Kansas City's Sack-Master Is the Super Bowl X Factor
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Frank Clark has been the linchpin to the Chiefs' defensive revival.
By Jeff Fedotin
If you’re trying to figure out how the Kansas City Chiefs made their way to the Super Bowl, a good place to start would be early in the second quarter of their Nov. 18 game in Los Angeles, when defensive end Frank Clark barreled into the Chargers’ backfield.
The Chargers were at that point up 3-0, dominating in yardage and just 25 yards from the Chiefs’ end zone. Then Clark dipped his left shoulder to beat left tackle Trey Pipkins off the edge and swat Philip Rivers’ right arm, forcing a wounded duck of a pass that Derrick Nnadi intercepted. That play helped turn the game and jump-started the first of Kansas City’s eight straight wins. “It changed a lot,” Clark says. “That play happens, and then you start the momentum, the whole shift change.”
The spotlight in Sunday’s Super Bowl will rightly be on the majestic Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City’s potent offense. But the pivotal task of taking on San Francisco’s bruising rushing attack falls to the Chiefs’ defense, with the 26-year-old Clark as its beating, bombastic heart. In fact…
The Chiefs are 8-1 this year when Clark records at least one sack.
“That’s a good number,” says Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who was unaware of the stat.
Earlier in the season, Clark’s numbers were less impressive and so were the Chiefs’: Clark had just one sack through the first six games, and Kansas City was just 4-2. It was particularly disappointing when you consider the investment the Chiefs had made in Clark.
Because the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Clark combines energy and passion with excellent body control, quickness off the line and the ability to dip his body, the Chiefs paid handsomely for his services. They not only traded a 2019 first-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick and swapped 2019 third-round picks with the Seattle Seahawks for him, but they also rewarded him with a five-year, $104 million contract that included more than $60 million in guaranteed money.
We’ve got the most swag in the NFL.
Frank Clark, Kansas City defensive end
That made Clark’s slow start all the more concerning. “There’s a number of factors,” Daly says. “There’s an element of a new scheme and feeling his way through those type of things.”
There was also his health. A pinched nerve he suffered in his neck during a preseason practice kept getting worse. He tried to fight through it, but what started as a sore arm and neck led to a “fireball feeling” and numbness when he got hit. “I didn’t know what to do,” Clark says. “I had a lot of people even tell me that I shouldn’t play football for the rest of the season.”
Instead he didn’t play in weeks 8 and 9, working with the Chiefs’ training staff. “I took those two weeks off, and I came back stronger than ever,” he says. “I feel excellent, man. I feel like $100 million. … I feel 100 percent better.”
The same could be said for the Chiefs’ D. Through the first 10 weeks of the season, they were allowing an average of 21.4 points. Since Clark came back in Week 10, they have allowed just 17.6 points. “I truly believe that we’re one of the best defenses in the NFL — if not the best,” Clark says, “in the second part of the season.”
He wore sunglasses and a huge diamond necklace emblazoned with his daughter’s name, Phoenix, during Super Bowl Media Night in Miami. As an outspoken leader of the defense, Clark is known for his brashness. “We’ve got the most swag in the NFL,” he says. “We play with more championship swagger than anybody, man.”
But Clark backs up his talk. He made the Pro Bowl this year and had eight regular season sacks — then added four more in the playoffs. But he is more than just a pass rusher. “You can get enamored with sack numbers. He’s had a much bigger impact than just the sacks,” Daly says. “There’s certainly been some quarterback pressures, some really good run plays that he’s defended extremely well.”
Ahead of the AFC Championship Game, Clark said of rushing champion Derrick Henry: “I see no difficulty in tackling him.” Then he and his fellow Chiefs smothered the Tennessee star, holding Henry to just 69 rushing yards after he’d been putting up monster games for weeks.
It’s all part of a steadily improving run defense. After allowing 186, 180 and 192 rushing yards in successive games, the Chiefs clamped down late in the season. Now their opponent is the 49ers, who finished fourth in the NFL in offense and just finished bulldozing the Green Bay Packers for 285 yards on the ground in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers are well aware of what they’re up against. “I’m very familiar with Frank from his time in Seattle,” San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley told reporters. “He’s a hell of a player, a guy that plays with relentless effort the whole entire time. So he’s a huge challenge.”
Clark can’t wait. “I’m going to be past sizzling at that point, 400 degrees boiling,” he says. “And we’re going to be ready to go at it, baby.”
- Jeff Fedotin, OZY Author Contact Jeff Fedotin