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Film Review: inside linebacker play vs. New England

Buckle up, it’s time to have a serious talk about the inside linebacker position and what’s going on

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It’s widely accepted that mentally, quarterback is the most difficult position to grasp in football. But another football position that requires a fair amount of mental acuity is inside linebacker.

As a play begins, they have to first read the offensive line and their blocking assignments — not just if it’s a run or pass, but also what kind of block the nearest offensive guard is executing. After the initial read, the ILB should identify if they are a spill defender (an interior gap run defender forcing runs outside) or a flow defender (mirroring the running back to fill the open window at the line of scrimmage) and what type of flow is best for this play.

In addition to their specific reads, ILBs also have to know when they are exchanging gaps — or more importantly, run fits — with another player based on the type of run the offense has called.

This all has to happen before they begin their process of stopping the play. So all of this much be accomplished as quickly as possible — without wasting movement or time.

Next, they have to react and determine how they are attacking the offensive blocker who is assigned to them — for example, whether it’s with their inside shoulder, their hands, or simply reducing the amount of contact.

We’ve made it this far, and have yet to mention that the ILB also has to mirror the running back’s hips and shoulders so that they have the same movement options as the the running back.

As you can now see, inside linebacker is a complicated position that requires a lot more thinking than most people realize, and this is often misunderstood because of the physical nature of the position.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So before we can properly judge the Chiefs ILBs against the run, we need a general understanding of what the Chiefs defense is trying to accomplish.

For the most part, the Chiefs are looking to run a one-gap system with their front — meaning that each defender in the box is in control of a single gap. Only rarely will both ILBs actually end up in the gap to which they are assigned pre-snap, but that’s just due to reading blocks and flowing with the RB; it becomes a process of elimination for at least one ILB on any given play. And when a defensive lineman is unable to get into their assigned gap , the ILBs are then attacking the blocker preventing that, and trying to play two gaps rather than one.

At the second level, the ILBs have to determine who is spilling (fitting, plugging, or fast-flowing) into a gap, and who is flowing (chasing, mirroring, slow-flowing) the RB. There will be plays that both ILBs are essentially asked to spill — such as isolation runs (HB Dive or HB Slam/Iso G) or split zones.

There will be times that the play side ILB is still the flow defender while the back side LB is the spill defender — such as an inside zone or counter run. For the most part, however, the play side ILB is going to be the spill defender, while the back side ILB is the flow defender.

In a perfect scenario for the Chiefs, this puts Reggie Ragland (the strong side ILB) as the interior run defender, and Anthony Hitchens (the weak side ILB) as the chase defender.

Let’s apply these basic principles to the film

Here, there is failure across the board — beyond the highlighted players

First, Breeland Speaks loses contain by not keeping his outside shoulder free, and Jordan Lucas fills the same gap as Hitchens — although he’s probably an alley defender, meaning that is a potential fill for him depending on what he sees.

Anthony Hitchens is taking over the C-gap for Breeland Speaks, who is crashing down into the B-gap as the left tackle climbs immediately to the second level. Hitchens needs to get into the gap, rather than watching the C from behind Speaks — who is being blocked.

Terrance Smith also happens to be the slow flow defender. He’s mirroring the RB’s shoulders and working down the line of scrimmage, trying to fill the open lane. Smith has to know that there is a climbing offensive lineman, and can’t work underneath him. If possible, he needs to clear the blocker, but do so over the top so he can still fill an open lane. Working underneath the block just puts him into more traffic that is far outside of the play.

Here we see another struggle with the back side ILB flowing properly to the ball.

Hitchens — who is filling the C-gap on this power run — needs to force this contact on the inside of the gap rather than outside. As a spill defender, he has to take away the inside, which would force the RB to work around him into the force/contain player. He takes on the block properly with his inside shoulder and foot to compress the gap, but in order to be more effective, he has to do so on the inside of the gap.

This leads us to Ragland, who initially has to read the pull of the offensive guard, and make an immediate decision to either shoot through the vacated gap or flow slowly down the line of scrimmage. “Slowly” doesn’t only mean his speed, but also his positioning; he can’t be so close to the line of scrimmage that any offensive lineman can step out and reach him instantly. Ragland gets sucked up into the traffic while thinking about shooting a tight gap, rather than just chasing down from the back side.

More of the same issues continue.

