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Chiefs linebackers are peaking at just the right time

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Chiefs linebackers had a good game against the Patriots on Sunday

NFL: NOV 03 Vikings at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the most significant and consistent weaknesses of the Kansas City Chiefs defense has been the play of its linebackers. Ever since Derrick Johnson started to decline, the organization has struggled to find the right fit for the positions.

In 2018, the Chiefs defense had plenty of deficiencies that seemed to disguise some of the problems at the second level. But in 2019 — as the safeties significantly improved, the cornerbacks got a little better and the defensive line became more consistent — it’s been evident that the Chiefs defense is weakest at linebacker.

The group has shown more flashes this season but has lacked consistency in the running game while continuing to struggle in the passing game. Lacking athleticism, the linebackers rely on physicality — and their abilities to read the field. Even on good reps, however, they can falter in space.

But against the New England Patriots on Sunday, Chiefs linebackers had a tough assignment: stopping the Patriots’ running game while also defending against their good receiving options on underneath routes. The linebackers showed up — and were more than up to the task.

But was their performance something they can build upon? Let’s take a trip down to the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory and see.

Damien Wilson

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

On Sunday, Wilson easily had his best game in a Chiefs uniform — perhaps even in his whole career. He’s not an ideal fit as a typical weak side NFL linebacker, but as his role has been pared down, he’s making more and more plays.

This isn’t a super-flashy play. But it shows a good understanding of how to read the proper run keys and play the running back properly.

As Wilson sees the initial step from the offensive guard, he’s reading. He turns his hips to mirror the running back and scrape across the top of the trench scrum. Being on the back side of an outside zone run, Wilson is careful to not over-pursue, which would leave an open cutback lane. He does a good job with his slow-flow assignment, looking to fill the first open gap the running back hits.

Something the Chiefs have been doing more often is using the back-side linebacker to fill behind a pulling guard on man-blocking runs.

Here, the Patriots are running power away from Wilson. As he sees the guard pull away from him, Wilson uses a full-flow technique to settle in the nearest open gap that could be used as a cutback lane.

Wilson has certainly been playing better recently, but he still lacks some athletic traits found in traditional WILL linebackers — and the Chiefs appear to be learning how to handle that. Rather than asking him to scrape over the top and slow-flow through a bunch of trash across the entire formation, they are using their bigger, physical linebackers to crash in through the back side of the blocking assignment.

Equally important — perhaps even more so — is the ability to defend the run from the nickel defense.

On this play, instead of being on the weak side of the formation, Wilson is on the strong side; the outside zone run is coming directly at him. Wilson handles this just as impressively as his weak side reps, identifying the run instantly and fast-flowing to the edge of the tackle box.

Due to the nature of the run coming at him, Wilson has to keep his hips as square to the line of scrimmage as he can — so he can engage blockers and hold contain. While working along the line of scrimmage, an uncovered guard reaches Wilson on the move, but Wilson is able to land the inside punch and gain leverage. With a strong push-pull, Wilson sheds the blocker, allowing him to continue flowing over the offensive line.

Reggie Ragland

NFL: AUG 10 Preseason - Bengals at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ragland is the strong-side linebacker — which essentially limits his snap count; he only sees the field against heavier offensive personnel. Given Ragland’s thicker frame and powerful play, on the surface, it makes sense for the Chiefs try to limit his play in space.

But strangely enough, among Chiefs linebackers, Ragland might make the most (and best) plays in coverage.

Here we see the Chiefs are in one of their staple coverages: 4-Read (or Sky) coverage with a Solo call by the back-side safety to protect against multiple verticals on the three-receiver side. Both outside cornerbacks are matching the first wide receiver on anything but an under route. The two apex defenders are responsible for the flats.

On the weak side of the formation, Ragland does a good job climbing on top of the No. 1 outside wide receiver to help re-route him if he breaks across the middle of the field. After the contact, he instantly identifies the running back in the flat and drives downhill to close the distance quickly, making the tackle in open space.

