheme and position (defensive end) that he wasn’t used to. Nevertheless, Pioli had high hopes for him.
“I think Glenn [Dorsey] is a unique player in that he has the physical skill and body type to play numerous positions,” he said in a 2010 press conference. “Like we do with other positions, we’re going to collect as many good players as we can and then the players themselves will sort out who are going to be the best ones on the field. It’s like what you do with the offensive line. Find the five best guys and get them on the field.”
The defense was going to be built like a wall. It would be hard to bring down and always squared. It would have two ends playing the four-technique head up on offensive tackles and a nose tackle with a barrel-sized belly across the offensive center. All three linemen would play a gap to each side of them and always keep their shoulders square so they didn’t lose leverage.
In the ends’ case, it would be the B and C gaps that were identified in between the guards and tackles, as well as the area after the tackle. For the nose tackle, he was assigned the A gaps in between the center and guards. All three positions were vital in this front and the Chiefs, led on the defensive side of the ball by defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast (for a year) and later Romeo Crennel, needed more pieces for it.
Another awful season led Kansas City to nearly the top of the draft once again. This time they had the No. 3 selection and had their eyes set on another LSU lineman, Tyson Jackson. Jackson, once Dorsey’s teammate, was a long and strong-armed defender that was a better run defender than pass-rusher. He got most of his sacks because of a never-dying engine, and Pioli was OK with that. As long as Jackson could read-and-react to plays as the left defensive end opposite of Dorsey, he was a good fit in the defense.
“He was a player that we felt could fit the scheme we wanted to run,” Pioli said about Jackson on NFL Network in 2011. “We knew he could be the left defensive end of the future. One of the things we looked at with this player in particular was that we knew he wasn’t going to be a big flash guy — he wasn’t going to have a lot of sacks. We just knew that we needed a cornerstone defensive lineman that could play the position and play the technique the way that we wanted to.
With the first round over, the team believed it had bookends for their new defense. At left defensive end was the rookie, Jackson, and at right, second-year lineman, Dorsey.
In the first year in the new scheme, both lineman found success because Pendergast, the team’s first-year defensive coordinator, was easing the transition to the new defense by sprinkling in one-gap concepts. Both players were able to apply some pressure on the quarterback, although they combined for a total of one sack on the season. But the defense struggled once again, giving up only a point less per game (26.5) than the year prior, and Pendergast was on the outs. In came a recognizable face: Crennel, a former member of the same staff Pioli was on in New England.
If anyone knew what Pioli wanted, it would be Crennel. Crennel obviously had experience with the defense and would make a full-blown changes to it. That didn’t bode well for Dorsey and Jackson, though. Both players were now purely read-and-react defenders because of the marriage to the 2-gap concept, and that affected their pass-rush ability. Their total of hurries dropped dramatically and they weren’t getting to the quarterback even though both saw their sack total individually go up one. This contradicted what their talents were suited for and what Pioli had said about the team’s plans to figure out the strengths of its players and adapt to them.
Over the course of the next two years, the Chiefs got better defending, but didn’t get better production from Dorsey and Jackson. Pioli’s defense was panning out, but his two cornerstones, both top five selections, were not. As more picks went to waste, Pioli’s time started to rapidly run out and soon, he’d be run out of the building.
Another regime came into Kansas City and nobody knew what to expect from the defensive side of the ball. Newly appointed general manager John Dorsey, a longtime Green Bay Packers scout and director, hired old friend Andy Reid to run the show as a head coach. In turn, Reid hired his friend Bob Sutton to the defensive coordinator position. Sutton was experienced and knew what kind of talent he was working with.
“We’ve got a real good group of guys,’’ Sutton told Adam Teicher of the Kansas City Star. “They’re kind of a mix of young and experienced guys. We’re blessed with some really good talent on the edges, which really makes any defense much more difficult to handle. I’ve been really pleased with the way everybody has kind of got involved in the system, tried to take it on.”
While Dorsey went to the far west, Jackson was still penciled in at the left defensive end position in the midwest. At least on paper he was. When the games started to be played, Jackson’s position would vary, as he would be moved around all over the defensive line. Sometimes he played head up on the tackle, other times on the outside shoulder like a one-gap end. Sometimes he played at three-technique, the position that his former teammate was expected to bring greatness to. Whichever it was, he was starting to bring more pressure to the pocket, registering more hurries and sacks than he did in previous years.
