Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh present a big test for Chiefs offensive line

The Kansas City Chiefs offensive line will have its hands full against the Los Angeles Rams—in particular with Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.

The Arizona Cardinals did what no other team could do so far in 2018: they got to Patrick Mahomes.

While the visiting Cardinals could not do enough to eke out a win at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday afternoon, they did rattle the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. The final tally? Five sacks and seven total quarterback hits on the afternoon—more than double what any team before them has pulled off.

To this point in the season, Mahomes hasn’t taken any more than 2 sacks in a single game. Through the first six games of the season, Mahomes took only six sacks. The offensive line was staving off any and all efforts to get after him, but they were also a unit helped by a highly efficient offense. Then the Arizona Cardinals came to town.

Chandler Jones ate Eric Fisher for lunch for the majority of the game and put up two sacks on Mahomes on his own. Rodney Gunter also got his sack going against Fisher on the outside. Benson Mayowa came from the other side, against Mitchell Schwartz, and grabbed Mahomes who had stepped too far back in the pocket. And let’s not forget hits from Corey Peters or Josh Bynes as well.

The Cardinals were an excellent test for the Chiefs. They came into the game tied for seventh overall in sacks at 24, and Chandler Jones is a household name as one of the league’s best young pass rushers. But the Chiefs have done well against more fearsome competition, at least on paper, which begs the question as to why the Cardinals were so much more effective against the Chiefs in getting to Mahomes.

Consider that the Chiefs have already faced the Denver Broncos on two occasions and allowed a total of 3 sacks in 120 game minutes—including a single half-sack apiece to both Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. The Patriots couldn’t get a single sack on Mahomes in four quarters even with Trey Flowers putting on a show. Only Yannick Ngakoue could muster a single sack against Mahomes for the Jacksonville Jaguars, while Daniel McCullers was the only member of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense who could do the same. It’s important to note that Melvin Ingram registered zero in the season opener as well.

A major storyline for the Chiefs so far in 2018 has been the line’s ability to keep Mahomes upright, to protect the franchise face. The Cardinals put on a clinic on Sunday, showing a record-setting rookie phenom to be an above-average product. It happens to everyone, to be sure, and that’s not intended as a slight on Mahomes. It’s the reality of a long regular season that some teams will play better against him than others. The question is: what was the key for the Cardinals?

To be sure, the Los Angeles Rams will be looking at the game film for tips from the Cardinals and a front line of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh could potentially feast on an offensive interior that is thin.

So far, the Chiefs interior has done a remarkable job holding up during the midsection of this season. Austin Reiter has stepped into the center role for Jordan Devey, who stepped in for Mitch Morse, and has proven to be a very solid waiver claim by Brett Veach to begin the season. Andrew Wylie also deserves a mention as the right guard who took over for Laurent Duvernay-Tardif for the long haul and has performed quite admirably in his absence.

The question that lingers overhead is whether or not the patchwork job can last. It’s one thing for a quick fix on a roof to stand up in a rainstorm, but it’s another thing entirely to leave such a fix in place for the long term. Could it hold? Maybe. Is it worth the risk to try to find out? That’s a different question.

Donald has been an All-Pro performer in years past, but he’s putting together his best campaign in 2018. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as their best defensive player overall, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award when the dust settles on the 2018 season. On Sunday alone, he had 5 quarterback hits on Russell Wilson with 2.5 sacks. He now has 12.5 sacks in 10 games on the year, 1.5 more than his previous career high. It’s possible he could stop playing now and still win DPOY!

Donald’s presence also makes everyone around him that much better. Teams have to account for Michael Brockers, Ndamukong Suh and the newly acquired Dante Fowler. On Sunday, Suh had 3 quarterback hits playing next to Donald, the end result of blockers having to pick their poison.

 

If the Cardinals truly unlocked something guarded in how teams can get to Patrick Mahomes, the Rams will be a thorn in the side of the Chiefs line all night in primetime when the teams face off on Monday. The bookends have to get prepared for the challenge on the outside while the thin interior has to step up and do better in this upcoming showdown of the NFL’s best teams. If not, it could be a frustrating night for K.C.’s offense.