Chiefs’ Dontari Poe does it big on offense and defense
The crazy versatile defensive lineman is ready for the biggest game of his career against the Steelers
The Kansas City lineman didn’t have nearly enough voicemail space on his phone for all the well-wishers. It’s what happens after you become the heaviest person in NFL history to run for a touchdown and throw a touchdown pass. Dontari Poe, who’s listed at 6-foot-3, 346 pounds, accomplished that just a couple of weeks ago. And it took him about that long to return all the missed calls. He had to put in work to smooth things over. He spent days thanking everyone who celebrated his improbable scoring pass — easily the most fun moment in a regular season mostly devoid of fun. Who wouldn’t get a kick out of watching one of the biggest guys in a sport full of biggest guys show off some quarterbacking skills? After all, football still is just a game.
“And you know what? Sometimes it’s just good to go out there and have some fun,” Poe said after Chiefs practice recently. “Man, just having fun, that’s what got us all playing this game in the first place.”
Some games, however, are more important than others. For the first time since the 2010 playoffs, Kansas City will open the postseason on its home field. The Chiefs play host on Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional round, with the winner advancing to the conference championship game. The Chiefs, who tied for the AFC’s second-best record, earned a bye in the previous round. They’re hoping that starting out on their turf will be a springboard to the Super Bowl, a game they haven’t played in since winning the Super Bowl championship after the 1969 season. So, yeah, it’s been a minute. Time to end the drought, Poe says. And he intends to do everything he can to make it happen. The most important player on the Chiefs’ defense will have a lot on his shoulders against the Steelers, who embarrassed the Miami Dolphins during their blowout victory in the wild-card round. Kansas City will rely on Poe to control the middle of the line and make it tough on Steelers superstar running back Le’Veon Bell to get going. That’s a big job. But, as we’ve learned from his highlights reel, Poe is a very big man.
His first touchdown came last season on a one-yard run against the San Diego Chargers. This season, in a 26-10, Week 6 road win over the Oakland Raiders, Poe caught a pass from quarterback Alex Smith on a screen play for another one-yard score. The play was ruled a lateral, giving Poe his second career rushing touchdown. Then, in a Week 16 matchup with the Denver Broncos, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid expanded the big fella’s role on offense. Late in the Chiefs’ 33-10 win, Poe lined up at quarterback. From the wildcat formation, he took a direct snap, ran forward a few steps as if he planned to go up the middle, stopped, jumped in the air and connected with tight end Demetrius Harris for a two-yard score. Predictably, Poe’s dope move ignited a party from the stands to the Chiefs’ sideline at Arrowhead Stadium. Poe became the talk of the league after nailing the play Reid dubbed the “Bloated Tebow Pass.” (While in college at Florida, former NFL signal-caller Tim Tebow once completed a touchdown pass on a jump-throw after faking a quarterback sneak.) Poe has been so good with the ball in his hands that his teammates, especially those on defense, get hyped whenever Reid opens the playbook for one of Poe’s special plays, “but it doesn’t just happen as easy as it looks, we put in work on it,” Poe said. “Like the touchdown pass, it was actually up [included in the game plan] for a couple of games. But Reid only usually calls plays like that in certain situations, depending where we are on the field. That week in particular, we got on the spot that we wanted to be. But even then, you still don’t know for sure that he’s gonna call it.”
That’s why Poe nudged the guy in charge a little. “Offensive guys are always in the coach’s ear asking for the ball. That’s just the way you have to do it sometimes,” Poe said, punctuating the sentence with a hearty laugh. “I was just like those guys, asking for [the ball]. Then the fans get into it. That’s kind of a situation where they know he may use me. It all worked out.”
The suits back in the league office in New York benefited as well. The crackdown on on-field expression in 2016 left many fans hot about the NFL’s perceived rigidness. When players are being penalized for making snow angels, it’s definitely time to loosen up. Nothing in football makes fans smile more than watching giants (not those Giants) cross the goal line with the ball in their hands. That’s usually rarefied territory reserved for running backs and wide receivers on offense, and linebackers and defensive backs on defense. You know, the players generally considered to be the game’s best athletes. Linemen are merely supposed to slug it out up front. They’re there to help everyone else shine. When they take a turn in the spotlight, it’s just good stuff. It’s sort of like celebrating an achievement of a metaphorical little guy. It’s just that in Poe’s case, the little guy is massive. And when Poe scores, he feels like every defensive lineman who ever played enters the end zone with him.
