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Football Outsiders: Will Chiefs linebackers engage the ball carrier sooner in 2018?

Exploring whether or not the Chiefs Inside Linebackers will stop the ball carrier better in 2018.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Arrowhead Pride had the opportunity to ask Football Outsiders five questions about the upcoming season. This week, we’ll talk about one of the five and provide our reaction.

What will be the Chiefs linebacker’s depth of contact on a ball carrier in 2018 versus that in 2016 and 2017?

Football Outsiders: Evaluating a linebacking corps should begin with understanding how easy or difficult their jobs were made by the defensive line in front of them. Kansas City’s defensive line posted an ALY (adjusted line yards) of 4.72 in 2016 and 4.35 in 2017, ranking 30th and 26th in the league, respectively. To say the least, Kansas City’s linebackers have been put it a brutal position over the past couple years due to defensive lines that boasted explosivity, but entirely lacked consistency. As a result, the Chiefs’ linebacking corps ranked 30th and 31st in the league in 2nd-level yards over the past two seasons, meaning they struggled to do anything to make up for the defensive line’s shortcomings.

Derrick Johnson was well into his thirties last season and had lost any ounce of athleticism that kept him successful previously. Likewise, Reggie Ragland, who was acquired last season via a trade with the Buffalo Bills, did not stand out as a sideline to sideline player. Ragland was a below-average athlete coming out of Alabama a few years ago, and while he is a solid between-the-tackles run defender, he often did not have the speed to play to the edge or shoot into the backfield. The only decent athlete who played inside linebacker for the Chiefs last year was Kevin Pierre-Louis, who was opposite of Ragland in that he had the athleticism to be a playmaker, but not the fundamentals. There was nobody who could do anything more than damage control, which was not really valuable considering how bad the defensive line was.

In 2018, two key changes should improve Kansas City’s run defense at least slightly: rookie defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and free agent linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Nnadi is a beefy, run-oriented defensive tackle who should better shore up the interior defensive line and enable the linebackers to press the line of scrimmage more comfortably. To the same token, Hitchens, though horrid in coverage, is a serviceable run defender and posted a lower “average rushing yards against” and a higher “stop percentage” than any of Kansas City’s linebackers last year. Given Dallas’ defensive line was also poor, Hitchens was operating in a comparable situation while outperforming the Chiefs’ linebacking group. Between Nnadi helping bolster the defensive line and Hitchens giving a slight boost to the talent pool at linebacker, the overall effectiveness of the team’s linebacking unit should increase as their jobs become easier and a more reliable run-stopping linebacker comes in to lead the group.

My reaction: There were so many holes, aging players and a lack of overall talent over the past two years at inside linebacker and defensive line that it was incredibly difficult for the Chiefs defense to stop the run with any sort of consistency. While I’m higher on the new inside linebackers than FO is in coverage, I’m in full agreement with them against the run. Both Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland should improve the Chiefs run defense, especially coupled with new nose tackles Derrick Nnadi and Xavier Williams to clog the middle and keep the linebackers cleaner. A lighter, quicker Chris Jones and a healthier Justin Houston should result in a significant improvement in overall run defense in at least five of the seven spots in the Chiefs base defense over the past two years.

Having the starting inside linebackers on the field this week paid dividends for the Chiefs, holding the Bears to 2.64 yards per carry. It’s a step in the right direction for bucking a poor run defense trend over the past two years.

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