Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens suffered a rib contusion in Sunday’s victory over the Denver Broncos, and there’s a serious question about whether he will play this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. He didn’t participate in practice Wednesday, and he was limited on Thursday.
Should he be unable to go, it seems likely that the Chiefs may depend on rookie linebacker Ben Niemann to carry at least some of the load.
Niemann — an undrafted free agent out of Iowa — was impressive in preseason and has been dressed for six games this season. Except for a handful of snaps in the last two weeks, all of his playing time has been on special teams. But on Thursday, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton expressed confidence in Niemann.
“Ben did a really good job in preseason,” he said. “That’s obviously when we saw him the most. Every time he’s gone in — whether in a preseason game, practice or whatever — he’s [been] a very reliable, very dependable, tough-minded guy. He loves to compete. He brings a lot of those attributes that I think are associated with the Iowa program — being tough, aggressive and all-out — and I think that will serve him well. We feel pretty good about Ben.”
Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland — who would be playing alongside Niemann if Hitchens cannot play — also expressed confidence.
“Ben can play,” Ragland said. “He knows the whole system. The coaches have confidence in him — to put him out there — so it doesn’t matter what I think. I just know Ben’s going to go out there and do what he has to do. He has my full support.”
Ragland almost bristled in response to a question about Niemann’s work ethic.
“Oh, man. Ben is one of the hardest-working people in this building. Period. He does what he has to do. He does everything the coaches ask him to do. And on top of that, he knows the game plan each week. Ben’s a hell of a player, and I’m excited for him to get out there and play if Hitch can’t go.”
Niemann would be joining another rookie linebacker that generated a lot of excitement in the preseason but didn’t see much action until recently: Dorian O’Daniel.
O’Daniel has been active in every game this season — and like Niemann — had seen the most playing time on special teams, with only a handful of snaps on defense. That changed two weeks ago, when Terrance Smith was injured in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Chiefs had originally planned to start rotating O’Daniel into the defensive lineup more regularly, but with Smith’s injury, O’Daniel saw a lot more playing time against the Bengals — and then the Broncos.
Sutton said that O’Daniel’s playing time will continue to increase.
“He’s going to see [more playing time] just like he did the other day when Terrance Smith went down. He’s going to play a lot as we go forward, because we’re down one person here, and we were just starting to expand his role before that injury. We had him in on certain packages. Now he’s going to be in on a lot of the packages.”
Sutton added that O’Daniel’s role in the Chiefs defense is a little different than what he played in college.
“He has had to come in and learn — kind of like we’ve had other position guys [do] — he had to come in and be an in-the-box player. He was usually out of the box at Clemson — out on the perimeter — and now he has to come in and do all those [other] things.”
Sutton — like many Chiefs fans who have watched him play in the last two weeks — had a lot of praise for O’Daniel.
“Coverage-wise — with speed and quickness — he’s got a really good skill set,” said Sutton. “I think you’re going to see [him] get better and better. He’s outstanding on the perimeter. He can go out and track you down. He likes doing it, and thinks he can do it, and he’s pretty good at it right now.”