After the iffy defensive performance by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, I looked at the inside linebacker play pretty extensively. It was simply poor.
On Saturday against the Chicago Bears, the Chiefs got to see their two starting inside linebackers suit up for the first time together — hoping their joint appearance would help shore up a defense that’s been struggling in the preseason.
Last year, the inside linebacker position was a problem for much of the season, but started seeing some stability as Reggie Ragland got more playing time. This offseason — after losing Derrick Johnson and Kevin Pierre-Louis — the Chiefs brought in former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens to be Ragland’s running mate. filling the weak inside linebacker position Johnson had vacated.
But thanks to injuries, we hadn’t had a chance to see Hitchens perform in a Chiefs uniform until Saturday.
I haven’t really explained my film review process — or what I am looking for in a review — so this seems like a good spot for that.
I’m not looking for specific production — that is, how often a player wins on a given play — but rather for traits and skills a player displays that will accurately predict future performance. That said, after a period of time, results do matter. When the sample size gets big enough — and there are consistent results — then exactly how a player got those results matter less. The number of Chiefs players that fall into that category is very small — and the few who do also display very good traits and skills.
I’m not trying to grade a player’s past game. Instead, my goal is to use the last game to assess their ability to perform well in the next game. These two methodologies align, but in the course of a season, there could be some discrepancies.
Now let’s head down to the Laboratory — where the tape is rolling 24/7 and legal pads are bought by the dozen.
Anthony “The Hitman” Hitchens
The Bears game was very clearly Hitchens’ first live action of the year, and you could practically see the rust fall from him. Since he was also on a new team, you could see the confusion over assignments written on his face. So this wasn’t a perfect coming-out party.
Still, Hitchens showcased a lot the traits that made him a highly sought-after free agent. In his first action, Hitchens played two and a half quarters and finished with seven solo tackles. That’s pretty good — but does the tape say the same?
Good job by Murray, spinning into the box from deep, to take an outside-in angle on the run. Runs happen fast to players spinning down. Hitchens, in his first game back, does a good job mirroring the RB here. Works into the initial aiming point then back out w/ RB pic.twitter.com/TdbAY1m3JR— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 26, 2018
This is a relatively simple play on the surface, but it shows the technical nuance to Hitchens game — something for which he may not have been given enough credit when he was signed.
The first step Hitchens makes is with his right foot — and it’s less of a step than it is a repositioning of his foot so that he can come downhill. This is a read step that allows Hitchens to be flowing with the play as he reads the nearest offensive guard. The next step he takes — after reading the offensive line — is a large step forward at the aiming point, based on the blocks in the boundary A-gap.
Rather than push forward into the logjam of bodies, Hitchens breaks down just on the other side of the gap and starts to read the running back. As the runner tries to bounce outside, Hitchens is able to slide down the line of scrimmage — mirroring him — and uses his hands to keep distance from any blockers trying to reach out to him.
His angle is a bit more passive than I expected to see — something I noticed a few times in this game — but technically, it makes sense. Eventually, Hitchens loses sight of the runner, and it’s safer to move from depth back to shallow.
The hand-off/fake is botched but Hitchens is blowing this play up regardless. Gather/read step forward as he reads the play, sees OL coming forward low and shoots through the gap. Beats the combo block and blows up the mesh point. pic.twitter.com/EvLMK2lYhn— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 26, 2018
This was a little flashier play that every Chiefs fan should be excited to see.
Hitchens takes his initial read-step again, but instead of just preparing to explode downhill, he takes the inside running back handoff through the back-side A-gap and beats the second level blocker with ease.
Based on the read, the quarterback tries to pull the ball, but with Hitchens shooting the gap so cleanly, even a successful pull of the ball would still result in a tackle for a loss.
This play should be noticed by fans because it shows how Hitchens — who approaches the game and his fits very systematically — can be an explosive player, turning in game-changing plays. He isn’t going to scream through every gap possible and live in the opponent’s backfield, but when the situation calls for him to be first through the line, he has the tools to excel.
1 of my fav parts of Hitchens game, his footwork. We talk feet for every other position but not much at ILB. Works into the aiming point (hole) with a good base ready to explode forward, able to work laterally and slide by a 2nd lvl blocker while mirroring RB. Stays balanced/rdy pic.twitter.com/mo9JiYjx3L— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 26, 2018
This is one of those plays that Hitchens doesn’t attack any gap.
A play like this one can throw off the integrity of the defense’s gap responsibilities. Hitchens could easily have taken the inside A-gap dive like on the play above, but instead, he uses the late defensive line motion to make a belly key read. Taking the dive could have led to another blown play in the backfield — or could have given up all control of the uncovered B-gap and risked the running back seeing this opening and simply cutting off his blocker’s hip.
This is a significantly less flashy — but more effective — technical approach to Hitchens’ position that will manifest itself throughout the coming season. With more and more teams running zone reads, having second-level players who can quickly identify their gap assignments — and how they can attack them — is essential to slowing down RPOs as well as read option plays.