“Every D lineman wants to score a touchdown,” Poe said. “It’s really not something we get a chance to do, so it’s something we dream about. Ask any D lineman, ‘Do you ever want to get a touchdown?’ If they say, ‘No,’ that’s when you know they’re lying. We want to score a touchdown any kind of way. I dreamed about it since childhood. Growing up and living that out, a few times now, has been amazing.”
Obviously, others have enjoyed the experience, too. No defensive lineman benefited more from the fanfare of scoring on offense more than William “The Refrigerator” Perry. A rookie during the Chicago Bears’ run to the Super Bowl title after the 1985 season, Perry, whose playing weight in those days was listed (generously) at 335 pounds, also got some run at fullback. He made the most of the opportunity, rushing for two touchdowns and scoring on a pass during the season. After his one-yard touchdown run in the Super Bowl, Perry made millions in commercial endorsements. Poe, 26, never saw Perry play, “but as a defensive lineman, you know about him and what he did,” Poe said. “I actually know a lot about him. He did it [scored] quite a few times as a rookie with Chicago.”
A former first-round draft pick, Perry struggled with his weight throughout his 10-year career. As a defensive tackle, he never fulfilled expectations. Poe, now in his sixth season, is firmly established as one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen. The two-time Pro Bowler holds it down at nose tackle, which is the key position in the Chiefs’ 3-4 base defense. The approach works best for teams that have a dominant nose tackle to occupy multiple blockers in the middle, freeing linebackers to make plays. Poe is well suited for the role. You won’t find a more athletic 300-pound-plus cat working the gig anywhere.
You can hear the pride in Poe’s voice when he talks about his role in making the Chiefs’ defense operate correctly, “and I feel like it’s no secret what I have to do,” Poe said. “My coaches say it to me all the time, ‘In a 3-4, the defense only goes as far as the nose tackle goes.’ So, yeah, I have to make sure I’m on point with what I need to do. I have to do it so the guys behind me can be successful. Definitely take a lot of pride in that.”
During the regular season, Kansas City ranked seventh in opponent points per game at 19.4. Much of the Chiefs’ success on defense since Poe entered the league can be directly traced to his ability to pressure quarterbacks and make plays in the running game while regularly being double-teamed. That’s why Kansas City used the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft to, in a surprising move, select Poe out of Memphis. Before the draft, Poe had a bit of a bad rap among some scouts. The word was that Poe, without question, possessed first-round talent. It was downright unfair for someone so large to be so athletic. There were, however, questions:
— At times, why did Poe look so average on film?
— Would Poe stay on the grind to become as good as possible?
— And was he interested in being a leader?
By reaching the Pro Bowl twice and continuing to stand at the front of the line of the Chiefs’ defense, Poe provided more than satisfactory answers. Poe doesn’t like to look backward. In his mind, there’s nothing there that can help him move forward. Still, he’s clearly pleased to have shown that “I let my play do the talking.” In Sunday’s rematch against Pittsburgh, Poe needs to shout louder than ever.
The Steelers methodically dismantled the Chiefs during their 43-14 victory Oct. 2 at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger had five touchdown passes and Bell racked up 178 yards of total offense. Against Miami last week, Bell was even better. During Pittsburgh’s wild-card round rout, Bell scored two touchdowns and established a new franchise record with 167 yards rushing. That topped the mark Hall of Famer Franco Harris held for 42 years. When your name is mentioned in connection with one of the most beloved Steelers in franchise history, you know you’re rolling right. Poe gets that he and his dudes along the Chiefs’ line must ball out.
“Every week, we try to show what we’re about,” Poe said. “If anyone wants to find out, all they have to do is pretty much tune in and watch me and my teammates go.”
The last time the Chiefs hosted a playoff game, they lost. Poe, who envisions a better outcome this time, expects the home crowd to be “crazy, man. They’ve been waiting for this. They’re ready. We’re ready. We just have to go play football.”
That Chiefs will. It’s what they do. And regardless of whether Poe gets some run on offense against the Steelers, he could still have a ton of fun. Just as long as Kansas City winds up with a win.