Why the Chiefs' much-improved pass rush is key this season -- and in a Week 4 matchup with the Bucs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As a starting safety, Juan Thornhill usually isn't involved when the Kansas City Chiefs try to pressure the opposing quarterback with more than the usual four pass-rushers. He said he likes to see it called, anyway.

"The ball's coming out quickly," Thornhill said. "Quarterbacks get a little antsy in the pocket and they start throwing the ball up, and it allows us to make more plays.

"The quarterback has guys in his face all the time and he's not comfortable. He sees the opposite color. He's trying to find a way to get the ball out, and that gives us opportunity to make the play on the ball. So we want to make him as uncomfortable as possible."

The Chiefs did that effectively last week against one veteran quarterback, 37-year-old Matt Ryan of the Indianapolis Colts. Ryan was sacked five times and fumbled twice against the Chiefs, who played well enough defensively to win. But mistakes on offense and special teams cost Kansas City in its 20-17 loss.

The Chiefs face another veteran quarterback on Sunday night in Tampa Bay, this time 45-year-old Tom Brady of the Buccaneers. They are guarding their game plan, as always, but getting pressure on Brady one way or another is no doubt a central element. Tampa Bay has allowed Brady to be pressured on only 19.3% of his dropbacks, second lowest in the NFL behind Cleveland's Jacoby Brissett.

"By nature, it'd be nice to always bring a lot of pressure," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "I just think it challenges the offensive lines and quarterbacks. But [Brady is] one of those guys that figures it out pretty quick so you've got to pick your spots. ... He gets it out really quick. So that makes it hard to get him off the spot, which is what everybody says they want to do to Tom Brady."

The Chiefs' pass rush is off to a good start, which was a priority after Kansas City finished 29th in the NFL in sacks last year (31). The Chiefs are tied for fifth this season with 10. They've also generated pressured on 33.6% of opponent dropbacks, sixth in the league.

The blitz has been central to the improvement. Through three games, the Chiefs haven't blitzed a lot -- just 29.2% of opponent passing snaps, 12th most in the NFL. But they are one of the most productive teams when they do blitz. Kansas City is sixth in pressure (52.5%) when sending at least one extra pass-rusher.

Against the Colts, the Chiefs blitzed 13 times in 42 dropbacks and pressured Ryan eight times. Four different players had at least one sack, including cornerback L'Jarius Sneed, who also forced a fumble.

Sneed frequently lines up as the slot cornerback, meaning he's relatively close to the ball. But he is tied for the team lead this season with two sacks, and the Chiefs like to send him on the blitz because he has shown a knack for it.

"The guy's explosive," Thornhill said. "He's getting to the quarterback so fast, like before the quarterback can get his feet set, he's there. He's fast, he knows how to dip and lean with a good bend, and that's why he is getting to the quarterback so fast."

Sneed said he has sought instruction from pass-rushing teammates Chris Jones and Frank Clark on perfecting his techniques. He spends time working with all of the Chiefs' pass-rushers in their hand drills.

"I know I'm faster than the offensive linemen," Sneed said. "My speed is a big advantage. They don't like to get low to the ground, so I like to get low so they can't get their hands on me."

The Chiefs face a dilemma with Brady, who has been sacked six times in the Bucs' three games. He generally tries to get rid of the ball quickly -- his average of 2.4 seconds before passing is fastest in the NFL this season -- so sending extra rushers at him frequently might not be the best strategy.

"He's going to get the ball out of his hand," said Sneed, who played against Brady and the Bucs as a rookie in 2020 and again later that season in Super Bowl LV. "He doesn't want to get touched. So that ball is coming out fast."

The Chiefs are almost a third of the way to their 2021 sack total through three games this season. But they still have room for improvement. Four of their 10 sacks have come from positions other than the line, including two each from Sneed and linebacker Nick Bolton.

But then again, the Chiefs' pass rush also hasn't been completely reliant on Jones and Clark, as it has been in recent years. They have been 1-2 on the team in sacks in each of the past three seasons. Instead, six players have at least one sack. Jones (2) and Clark (1) have combined for three. Veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who has 98 career sacks, is the fourth Chiefs player with two sacks.

"It's great watching Carlos on his road to a hundred sacks, watching Chris break 50, watching our interior guys step up," Clark said. "You've got Khalen Saunders, that's one of the guys that we don't really talk about a lot, but he had one of his best games, probably his best game of his career last week.

"We lost [to the Colts], so a lot of that goes under the rug, how some of these guys played. It's a lot of good things happening, but it's still early, so it's nothing to talk about right now. Kind of got our heads down chopping wood still."