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The Anthony Hitchens review: Chiefs are immediately better at inside linebacker

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New Orleans Saints v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Full disclosure: prior to the Chiefs signing him, I had absolutely no idea who Anthony Hitchens was whatsoever. The name meant nothing to me.

I saw a few analysts I respect praising the move, but I couldn’t get past my “who?” reaction. Additionally, this was approximately five minutes after the Sammy Watkins signing had blown up Twitter, so I was (of course) already neck-deep in film.

There just wasn’t time to really discover much about him.

I decided that rather than read up on him or try and look up his stats or anything like that, I’d just wait until I could review his film a bit and decide for myself. And I’m glad I did. Because I got to have a lot of fun watching significantly more competent ILB play than we saw for most of last season.

First things first... I DID learn that Hitchens suffered a fracture in his knee last preseason that kept him out until Week 5. I also learned that he played WLB, MLB and SLB at various points last season. In other words, he played every role you can play in a 4-3 defense, which encompasses any role he’d be asked to play with the Chiefs. So that was good to know.

Charting ILBs is new(ish) territory for me. While I’ve reviewed ILBs in the past, I never came up with a real system or things that I thought would be good to track.

As such, I’m on a bit of a learning curve here. But what I really wanted to know about Hitchens were as follows:

  1. What kind of tackler is he?
  2. Can he avoid blockers? Take them on?
  3. Is he impactful on his own or reliant on the defensive line to keep him clean?
  4. How are his instincts? Does he diagnose and react well?
  5. How does he do in coverage?

There are, of course, a bunch of other issues I wanted to learn watching Hitchens, but those are some of the main things I was wondering. Given that the Chiefs signed him to a very lucrative deal, it’s clear they plan on him being a three-down linebacker and one of the foundation pieces of the defense. And so I went into the review to see if how he played last year warranted that kind of confidence.

Here are the following “stats” to chart as I reviewed four games by Hitchens:

Stuffs- plays in which Hitchens stuffed a run for two yards or less, being the first defender to hit/stop the runner (not just piling on after another defender stopped him).

Washouts- plays in which Hitchens was “washed out” by a blocker. This is a crucial one, as way too often last season Derrick Johnson (whom I will love forever) and KPL found themselves washed out once a blocker locked onto them.

Fills- plays in which Hitchens properly filled a gap that the runner was headed towards, forcing him to change direction. This is more valuable than you think, as it gives other defenders time to close in.

Saves- plays in which Hitchens made a tackle or some other play that, had it not been for him, would have been a big gain due to failure by someone else on the defense. One could call this an “Eric Berry” if one were so inclined.

False Steps- plays in which Hitchens took a step or two more than he should in the wrong direction due to a fake, counter or just misreading the play. CRITICAL to be low on this. It was an area KPL struggled.

Successful Coverage- same as it means in every other article I’ve written. Whether in zone or man, plays in which Hitchens did his job in coverage and didn’t allow room for an easy reception.

Failed Coverage- pretty self-explanatory, whether in man or zone.

Neutral Coverage- plays in which Hitchens wasn’t asked to do much in his zones.

Now that we know the system, let’s look at the numbers and then talk about what Hitchens looks like on film.

(Note: Hitchens only played a little over half the snaps in the Oakland game. he played a large majority in the other three)

Because we’re in new charting territory here, I figured it would be a good idea to grab some kind of context. So I went back and reviewed a 2017 Derrick Johnson and Kevin Pierre-Louis game for a frame of reference (since those are the players Hitchens will be replacing). I chose the second Chargers game for several reasons. First, it was late in the season, and it’s been widely acknowledged that DJ and KPL both played better as the season went along. Second, it’s a common opponent.

Here are the numbers they put up:

Obviously 1 game isn’t a great sample size, but there are a few things that I believe we can read into Hitchens’ numbers based on what we know.

For starters, he has a very noticeable impact against the run. Between stuffs and fills, Hitchens averaged 8.25 “impact” plays against the run per game. Against Atlanta, Green Bay and the Chargers in particular, (I believe he was nicked up against the Raiders, based on the snap count and him moving a bit differently), he popped out on film as a guy who made opposing running backs miserable.

Another thing to note is that Hitchens generally took fewer false steps than what I saw from DJ and KPL. To be perfectly honest, I graded DJ/KPL a little soft in this department for fear of being prone to homerism. But Hitchens rarely took false steps against the run, generally seeming to react to fakes/counters/reverses sooner than other players on the defense.

Finally, and very importantly, it’s worth noting that Hitchens spent a ton of time in coverage for the Cowboys and acquitted himself pretty well. Coverage is an area we’ll discuss in the film review portion, but he was able to keep his “fails” in coverage relatively low. Considering that DJ and KPL were both considered decent cover linebackers, Hitchens having a lower rate of failure is very encouraging.

The numbers are nice to see, but they really don’t convey the impact Hitchens had on opponents’ run game.

It’s no secret that the Chiefs struggled with run defense last season. Part of that was the defensive line not playing as consistently as I’d like (outside of Chris Jones and maybe Bennie Logan against the run), but a huge problem was at the inside linebacker position as well.

To be blunt, we just didn’t see many plays like the one above last season. Pretty much any time offensive linemen got a free shot at DJ or KPL, they were able to wall them off or completely wash them out of the play.

(for the record, this sucks to write this stuff about DJ. I hate time.)

Hitchens, on the other hand, showed a knack for avoiding blockers when he could.

While Dallas’ line generally did a better job providing Hitchens with opportunities, he made them look better quite frequently by being decisive and quick to fill gaps. It’s so important for an ILB to read and react to a play quickly (which we’ll come back to), in part because hesitating for too long gives a lineman a chance to lock on to you.

