MIAMI (AP) — Dee Ford’s blunder cost Kansas City a trip to the Super Bowl a year ago.
Now Ford has another chance to deny the Chiefs a championship when he faces them with the San Francisco 49ers.
Ford’s five-year tenure in Kansas City came to a disappointing finish last season in the AFC championship game against New England. With the Chiefs leading by four points and about a minute to play, Ford made the mistake of lining up in the neutral zone.
That proved especially costly when Tom Brady threw an interception to Charvarius Ward on the play. But instead of the Chiefs running out the clock and celebrating an AFC championship, the Patriots drove to the go-ahead score and eventually won 37-31 in overtime.
Instead of getting back to work with the Chiefs, Ford found a new home. Kansas City dealt him to San Francisco for a 2020 second-round pick after using the franchise tag on him. The Niners rewarded him with a five-year, $85 million contract.
The Chiefs replaced Ford with Frank Clark and now the teams will square off for a championship that was so close for Kansas City last year.
Clark called Ford’s mistake “inexcusable” earlier this postseason, a description Ford didn’t dispute. But the Chiefs don’t put all the blame on their former player.
“We came up short last year,” coach Andy Reid said. “It kind of fell on Dee, but it wasn’t Dee at all. It was all of us were 4 inches short. And everybody took that responsibility to heart.”
The Niners were the big beneficiaries as Ford was a big piece in the team’s rebuild that has transformed them from 4-12 to the Super Bowl in one season.
Bolstering the pass rush was the top offseason priority and the additions of Ford and No. 2 overall draft pick Nick Bosa have turned a struggling unit into one of the league’s most feared.
The Niners finished tied for fifth in the league with 48 sacks and sixth with 27 takeaways a year after having only 37 sacks and generating a record-low seven takeaways.
“When you’ve got a guy like Dee Ford who possesses the speed he does off the edge, it creates so much space for the guys inside,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said.
“Whenever you’ve got a guy outside that can create the space where you get a true one-on-one where they can’t get a hand on you, there’s no makeshift double-team. It just makes everybody on the defensive line better. It kind of unlocks everything. He’s a major asset. That’s why he’s one of the best in football. That’s why he was sought after after this last season.”
Ford dealt with injuries during the regular season and finished with only 6 1/2 sacks while playing only four snaps over the final six games.
But he returned from the hamstring injury in the playoffs and had a sack against the Vikings in the divisional round. He’s ready to do even more against his old teammates, who know how dangerous his speed can be.
“Going up against him in practice was terrible,” Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher said. “He’s so quick and so fast. It’s always a tough matchup. You always hoped he’d go to the other side.”
San Francisco’s pressure rate jumps from 22.7% when Ford isn’t on the field to 34.2% when he is playing, according to NFL NextGen stats, a sign of his importance.
The Niners figure to move Ford around on Sunday and they have even used him inside against guards in the playoffs, giving offenses a different look with Bosa and Ford lined up next to each other.
“I like to think offensive linemen, they’re creatures of habit, so when they see the same guy over and over and over again, they can really get comfortable in knowing how to set against a certain person,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said.
“But when you change it up and you put somebody different standing up, somebody like Dee, over a guard, they kind of freeze up, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen this guy all day.’ Dee is so fast that he can get on the edge real quick in that tiny space. Just being able to change it up, change up the looks against all the offensive linemen, being able to move guys around is really effective.”