By Matt Derrick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The bye week provided a much-needed respite for Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark, but he admits the time off also left him restless and ready to get back on the field ahead of the team’s first practice in preparation of hosting the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
“I’m getting my second wind, I’m getting my health back and I’m just ready to go out there and play football,” Clark said. “I’ve been off too long. I’m kind of tense. I’m simmering right now honestly.”
During the first three months of the season, Clark concedes he didn’t always feel that way. A pinched nerve in his neck caused a burning sensation to shoot down his arm. Two fingers on his hand would go numb. The injury zapped not only Clark’s strength and explosiveness, it also drained his enthusiasm for playing the game he loves.
“You could see in the play I was playing timid the whole season,” Clark said. “There was times where I didn’t even want to play just because of how hurt I was. I was out there sacrificing my own thoughts and stuff for my team. That’s the nature of the game, that’s the game we play, that’s how you’re taught from the moment you come into this league.”
Through the first seven games, a restrained Clark tallied three sacks, four quarterback hits and 17 total tackles. Those were far from the numbers the Chiefs expected when they sent their 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round selection to Seattle just for the opportunity to ink Clark to a $104 million contract.
The Chiefs shut Clark down for two weeks hoping to calm down the pain stemming from his neck. He returned in Week 10 at Tennessee with a sack and four tackles. The 26-year-old Clark delivered arguable his most complete game with the Chiefs in Week 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers, picking up a sack, three quarterback hits, five tackles, a forced fumble and a broken up pass.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo says he noticed a difference in Clark during the week of preparation for the Chargers game.
“I thought he had really good focus during the week and it was nice to see when that happens that it results in good play,” Spagnuolo said. “He helped us a lot.”
Spagnuolo said Clark’s biggest play wasn’t a sack or a quarterback hit. He singled out the stop on third-and-3 midway through the fourth quarter when Clark exploded off the line to drop running back Austin Ekeler for a 1-yard loss, despite essentially getting tackled by tight end Hunter Henry.
“I thought that was as important a play as any,” Spagnuolo said. “That was basically what we’ve been preaching toward the end here and we always do. Situational awareness and discipline in your play as you venture into November and December is really important.”
Clark says the increased focus Spagnuolo sees derives entirely from his improved health.
“When your neck is affecting you, it’s nerves, there’s only so much I can do when it’s nerves affecting me,” Clark said. “When you eliminate stuff like that, then it comes down to just the ability. When you put my ability against any offensive tackle in the league, I choose myself over the offensive tackle.”
Clark isn’t the only Chiefs defender on the mend. Defensive tackle Alex Okafor returned to practice on Wednesday from a sprained ankle and appears on target to return this weekend against the Raiders. The Chiefs also signed defensive end Demone Harris from the practice squad of the Baltimore Ravens for added depth.
Reinforcements have arrived along the defensive line just in time for a critical matchup in Week 14. Raiders rookie running back Josh Jacobs ranks fifth in the league 957 yards rushing on the season. Clark well remember Jacobs rushing for 99 yards in just 12 carries in Week 2 and the Raiders out-gained the Chiefs 129 to 31 on the ground.
“We know how they’re going to come in here, they’re going to try to run the ball down our throats,” Clark said. “They did last time we played them, even though it resulted in us with a win. Their running back, he’s a pretty good kid as a rookie. I feel like we’re going to get the job done up front, that’s how we’re going to win this game.”
Clark stood at his locker Wednesday with a smile on his face as he talked tough about the upcoming game. That’s his confidence finally shining through. He says he’s the best player on the field – when he’s on the field. Rested and ready for the closing stretch of the season, Clark says he feel he has many things left to prove in the 2019 season.
“The Raiders got to come with it and every other team,” Clark said. “I’m going to say that and keep saying it. I said my neck, a lot of that stuff is in the past now. They’re getting some football from Frank Clark right now.”
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.