This is something to watch if you want to see textbook linebacker play. Hitchens shows fantastic technique, base, and an ability to slip around the block. He has great hands and body control when blockers approach — while giving up no ground. Little plays like this will likely go unnoticed, but mentally and physically, this was an impressive play from Hitchens.
Fuller and Hitchens show sound zone coverage by getting proper depth on their "man" while watching the QB. As soon as the ball starts to come out, both break downhill to the flat. pic.twitter.com/8kzGG0as9d— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 26, 2018
Here is a pretty basic snap with Hitchens in coverage, but it shows that he’s not as terrible as it might have seemed during the live watch.
He has to carry a slot wide receiver vertically — one who is a better athlete than he is — and does so to the proper depth, and with a good shuffle into a backpedal to prepare to break downhill. He is coming from pretty deep — and off the screen — but he is breaking before the ball is released.
While he’s the second man to the receiver, he is in the perfect position to stop this play before the first down marker. As he closes to tackling range, Hitchens shows a little bit of the rust he is still knocking off. He always comes in balanced and breaking down — which is great — but in this game, there were a couple of examples out in space that he started breaking down a step or two early, which allowed receivers to react to his angle and pick up a few extra yards.
Out in these open areas, the game can happen super-fast for defenders, and in his first real live action this year, you could see Hitchens trying to get back into his rhythm.
Looks a little like a communication error but Hitchens I'm sure wants this one back. He sees the stick route settle down but never sees the ball released, gets caught checking for a crossing route and doesn't break on the stick. Maybe* thought help from Fuller but looks like man pic.twitter.com/dfV5uftpJg— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 26, 2018
If Hitchens’ engagements in space were the appetizers of worry in the Chicago games, then his general zone awareness and communication/assignment responsibility were the main course.
He starts this play in perfect position right over his man, gets good depth and squares his hips to the receiver as they break.
Then, inexplicably, Hitchens takes his eyes off his receiver — and the ball — looks to the back side of the offense, and opens his hips like he’s about to run under the deeper over route or break on the underneath drag route. He simply never sees the ball thrown.
Despite being in perfect position to make the tackle or force an incompletion, his late reaction gives the receiver a window to cut back outside for a big gain after the catch. Hitchens plays it almost like he’s expecting the slot defensive back to switch off onto the stick route while he carries the deep over route — but no one else on the field is playing like there’s a switch in assignments.
There were a few other plays where Hitchens appeared to be playing under different rules than the other inside linebacker or the rest of the defense. Andy Reid and Bob Sutton have both since spoken about defensive miscommunications — this is now the third consecutive week the inside linebackers have had this problem — and how this group of secondary players hasn’t gotten that much playing time together.
It’s not something you can completely blame on Hitchens, but it’s also something to monitor.
Hitchens out wide on a FB and while I would rather not see a huge cushion given to a FB, Hitch recognizes the quick in and clicks and closes quickly. Solid pedal for a LB, sticks his foot in the ground and closes balanced and breaks down. 2nd hit pushes FB forward unfortunately pic.twitter.com/O3sSeNPLr2— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 27, 2018
Another thing to monitor is the comfort level the Chiefs will have with Hitchens in man coverage. On this play, the Chiefs are willing to line him up out wide — even if against a fullback/H-back — which speaks to their confidence in him in space, and in coverage.
It’s easy to call for Hitchens to press on this play, but it’s something you will rarely see linebackers do out in space because they don’t have the reps to backpedal and flip their hips when they need to. In man coverage, it’s more important for linebackers to stay over the route with square hips, and break downhill once they see the break.
That’s what happened here. As the fullback sinks his hips to make his inside break, Hitchens quickly redirects his momentum forward towards the catch point, and comes downhill. He doesn’t arrive early enough to affect the catch, but does arrive before the receiver can turn upfield with the ball.
There is a bit of bad luck — Ragland arrives nearly at the exact same time, and the sandwich impact helps the receiver stay on his feet and fall forward for an extra two or three yards.
For Hitchens, this was an isolated play in man coverage, so a conclusion can’t really be drawn from it. Yet the trust of the staff — and the technical soundness of this play — are a good first step.
The bottom line
This was the third week the Nerd Squad has the I beakers and pipettes out, but after seeing this defense, it seems like a good investment.
Anthony Hitchens is going to be a pivotal part of the Chiefs run and pass defense. His first game should at least give people hope that he’s exactly we were told he could be for the Chiefs.
I would expect a good bit of improvement in terms the biggest weaknesses detailed here — the speed of his game in space and miscommunications in pass coverage — and for that improvement to come pretty quickly.
In addition, his combination of play diagnosis, downhill play, and first step explosion should lead to Hitchens having quite an impact in the run game this year. He has more than flashed the ability to excel in every aspect of linebacker play against the run — shooting a gap and taking the dive, playing patiently and mirroring running backs, shedding blocks, slipping blocks, holding contain, and working scrape reads down the line of scrimmage.
This game was far from perfect for Hitchens, but the traits and skills he displayed were those of an upper echelon NFL linebacker.