ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Chiefs defensive linemen Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon flashed big smiles after Saturday's preseason win over Cincinnati, showing an emotion that felt fleeting and far between for both last season.
The duo picked up sacks on back-to-backs plays late in the first half, but the happiness was more than self satisfaction.
Football was fun again.
“It was just fun to finally get out there and just rush versus having to worry about if I've to drop or if I got this or I got to worry about a set or something,” Speaks said after Wednesday's training camp practice. “It was just fun to be able to get out there and just rush the passer.”
Kpassagnon experienced success in his first NFL start back in 2017, registering two sacks in the season finale against Denver. But it's a preseason game in early August that was more fun for him.
“It's fun, it's real fun,” Kpassagnon said. “You get to really play a game. You get into a rhythm and you get to mess with the tackle, you get to really set him up, set him up with moves. All these different things where I wasn't able to do that much last year, but I'm getting to now.”
Speaks and Kpassagnon share a similar history. Both excelled on the defensive line in college, but the Chiefs saw a potential future for both as edge players in the NFL. The club moved up in the draft in selecting both in the second round, Kpassagnon in 2017 and Speaks last season.
The also shared problem – the Chiefs played a 3-4 defense, where the edge players typically play outside linebacker, a position neither had played previously.
“All of us were base 4-3 D-ends, and they took us from 4-3 D-ends to 3-4 outside linebackers,” Speaks said.
Both players struggled with the transition. Kpassagnon played 159 defensive snaps in 2017, a plurality of those snaps coming in the season finale. He found a greater role on special teams, playing 22.7 percent of the season's total snaps. His playing time dwindled in 2018, taking the field for just 115 snaps and finding himself inactive for two of the final three games of the season.
Speaks saw more playing time, taking 476 snaps, or 40.4 percent of the defense's total. But he lacked productivity, collecting just 24 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks.
When the Chiefs dismissed defensive coordinator Bob Sutton in the offsesason and hired Steve Spagnuolo, the two players saw a glimmer of hope. Spagnuolo favored the 4-3 scheme, and he had a short message for Speaks and Kpassagnon – get ready to go back home.
“That was the first thing he said,” Speaks said. “You get to go back home, play your base D-end, we're going to move you around a couple of places because you can do it, and we'll just see how it all pans out.”
Kpassagnon felt rejunevated by the prospects of putting his hand back in the dirt.
“Seeing the new scheme, I was hungry for it, because I knew it worked really well with me just being back on the ground, having my hand in the dirt,” Kpassagnon said. “I came with the attitude just to get better, just get back to my basics.”
Since the Chiefs arrived in training camp, Spagnuolo has given both players plenty to do. The pair started as the ends on the No. 2 defense while occasionally lining up inside at tackle as well. With injuries slowing starters Frank Clark and Alex Okafor, Speaks and Kpassagnon have spent an increasing amount of time with the first-team defense.
Spagnuolo told Kpassagnon to get prepared for opportunities in multiple roles.
“He says he wanted to see me in a lot of different spots, he knew I could do a lot of different things,” Kpassagnon said. “So he's giving me those shots.”
After feeling lost at times in the 3-4, Speaks feels little pressure in picking up Spagnuolo's defensive scheme.
“Spagnuolo's style is we're attacking and he lets his players play,” Speaks said. “Bob Sutton was more so scheme oriented. It's been no obstacles, just getting the calls down, a lot of the same concepts, just shown different ways. It's basic football to me.”
Perhaps because of their similar backgrounds and their shared frustations from a season ago, Speaks and Kpassagnon share a bond and a friendly rivalry as well. When Speaks saw Kpassagnon pick up a sack Saturday night, it motivated him on the next play.
“He was at three-tech, and we were just playing off of each other,” Speaks said. “He went out there and got him one, so I was like, I need to go get me one. You can't one-up me. It's been fun with TK, we've always been pretty good guys together, so that's been fun.”
Speaks feels immensely more comfortable than he did a season ago. He's identifying play action and screens more quickly. Suddenly the tiny details that were cloudy last year suddenly seem in focus.
“That's been the funnest part, play action, screens, being able to ready my tackle's pads, being able to read the different sets from the backfield,” Speaks said. “Knowing the situation on the down and distance, knowing what people like to do in those situations. I feel like it's finally coming full circle for me.”
Despite the frustration of the time spent at outside linebacker in the old 3-4 defense, Kpassagnon said both he and Speaks believe the experience made them better players in the long run.
“We talk about how much we learned from the linebacker position,” Kpassagnon said. “It just taught us more about defenses and reading offenses' schemes. We took a lot from it, but we're happy where we're at.”