Hitchens seems to have the ability to read and react quickly, though not too quickly. Think D.J. Alexander, who generally barreled into plays headfirst without any regard to angles, blockers, trajectory or anything else really. So when he happened to meet the runner head-on, it was awesome. The majority of the time, though, it was a whiff.

Hitchens combines aggression with a solid understanding of where to be.

Once you get past Sanu erasing Dallas’ safety from existence, take a look at what Hitchens does on this play.

He sees where the play is going and starts flowing in that direction, but doesn’t just sprint to where the runner is. That allows him to react to whatever cut the runner eventually makes. However, he starts going downhill fast enough to prevent the offensive lineman (who had a clear shot at him) from locking on. That allowed him to cut past the lineman and fill the running lane (as well as lay a pretty big hit).

That’s a big theme with Hitchens. He knows where to be and when to go there, and it often results in stuffed runs and gaps filled (or edges maintained).

It was a lot of fun watching Hitchens combine patient diagnosis with a quickly going downhill once he saw where the play was going.

However, Hitchens isn’t just a guy who gets to the right spot or avoids blockers. He’s also quite physical when the occasion calls for it. The first gif of the article demonstrates that, as he obliterates the lead blocking fullback and then stuffs the runner at the line of scrimmage.

Hitchens is not a finesse guy by any stretch of the imagination.

With linebackers, you have to be able to deliver and take shots, no matter how good you are at avoiding blockers. And Hitchens is more than willing to do both.

This snap combines a lot of things I love. First, Hitchens waits a beat to correctly diagnose where the play is going. Second, he gets north and south very quickly once he does so, negating the receiver who is attempting to sneak in there to block him. Third, he goes right after the tight end when it’s obvious a collision can’t be avoided. Finally (and this is crucial), he maintains awareness of where the runner is going and wraps him up as he goes by.

It’s very important that a linebacker be willing and able to take on blockers in space when necessary, and Hitchens does so with zero hesitation. He also doesn’t get lost in the individual battle with linemen, maintaining awareness of where the football is at.

Overall, Hitchens is strong and physical, has good explosion, wraps up, is willing to take on blockers, and gets to the right place at the right time quickly. That sums up watching him play in run defense pretty accurately.

A lot of people have questions about Hitchens’ speed, given a relatively pedestrian 40-yard dash. What I’d say is this: Hitchens doesn’t have great top speed, but he DOES have good acceleration/explosion for the all-important 10-to-15-yard split. The result is a guy who, in my opinion, isn’t a fantastic sideline to sideline defender, but he does just enough in that area to get by due to his recognition and burst.

Again, Hitchens doesn’t have great top-end speed, and that’ll show up on some snaps. However, he’s generally more than capable of making plays in pursuit from the games I watched. That’s one area I don’t expect him to be elite, but to do enough to get by.

Hitchens is clearly aware of exactly how fast he is, because he consistently takes good angles in pursuit. That’s an underrated but wildly important part of playing linebacker, in that it can be the difference between an 8-yard gain and a 20-yard gain. As we’ve talked about in the past, plays “saved” on defense are just as important as big plays made.

Overall, Hitchens’ run defense was very, very impressive. He’s assignment-sound, patient, quick to get downhill, wraps up (I counted one even sort-of missed tackle in four games, and that was a borderline case where the runner ended up on the ground anyways), has the burst to beat runners and blockers to the hole, and he’s able to shed decently when he is actively engaged.

Another important area for Hitchens will be in coverage. I’ve had multiple people ask me about whether he’s a “three-down linebacker.” The fortunate reality is that he played that role in Dallas in the games I reviewed. As you can see from the numbers above, Hitchens spent plenty of time in coverage while playing for Dallas. Generally, he was dropping into zone coverage, but he was also asked to play man against TEs and RBs with some frequency.

I wouldn’t call Hitchens a great man defender, but I didn’t see him as a glaring weakness either. His change of direction isn’t particularly good, but his burst in space, awareness, and effort generally won the day. He wasn’t often placed in a situation to get exposed, but the fact is that most linebackers aren’t placed in that situation for a reason. Unless you’re Luke Kuechly, going up against certain running backs will always be a mismatch. The key is being able to survive for a few seconds, and Hitchens generally did that.

I’m more comfortable with Hitchens in zone coverage, which will be the vast majority of his responsibility for the Chiefs if what we’ve seen in years past is any indication. In zone, Hitchens is a high-effort guy who generally hustles to get proper depth and closes well on receivers who get the ball in his area. He also usually stays aware of offensive players entering into and leaving his zone. He did get sucked up by play action a few times, but it wasn’t a pattern (he actually did better in that area than either DJ or KPL).

In short, I’m excited to see what Hitchens brings to the defense. It’s interesting comparing him to DJ and KPL, because it really highlighted to me how used I got to seeing subpar ILB play last season from players not named Reggie Ragland.

Hitchens is a tough, smart, explosive inside linebacker who has one specific weakness (lack of long speed) that he’s able to compensate for with his awareness on the field and understanding of angles.

I wasn’t very high on the idea of adding an ILB, believing that KPL would be adequate. However, after comparing the two, it really jumps out just how much of an improvement Hitchens is overall (massively better against the run, marginally better in zone coverage). Given his age, there’s also a great chance that his ceiling is higher than what we’ve already seen.

I’m still not sure what I think of the contract Hitchens received, but I think he’ll go a long ways towards solidifying some of the issues the defense had last season, and I’m very excited to see him and Ragland playing together.

He brings a physicality with him that should really, really help. And really, really hurt opposing runners.