Through seven weeks, he already had two sacks and seven hurries. The former was one shy of a career-high and the latter was already more than he’d ever logged in a season under Crennel. He was starting to thrive and live up to expectations that were set when he was drafted out of college. He wasn’t dominating like some thought he’d be, but he was getting better. His arms were more active, flailing around in hopes of batting passes down, and his hands were better at getting inside a blocker’s chest plate, consequently allowing him to gain the leverage advantage and control the matchup.
A finer play of his came in Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles. On 3rd-and-11 in the third quarter, Jackson lined up at the three-technique outside of right guard Todd Herremans as part of the Chiefs’ attacking two-man front. At the snap, he raised out of his four-point stance and immediately engaged with the blocker. He sunk his shoulders down and chopped his feet, driving through the guard with lower body power. Jackson knocked Herremans straight up and then continued to walk him back when he extended his arms. He collapsed quarterback Michael Vick’s pocket and gave little operating room for Vick to step through his outgoing throw. Before Vick could get the ball off his palm, Jackson managed to get his left arm free and deflect the pass, nearly forcing an interception. After further review, the play would be ruled a drop by safety Eric Berry, but the damage was done; Jackson forced the Eagles to give the ball up after only four plays.
While Jackson was starting to bring pressure on quarterbacks in the midwest, Dorsey was quietly finding his spot in the 49ers’ defense. After years of playing defensive end, he’d been moved back to the interior. He was now a nose tackle and playing more one-gap principles.
“You have a lot more freedom,” Dorsey told the San Jose Mercury News when asked about the differences in the Chiefs and 49ers’ defenses. “It’s not just staying on blocks, taking up blocks. You get to penetrate a lot more. A lot of stunts. It’s fun.”
In his first season in the Bay Area, he managed to sack quarterbacks on two separate occasions and hurry them at least three other separate times (some have gone uncounted). Both of those were more than he had in his previous two years, and they all showed the natural skill that many saw when he came out of LSU.
The hand quickness and first step reappeared, as did the ability to get underneath a slow lineman’s pads and turn the corner. With his skills starting to reappear, the 28-year-old’s production unsurprisingly started to creep up too, as seen against the Carolina Panthers in Week 10.
Midway through the second quarter on 2nd-and-10, Dorsey spread his legs out, lowered his butt and bent over at the zero-technique. He was head up on center Ryan Kalil and was planning on going through him to reach Cam Newton, the prized possession of the Panthers’ franchise. Newton was under center and would be taking a five-step drop.
At the snap, Newton dropped back and Dorsey raised up. He didn’t immediately attack forward, instead sliding to his left along with Kalil and the Panthers’ full slide protection. Then he quickly came forward, gave a little left-right shake and raised his right arm up. Kalil went to engage, but Dorsey slapped the left shoulder blade where the “K” in Kalil’s name was on the jersey and simultaneously raised his left arm over the center’s head. He performed an arm-over — or as it’s popularly known as, a “swim” technique — and blew past Kalil, whose head suddenly faced downward. A last-second bump from the left guard nearly knocked Dorsey down, but he kept his balance and kept going after Newton. Newton, however, escaped the pocket after a back-side rush and Dorsey missed the sack. Nonetheless, he applied pressure.
Dorsey and Jackson have slowly started to find their roles in the NFL. It’s come a couple years too late, but at least it’s come. In the two gap, 3-4 defense under Crennel, both played fairly well as run defenders but weren’t applying pressure against the pass. They were reading the game too much and were not being used to their natural abilities.
Dorsey was much better cut out for the three-technique under tackle position that he’d been playing at LSU and was subsequently drafted to play. And even though Jackson was better against the run than the pass, he was known for his motor and ability to swat passes at LSU. With the Chiefs, it seemed like he couldn’t do neither.
All of this went against the blueprint Pioli had drawn up and learned in New England. The ever-changing defense that he witnessed in New England was framed in the same manner the Chiefs’ was, but it had endless variations and it always put defenders in position to make plays. But in Kansas City, that wasn’t the case.
Four years later, Pioli got the boot and watched Dorsey and Jackson develop in more attacking, talent-suited schemes from afar.