Chris Jones and pass rush the key for Chiefs' postseason defense

Stephen A.: Chiefs' path to Super Bowl is easier than Eagles' (1:29)

Stephen A. Smith and Chris Canty debate whether the Chiefs or Eagles have a better chance of reaching the Super Bowl. (1:29)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Defensive tackle Chris Jones finished his regular season for the Kansas City Chiefs just the way he wanted. Jones led the charge for the pass rush again, this time getting 2.5 sacks and six hits against Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jarrett Stidham last Saturday.

Jones ended the regular season with 15.5 sacks, which tied him for fourth in the league and tied his career high, set in 2018.

“It’s been fun,’’ Jones said after the 31-13 win over the Raiders. The Chiefs finished the regular season 14-3, clinching the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. “It’s not about how you start. It’s about how you finish. We finished in a good place.’’

The Chiefs indeed delivered one of their best defensive games of the season with six sacks and two takeaways. They allowed the Raiders well under 300 yards and just one touchdown, despite three trips inside the 20-yard line.

The Chiefs, who have a first-round bye, will undoubtedly face stronger competition when their postseason begins in the divisional round. The Raiders finished 6-11 and Stidham is a backup who made his second career start against the Chiefs.

But the Chiefs have reason to believe they can play well defensively in the playoffs after finishing 11th in the league in yards allowed (328 per game) and second in sacks (55).

The Chiefs had some rough moments on defense during the season, such as allowing more than 400 yards in a game four times and letting the lowest-scoring team in the league, the Denver Broncos, almost go ahead after the Chiefs took a 27-0 lead during a Week 14 game.

They appeared destined for some growing pains this season, with four new starters, including safety Justin Reid. Six rookies played a significant amount, four in the secondary.

“This is the time of year that you want to get hot,’’ Reid said. “There were a lot of new faces coming into this defensive system. Like I said at the beginning of the year, the playbook was deep and really the best way to get experience is just through reps, so our young guys have been getting a lot of reps under their belts.

“I’ve got a lot of reps under the belt now and I’m starting to settle into the system and really know what the coaches are driving for and what they want us, the defense, to look like. So it’s coming together at a good time. We were able to finish the regular season on a high note, and we’re going to have to take that momentum with us whenever we start approaching this first game of the playoffs.”

The defense was led by the rush, which pressured the opposing quarterback on 34% of dropbacks, the third-best number in the league.

Jones had a big season after wanting to make up for sacks he missed against Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in last season’s AFC Championship Game. He gave credit to defensive line coach Joe Cullen, an NFL veteran who joined the Chiefs this year.

“Bringing him in as a mentor for me and a defensive line coach has completely [transformed] my game, whether it’s the run game or the pass rush,’’ Jones said. “I’m very grateful. We have the same passion for pass rushing. You know I love to pass rush.’’

The Chiefs had 31 sacks in 2021, which was 29th in the league. Getting more from Jones, who had nine sacks last season, was part of the idea when Chiefs coach Andy Reid hired Cullen.

“[Jones] and Joe Cullen hit it off and they have a nice little thing going on there, chemistry-wise,’’ Andy Reid said. “I think that was a plus. Joe's a master technician, especially in the pass-rush game. Both things, but pass rush in particular. I'm sure Chris would tell you that he gave him a couple of little things he could use and Chris did the rest."

The Chiefs’ pass rush has some depth as well. Three other players had at least five sacks, led by rookie defensive end George Karlaftis, who had six. Karlaftis, selected by the Chiefs in the first round, had 5.5 of his sacks in the last seven games.

Karlaftis started every game, the first defensive rookie to do so for the Chiefs since safety Juan Thornhill in 2019.

“The hardest thing to do when you come into this league is rush the passer right away,’’ Cullen said. “Chris didn’t start his first year. He was a situational player. Frank didn’t start his first year. He was a situational player.’’

The Chiefs believed after Karlaftis started the season with a half sack in the first 10 games that it was only a matter of time before the rookie's production would come.

“I felt like from an individual perspective I was getting there,’’ Karlaftis said. “I was just missing my layups a lot. So, in practice . . . just working on my finishing a lot. I play with Chris a lot on the same side and when you play with [him] they’re going to double him, so that benefits me a lot, too.’’

The season for Karlaftis was a lot like that of the Chiefs. A slow start but a better finish has them optimistic headed into the playoffs.

“We were able to end on a high note,’’ Reid said. “That’s big for us momentum-wise. We’re going to have to continue to build off that. And we know that the road’s only going to get tougher from here, so we’re going to have to bring our best football going into when we play these playoff games.”