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Kansas City Chiefs’ Dee Ford pacing for a career year

Halfway through the season of his life and there are moments Dee Ford knows the man across from him is beat even before the snap. Some of this is technical, like where his hips are compared to the offensive lineman’s outside leg. Some of it is feel, like knowing a pass is coming and the tackle cannot backpedal faster than Ford can sprint.

Some of it is simple confidence, too, a supremely gifted athlete now using five years of professional rises and falls to become the dominating, game-changing terror on the edge the Chiefs expected with their first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Some of it is much more interesting, and important.

Football is as complicated as you’re willing to make it. Twenty-two men on a field, each guided by endless hours of preparation, the possibilities quite literally unlimited. But in these moments, when an athlete at the height of his powers sees what he needs to see, nothing else matters.

Because he’s getting to the quarterback. He knows it, and chances are, so does the guy across from him.

“It happens so fast,” Ford said.

Happened three more times in the Chiefs’ 30-23 win over the Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. That’s eight sacks for the season. He’s never been better. Edge rushers rarely are.

This win was about a lot of different things: Sammy Watkins in the red zone, Kareem Hunt hurdling again, Kendall Fuller’s first interception, the offensive line winning and Patrick Mahomes being so good that 303 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception somehow feels a little disappointing.

But as much as anything, this was about Ford’s continued emergence, a development so stark in scope and important to what the Chiefs believe they can be that only Mahomes’ weekly Superman act could overshadow.

“He’s worked so hard to be back where he can play and be strong enough to endure a season,” coach Andy Reid said. “You are pulling for him. Those are the guys you pull for.”

Before this season, Ford was the injured guy. The one-dimensional rusher who was often a net negative because of how poorly he played the run. Some fans were disappointed that the Chiefs picked up his fifth-year option, which pays him $8.2 million.

Now, he’s on pace for 16 sacks — only Derrick Thomas and Justin Houston have ever had more in a season here. He is the Chiefs’ most dangerous defensive player, his abilities highlighted not just through his own work and talent but an offense that forces a lot of passing situations and a system hugely dependent on him wrecking quarterbacks.

He entered the week as the league’s No. 5 edge rusher overall according to Pro Football Focus’ grades. Isolated to pass rushing, Ford ranked first among edge rushers and third overall among those with at least 50 pass rushes.

Two months ago, some Chiefs fans saw no use for Ford. Now, the team will likely negotiate an extension or (more likely) give him the franchise tag, because it’s hard to imagine this defense functioning without him.

“Five-five (Ford) is on a different level right now,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “Von (Miller) is one of the best if not the best in the game, and everybody knows that. But 5-5 making a good case right now. He’s a bad boy when he’s healthy.”

The essence of Ford is the speed rush. He used it for all three of his sacks against the Broncos. Mitchell Schwartz, the Chiefs’ terrific right tackle who (again) consistently won against Miller, said Ford’s speed rush is the best or tied for the best in all of football.

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Starts with speed, of course. Ford ran a 4.53 time in the 40 entering the draft, but the important stuff is in the first two steps. He reaches top speed so quickly, and has a supernatural ability to make the turn around the tackle and toward the quarterback — GM John Dorsey said that “bend” was the first thing he noticed on tape. All of this is talent, married with work.

“Half the time you see tackles turn and run,” Schwartz said. “That’s the panic, like, ‘Oh, crap, he’s already beat me so I have to turn and run.’”

Another advantage Ford gives himself is what football people call “the get-off.” He has great instincts on quarterbacks’ cadences and snap counts — much of his success is determined by how quickly he moves at the snap, and he’s yet to be called for a penalty this season.

Ford talks constantly of the mental part of pass rushing, and of the value of failure. That’s a lot to unpack: knowing when to use his best moves, figuring out how tackles block him and why they’re successful, and a thousand other bits of nuance that are undetectable to the naked eye.

But a crucial part of this is winning before the snap, too. Because when Ford was asked whether he sometimes knows the tackle in front of him is beat before the play, the answer was about much more than game momentum and individual speed.

One rush sets up the next, and the biggest difference between Ford now and earlier in his career is his ability to win in different ways. Everything is still based on the speed rush, but he’s improved his inside move enough to be a weapon on its own — that’s how he got to Keenum on an important play in the fourth quarter — and make the speed rush more effective.

He’s also become stronger, which means his bull rush is more than a discard. He’s made sacks this season from each side of the line, and from inside. He’s used the speed rush, he’s been relentless in chasing down a broken play, and he’s trucked a running back who stayed in to block. He’s pressured with the inside move, and used the bull rush to knock a tackle back from his heels. He is, in other words, a flashy talent now buoyed by knowledge, experience and skill.

The Chiefs have held four of their last five opponents to 23 points or less, and Ford is among the biggest reasons. He has at least one sack in all but two games, and a forced fumble in three of his last four.

Mahomes and the offense will justifiably continue to receive most of the attention. But the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes rest heavily on the defense generally and the pass rush specifically. Houston will be back at some point, perhaps soon. But when he does, he’ll return more as a complement than savior.

Ford has been that good.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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