A couple of Kansas City Chiefs players stepped up to the podium Tuesday to speak with the local media. One of them was linebacker Anthony Hitchens, and he provided us some things we knew, some things we assumed and some new tidbits of information about the 2019 Chiefs defense and Steve Spagnuolo.
Right off the bat, Hitchens was asked about the difficulties of learning Spagnuolo’s defense.
HITCHENS: “It’s not difficult at all, actually. Very slim [playbook] — not much. But once you get it down, everyone can play fast. It’s simplified. Everyone has single gaps. From the first day to the last day, we’re just learning and learning. And a lot of guys had better play fast — including myself — this year with the new scheme.”
Coming off of a year that was plagued with hesitation and generally slow play from the linebackers, this might be music to some Chiefs fans’ ears. Whereas Bob Sutton looked to have the linebackers wait for the play to develop before reacting, Spagnuolo is going to ask his defenders to target particular gaps on any given play. If they read run, the linebackers can trigger and fill to a specific gap, rather than a range of them.
Reducing the mental side and asking the linebackers to play with a lot more freedom should allow Hitchens to play significantly faster than he did last year. This naturally led to questions about his fit and his comfort level in the defense.
HITCHENS: “It’s very similar to what I was playing in my first four years in Dallas. Over — a little bit under — 4-3 defense. Very similar situation — just different terminology. Different names and different coverages. For the most part it’s a 4-3 Under/Over, which I’m very comfortable with.
It lets you run free a lot. [You’re] covered by [the] three-technique for most of the downs for the WILL linebacker — what I’m playing. Less thinking. You just get out there and run.”
For those that have followed the Summer of Spags series, this only reinforces what Matt Lane and I have seen from previous Spagnuolo years. Matt described the 4-3 Under and the 4-3 Over alignments in his first piece, and Hitchens comments line up with his work.
Another piece of the defense we have mentioned in the past couple of months is how Spagnuolo likes to utilize his linebackers in the base 4-3 defenses. Hitchens described playing the WILL linebacker in the base — which makes sense based on his skill set and what Spagnuolo (not necessarily traditional 4-3 Under/Over rulesets) asks of his WILL linebacker. This leaves a likely scenario of Reggie Ragland at the MIKE linebacker and Damien Wilson at the SAM linebacker.
Speaking of Wilson, Hitchens also elaborated on the time they spent together in Dallas.
HITCHENS: “I mentored him a little bit in Dallas [during] my three years with him there. Brett Veach asked me about him and I told him all good things. He’s here and he’s doing a good job. The coaches love him. He’s one of those guys that runs to the ball -- he just don’t stop. I’m excited to be able to play with him again. He’s going to be able to help our team a lot.”
The chemistry between the traditional play-caller in Hitchens — who will have the green dot and stay on the field in the nickel — and Wilson is something that hasn’t been discussed much this offseason. The communication at all levels of the defense last year was poor, and it showed. Being able to add a player that can walk in and be on the same page with the guy who should be lining up the fronts is more important than many realize.
Hitchens’ evaluation of Wilson is another aspect of this defense that we’ve heard time and time again this offseason — he doesn’t quit. While there have been many opinions shared about the effort level and mentality of the defense last year, the overall point most reach is that the defense was too soft. Wilson appears to be another addition in a long line of guys brought in this offseason who have a high motor and effort to get to the ball, alongside Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark and Juan Thornhill. The effort level and the edge that these players could bring to the field this fall might still be underestimated.
Going through a third scheme change in as many years can make some players turtle up and struggle to adapt, but Hitchens claims he’s an open book for Spagnuolo.
HITCHENS: “It’s just patience. And being willing to learn and be open. There comes times when it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this all my life this way.’ You’ve got to be open and willing to learn. Most guys learn more than one scheme or change schemes [over] the years. I’m just blessed to be going in to my sixth year, and being able to learn a new system -- and take advantage of it. In my eyes, it’s going to be my best year yet.”
With the all-star assistant coaching staff brought in by Spagnuolo, players should take notice. It’s still good to hear that Hitchens is willing to adapt his game and change how he’ll play for Matt House and Spagnuolo to be the best player that he can be in 2019.
Hitchens also seems to have a great respect for the way Spagnuolo has conducted himself since he’s been in the building.
HITCHENS: “There comes times where he’ll pull guys out of meetings because he wants to just talk and get to know them as players. He does it with coaches, too. [We’re] just trying to learn each other. [Spagnuolo is trying to] learn how to coach the man, coach the player. And he’s doing a great job with that. He came in from the first day and had his rules and his standards set, and he hasn’t let off on them. We’re only going to improve with the mentality of this defense.”
We’ve heard all throughout OTAs that Spagnuolo is stopping drills and getting one-on-one time with players to correct behaviors and teach the proper technique. Hearing that he’s going that extra mile off the field is even better. We know that Spagnuolo is an aggressive coach that holds players accountable, but it’s not just yelling and screaming to get the job done. By finding out what sort of approach he needs to have with each player, he can get the point across even quicker and help make that player even better.
Finally, Hitchens was asked about playing next to Reggie Ragland in this defense, and how it’s different from his time in the 3-4 last year.
HITCHENS: “It’s simple. It’s good for a lot of players, good for a lot of coaches. You know exactly who’s right and who’s wrong. There is no ‘Well he could’ve done this or that’. It’s like ‘okay, if you have the A-gap then you have the A-gap’. It’s simplified so when we go to watch film and we go to get better I don’t need the coach behind me watching film with me. I know I had the A-gap and I didn’t have the A-gap on that play. So, it’s very simple in that way and we can correct our self on the field and we can correct our self by watching film on our own. It’s not too complicated. I just think that right there will make us improve so much more as a defense to not have to go back and watch film as a group. You can just do it on your own on your own time and then just ask questions when you get in the next day.”
Hitchens’ entire press conference felt like a conversation about how much easier organizing this defense and understanding it will be in 2019. Being able to self-scout and not have confusion about the responsibility on the play should be absolutely standard in a linebacker group. The way he described having to “watch film as a group” olyn further reinforces the confusion and complexity of what he was asked in Sutton’s defense last year.
Not only is the defense simple enough for Hitchens to absorb and apply at his position, he also claimed that he was attempting to learn every position so he could better understand where to direct traffic on the field. An overall, unified understanding of the defense shouldn’t feel like such a major ask, and yet here we are.
There’s a lot riding on the play of Anthony Hitchens this season. The Chiefs are going to ask him to be a three-down linebacker in Spagnuolo’s system, so his performance on the field must improve from 2019 if this defense as a whole is going to grow.
From the little he said at his presser, it sounds like the staff is preparing him to make that leap. Excellent coaching, a scheme that isn’t unnecessarily complex and the ability to play fast could very well make this Hitchens’ best season yet.