NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Defensive back Joshua Kalu was a hero for the Tennessee Titans in their win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
He blocked the Chiefs’ attempt at a game-tying field goal as time expired, getting a perfect jump on the snap thanks to an understanding of the Chiefs’ pre-snap timing on field goal attempts.
“I just saw the cadence,” Kalu exclaimed with excitement after the game. “I could see their hands, their eyes and the whole game I was getting closer and closer.”
But Kalu’s process of figuring out the Chiefs’ cadence and, in turn, securing a win for the Titans didn’t begin during the game or even in the week of preparation leading up to it. The process actually began when Kalu was playing college football at Nebraska, and it continued through Sunday’s final whistle.
WHERE IT GOT STARTED
During a 2015 game against Purdue, a blowout loss for Kalu’s Nebraska Cornhuskers, he noticed that the Boilermakers were using the exact same cadence on each field goal attempt, just like what the Chiefs did against the Titans on Sunday.
By the end of the game, Kalu knew Purdue’s cadence so well that he was able to get a perfect jump on their final extra-point attempt of the game and block the kick.
“I was getting closer and closer every time, but for some reason I guess I wasn’t fast enough, and the ground was wet,” Kalu said.
“So, on the last one, I aimed it up, and if you go back and watch, I came in from the side standing up. I wasn’t in a three-point stance, and I just ran until I knew I had it.
“They snapped it with the same cadence, and I blocked it.”
It’s the only time from his college career that Kalu can recall a team using the same field goal cadence for an entire game.
KALU FIGURING IT OUT
Four years later, as he prepared to face the Chiefs and their red-hot offense as a member of the Titans, Kalu started to see the same thing happening for the first time in his two-year NFL career.
He noticed that the Chiefs’ field goal unit had a somewhat obvious tell as to the timing of when they snapped the ball.
The holder, Dustin Colquitt, always turned his head to the left to look back at kicker Harrison Butker. When Colquitt turned his head back to the right to face long snapper Chase Winchester, that was the cue to snap the ball. Every single time.
“I watched one rep on film and kind of had a sense of it,” Kalu said. “Before the game, I was watching them kick and it looked like they were doing the same thing.”
Kalu put his understanding of the Chiefs’ cadence into action very early on in the game. He nearly blocked their first extra-point attempt following an opening drive touchdown.
Throughout the game, just like against Purdue in 2015, Kalu kept getting closer. Four times, leading up to the kick he actually blocked, Kalu nearly got there.
It was at that point, after nearly blocking four separate attempts, Kalu thought that, surely, the Chiefs would figure out that he knew their timing and try to change things up.
Luckily for the Titans, they didn’t change things up, and it ultimately wasn’t that surprising for Kalu.
“Think about it, a lot of guys take special teams and field goals for granted,” he said. “So, I use that as an opportunity to go make plays.”
On the last play of the game, Kalu did just that.
JOSHUA KALU’S WINNER
The Chiefs lined up for a 52-yard attempt with three seconds left in the game. It was the ninth time in the game that Kansas City’s field goal operation took the field. If the kick had been good, the game would’ve gone to overtime.
Nine happened to be Kalu’s lucky number. He got a perfect jump, whizzed past tight end Blake Bell on the edge and got the end of his left forearm on the ball to block the kick.
Most important, though, was the fact that Kalu managed to not be in the neutral zone when the ball was snapped.
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) November 11, 2019
“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t offsides,” Kalu said. “I knew I was going to jump it, but sometimes in college when I jumped it, they would call it offsides even when they weren’t supposed to because it happens so fast.”
“So, I inched back a little bit, and then I just took off.”
Instead of having to go to overtime, where there would have been a chance for the reigning NFL MVP, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, to get the ball with a chance to win the game, Kalu’s diligence and instincts allowed the Titans to celebratorily run off the field at the end of regulation with a win.
It’s probably rare for an NFL game-winning play to have roots in a four-year-old college football blowout, but this one certainly did.
Cover image: Jim Brown/USA Today