He is the same 4-Read coverage — but with no Solo call against the 2x2 set.

Ragland has the same responsibility: covering the No. 2 wide receiver unless he releases vertical or inside — in which case Ragland will push him to the next defender. Again, Ragland does a good job playing over the wide receiver to re-route him, but identifies the running back coming into his zone and closes quickly.

Ragland had already established a physical presence in the game, so James White is looking over his shoulder before the catch, which leads to a drop. Ragland still destroys him.

It’s a bit surprising (but extremely nice) to see Ragland making so many plays in coverage — while continuing to perform well in traditional SAM linebacker tasks. In the first two Damien Wilson clips above, you can find Ragland stacking up (and shedding) blocks; through most of Sunday’s game, he was able to do that against offensive linemen and tight ends.

Anthony Hitchens

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Hitchens certainly plays the most mentally-taxing linebacker position for the Chiefs. He gets the most snaps and fulfills multiple run fit responsibilities. Unfortunately, his responsibility to read plays slows his overall play speed.

Here, Ragland gets a jump on the snap, but Wilson and Hitchens are both reading through a blocker to the running back; Hitchens is a step behind Wilson reacting to the run action. Even worse is his read of the guard — which pulls Hitchens forward and makes it easier for blockers to reach him. Given that he is the MIKE linebacker — responsible for identifying the play — it’s understandable if it takes a fraction of a second longer to start to flow. But the MIKE has multiple gaps to fill; if he’s going to be late to move, he needs to read cleanly.

Sticking with the same theme, here, Hitchens is full-flowing to the run; he is supposed to fill the first open gap. He starts to settle in the first gap — but then shuffles with the running back to another gap Daniel Sorensen is filling. His hips stay square — and he’s working over the top of his defensive linemen, so his play isn’t inherently poor.

The issue is that Hitchens’ lateral agility doesn’t allow him to slide back to the correct run fit. As the running back makes the cut to the back-side B-gap, Hitchens is late on the mirror, letting the running back slip out of his grip for a big gain.

When you combine less-than-ideal athleticism with lapses in mental processing, some run fit issues start to creep in. It’s one thing to have run fit problems with a linebacker who is good in coverage, but...

This is 4-Read coverage like we saw earlier with Ragland. This time, the Chiefs disguise it a little before the snap. Hitchens is responsible for getting out to the flat on the near side. Given the No. 1 wide receiver’s wide split, Hitchens’ isn’t able to top him — but since the wideout goes straight vertical, he’s out of Hitchens’ responsibilities.

Hitchens stays over the No. 2 receiver — in this case, a running back — but when the back breaks outside, he freezes and gets caught looking back across the field. Since Hitchens is late to flow outside, the Chiefs could have given up a third-and-11 conversion on a short pass to the flat — but thankfully, pressure forces an errant throw, saving the play.

The bottom line

The Chiefs linebackers have come a long way since the start of the 2018 season. That’s a good sign. As a group, they don’t have have the set of traits you see in prototypical modern-day linebackers — but the Chiefs are starting to find ways to use them more effectively.

As the WILL, Wilson has been making more plays against the run as the Chiefs allow him to flow downhill rather than laterally.

Ragland fits the general mold of a SAM linebacker. He’s playing well against blockers — and on the occasional blitz — but thanks to his high football IQ, he might (somewhat surprisingly) be the Chiefs’ best coverage linebacker.

Hitchens helps the defensive communication — just watch the Houston Texans game without him. He has the most difficult role among the linebackers — but he’s also the one struggling the most. He’s a run-stopping linebacker who struggles in coverage and space. He’s been late to read a few too many runs — and sometimes appears to be misreading some plays.

From a hypothetical standpoint, I would certainly love to see Ragland get a run at the MIKE position — that is, if he knows the defense well enough. If the Chiefs are going to sacrifice range and coverage in space, it should be counteracted by physical, high-end play against the run.

But the communication of the defense appears to be gelling. Hitchens likely plays a large role in that, so making a move now — just as the defense is starting to peak — wouldn’t make much sense.