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The Chiefs linebackers already look better than they did last season

A detailed look at film from Saturday’s game against the Bengals shows improvement over 2018

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There’s only so much that you can take away from preseason games. Every year, there are preseason studs with whom fans fall in love — and when it comes time for roster cuts, the bulk of those players fall by the wayside. The competition is weaker, there are no real game plans being implemented, and very rarely do teams show anything of importance.

I know all of this. You know all of this.

So naturally... I’m going to over-analyze a preseason game.

Going into Saturday’s 38-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, I was very interested to watch the speed with which Kansas City Chiefs linebackers processed the action on the field — one of the few things we could take from an exhibition game. We only got a couple of snaps from starting linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, but the rest of the linebackers that are most likely to make the roster got plenty of snaps through the middle of the game.

Those three linebackers — Reggie Ragland, Darron Lee, and Ben Niemann — will get the mini-film treatment today. I’ll discuss what I liked — and what I’d like to see going forward this preseason — with a few clips from Saturday’s contest.

Let’s get to it!

Reggie Ragland

One of the biggest problems for Chiefs linebackers last season was a hesitation in the run game that made linebackers late to gaps — and therefore well behind the play. Steve Spagnuolo has discussed simplifying reads and focusing on getting his linebackers to play faster. We was definitely saw this Saturday night — not just for Ragland, but for the entire group.

This play showcases these simplified reads and the quickness with which the defense played all night. With Tanoh Kpassagnon collapsing the B gap and Daniel Sorensen crashing the D gap as a force defender, Ragland reads the running back and shows off a burst of speed to slip the C gap. The tight end is late to react and ends up holding the streaking Ragland, which forces a penalty.

Ragland’s speed didn’t just show up when moving downhill. He also showed more agility and lateral quickness than he showed last year.

Even though Ragland is the starting MIKE linebacker in the base 4-3 defense, Spagnuolo often rotated him in as the second string SAM linebacker — as he did on the this play. The Bengals motion a receiver across the formation to identify man/zone coverage, then motion him back across the formation to get the speedy receiver matched up with the slower SAM linebacker.

Ragland makes a great read on the receiver and sinks to the flat to take away the short pass, forcing the quarterback to throw the ball away to avoid the pressure from the unblocked Kpassagnon.

Ragland needs to improve his zone spacing on his SAM coverage drops, but overall he showed significant improvement over last year. As we get more looks at Ragland in the MIKE role during the preseason, we’ll see if this improvement continues — and evaluate other areas where he needs to do better.

Darron Lee

In his first game with the Chiefs, Lee showcased a lot of the qualities that made him a first-round draft pick in 2016. His speed and burst were on full display, and the work that he’s done with Spagnuolo in squaring up and bringing down the ball carrier has definitely made a difference.

His highlight-reel goal line stop in this play was one of a small handful of plays that exhibited his instincts and ability to get downhill into the gap to make the play — and it’s easily the most impressive.

With the offensive linemen blocking down to seal the defensive line and the tight ends kicking the defensive end/safety combo out, there is a massive gap for the running back to hit for an easy touchdown. Lee sees the gap developing — and the running back cutting toward it — and uses his speed to close it. He gets low, wins the leverage battle, and stuffs the running back at the goal line as Armani Watts comes in to help him bowl him all the way over.

Lee’s speed can’t be taught — and if he continues to play with these kinds of instincts, he’ll be impossible to keep off the field.

On the negative side, he did miss a major open-field tackle on another play when he didn’t get squared up properly — a knock against him when the Chiefs acquired him — so his tackling isn’t fixed by any means. There was also a third down play where he had an illegal contact penalty when he didn’t locate the ball in coverage.

With the Bengals largely playing a five-yard curl offense in this game, we didn’t get to see as much of Lee in coverage as we’ll likely see in 2019; I’ll have my eye on him through the preseason to see if his coverage skill continues to be a strong point in Spagnuolo’s scheme. I’ll also be watching to see if the tackles he made this week are an indicator of his development as a player under Spagnuolo — or if he’ll be closer to the player we saw miss an open-field tackle on Saturday.

Ben Niemann

Against the Bengals, Niemann came in as the second-team MIKE linebacker, playing next to Lee in the majority of his snaps. While he moved well in his coverage drops, his play against stretch runs was his best attribute.

This play has the Chiefs in the nickel with Watts in the box. The right guard and the left guard are climbing to the second level to Lee and Watts — leaving Niemann unblocked. He reads the guard well and moves with the offensive line’s slant, keeping his gap responsibility in front of him. As soon as the back commits, Niemann shoots his gap and solidly brings down the player for a minimal gain.

This isn’t just a Niemann highlight. This is a positive play for the entire front. Gap integrity was a mixed bag in 2019 — contributing in no small part to the linebacker hesitation on a play-to-play basis. If the front plays with this kind of unified gap responsibility, they’ll be very good against the run.

Niemann has the coverage ability and range to be the backup MIKE linebacker this season. But he did have some concerning moments trying to stack and shed players in the gap. He’s not built like a traditional Spagnuolo linebacker, so his game doesn’t exactly translate to taking on blocks and stacking bigger players like it does for a player like Ragland.

Still... in a one-gap scheme, Niemann makes sense. His processing and secure tackling can make him an asset as a special teamer while still holding down a backup linebacker spot.

Through the rest of the preseason, I want to see more of these types of plays from Niemann — and like Lee, more plays in coverage against another team’s game plan — and I also want to see if he can improve on his leverage and hand usage when trying to stack and shed blockers.

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