The run goes to Hitchens’ side, forcing him to fill a gap. He does so by waiting — flat-footed and on the outside of a gap rather than attacking the inside. Hitchens seems to be still trying to read and react to runs — even when his job is to attack something on a relatively simple read.

Ragland is our flow guy again, and this time he definitely accomplishes the slow flow — just too slowly. He’s waiting to defend a cutback, but as soon as he sees the near guard and running back pull across the formation, he has to follow.

Instead, his hesitation forces Jordan Lucas — the alley defender — to come down and take on the climbing offensive tackle. This essentially seals Ragland out of the play, forcing him to go around the block. The good part for him is that the blocker can’t affect him anymore — thanks to Lucas — yet Ragland chooses to go over the block and back into the end zone, which essentially puts him completely out of the play.

In general, the Chiefs would prefer to have Ragland as the spill defender on every play. He attacks a little quicker, is a littler thicker, and usually takes the block on a bit better in terms of compressing the gap.

But on this particular play, he is a split-second late, and doesn’t squeeze down as tightly as he could have — giving a small lane on the inside of the B-gap.

Here, Hitchens is the flow defender, and while he’s put in a hard spot beating an offensive lineman who has climbed quickly, his engagement against the block is rough. He attacks the blocker’s chest directly with his hands while stepping backwards into him; there is no force created by his engagement nor a block slip attempt.

There is no coverage inside linebacker

We don’t need to spend a lot of time on the ILBs in pass coverage, as it’s a clear weakness. Hitchens simply can’t match up with wide receivers, tight ends or running backs in man coverage — and at this point, he’s even struggling to pick them up in zone, and break down in space to make plays on shiftier players. Ragland has been even worse. Terrance Smith has the trust of the coaches in this respect, but still isn’t good. With both of the bigger safeties unavailable to play, ILB coverage is definitely a weak point of the Chiefs defense.

The bottom line

Distinguishing the issues the Chiefs are having at the LB position can be summed up rather easily: everything!

But diving into the why is far more complex. A lot of people have pointed out that Anthony Hitchens has regressed since his time with the Dallas Cowboys — and while his production certainly has regressed, there really isn’t much of a parallel to be made. In Dallas, he was asked only to make a lot of simple reads on one or two gaps, and the spill them repeatedly. He’s being asked to do much more as a Chief.

Reggie Ragland looked great for the Chiefs down the stretch last year in a role very similar to what he’s been playing this year, yet all of sudden he’s hit or miss — and it appears to be because of his energy level during the play at hand.

At the end of the day, the Chiefs are running out two strong side ILBs in a version of the NFL that doesn’t need a single one.

The Chiefs are currently lacking a player that can play on the back side of the formation and flow with the ball carrier quickly and effectively. Hitchens is definitely better at it than Ragland, but he still isn’t proficient at it. Ragland is definitely the better strong side defender, and while Hitchens hasn’t been bad in that regard, in both scenarios there is no back side chase coming from the other guy. Hitchens in particular is also playing very hesitantly in and around gaps — whether as a spill player or flow player.

Hitchens will identify the correct gap — even get moving quickly — but just sit outside of it like he’s trying to decide where to go. While it is an educated guess based on watching the film — rather than knowing it for a fact — Hitchens appears to be trying to process more than necessary on any given play. Even when being presented with direct, simple reads — on which he did excel with the Cowboys — he gets to the general spot on the field, but tries to process the play to another degree.

It’s almost as if Hitchens has taken his new role — which is known to be a read-and-react player — so completely to heart that he is playing every moment of every snap with that in mind, instead of letting go and trusting what are usually good reads.

More time in the system could help fix some of this — and that has to be the hope for Chiefs fans, given the contract to which Hitchens was signed. As scary as it is to say, based on his contract, it’s hard to imagine moving Hitchens to a more natural spot on the strong side. He’s likely to be the future as the weak side ILB.

Reggie Ragland, on the other hand, still does excel in the position in which he’s being used. He just lacks consistency. It could be the swollen knee — or being a hair out of shape compared to last year — but he does show flashes here and there, busting through the offensive line and stuffing blocks.

The real concern is how teams have been able to attack the weak side of the Chiefs defense with run plays that have forced Ragland to flow. Not only is it athletically difficult for him, but his movement through traffic leaves a lot to be desired. The way the NFL football is going may pass players like Ragland by — that is, if he doesn’t find a secondary form of impact, as players like Dont’a Hightower did as a pass rusher.

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