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Chiefs training camp notebook: Defense looking strong from top to bottom

In a world of Frank Clarks and Tyrann Mathieus, let’s not forget about players like Anthony Hitchens, Juan Thornhill and Damien Wilson.

The Kansas City Chiefs defense has been holding its own against the high-powered offense this training camp, and its early success hasn’t just been about the Frank Clarks and the Tyrann Mathieus.

The positive signs extend to players like rookie safety Juan Thornhill and linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson.

“I like the energy,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said when asked about the defense on Saturday. “I like the way they’re challenging right now. On both sides of the ball, we still got a ways to go, so we’ve got to keep competing against each other and getting ourselves better. Every day, I see improvement on the defensive side, and that becomes important. Because it’s new, you’re going to see some things there—some steps forward. So I appreciate that.”

Last week, wide receiver Sammy Watkins explained that this year, the defense is making the offense think a bit more. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes told the media Friday about how great the defense has been at disguising its coverages.

Running back Carlos Hyde complimented its ability to blitz on Saturday.

“The defense has been doing a good job with their blitzing,” Hyde said. “We had to make some adjustments to that because they were getting us at one point. And also their coverage. They’ve been making plays. You see some guys getting interceptions and stuff, so they’ve been making plays. That stuff will carry on to the regular season, and that s— going to come up huge because one game we going to need them interceptions.”

Thornhill provided just that on Saturday, when he tracked an apparent Patrick Mahomes miscue down in 11-on-11s for a pick.

“We got to see him play corner and safety in college,” Reid said of the 23-year-old safety. “He did a little bit of each. The one consistency was that he made plays at both spots. He’s doing that out here. Early on, he was getting his hands on the ball, but he wasn’t getting the picks. Now he’s making the picks.”

Another player who has seemed reinvigorated in Steve Spagnuolo’s new system is Hitchens, who said the Chiefs are asking to learn every linebacker position headed into the fall.

“It starts with Spags,” Hitchens said. “I’m sure you guys (the media) interviewed him a couple of times. He has a lot of energy, and it feeds off this coaching staff all the way to the players. We needed that, and I’m just glad he’s part of our defensive staff.”

Hitchens profiles as the WILL linebacker in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 base and should stay on the field as the MIKE in nickel and dime subpackages.

“Hitch brings great energy,” Reid added. “Every play every day, and he’s smart. He leads the middle of the defense right there. That’s what he does.”

Wilson played with Hitchens from 2015-17 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Wilson, who the Chiefs like as their SAM, hits noticeably hard in thud and tackle periods and continually pokes and rips at opposing running backs.

“He and Anthony are close from being in Dallas together,” Reid said of Wilson. “He is extremely smart. He doesn’t make very many mistakes out here. He’s a very accurate player.”

Wilson stripped tight end Nick Keizer on Friday before missing practice Saturday due to a sore knee.

“That guy is out here forcing fumbles and interceptions every day,” Hitchens said. “He’s a good ballplayer. He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year, and all I could do here is just be a bigger brother and help him out in the scheme and everything.”

Hitchens explained that because of the newfound energy as a defensive unit, the players are running a bit more now. He joked that he is losing “10 pounds a day” when the Chiefs hold a padded practice.

“It’s just more energy, more running, more plays,” he said. “It’s just different... It’s 2019. Our goal is to be great and bring some energy and run to the ball, so that’s what we’re doing, and it’s going to burn a lot of calories and a lot of energy.”

The Chiefs’ efforts over the past week and the next four will, of course, lead into Week 1 away against the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while all the talk of energy is nice, grasping the new system will be of utmost importance.

Spagnuolo is thus approaching all his ambition with caution.

“It’s something that I have to make a real hard decision on,” he said this week. “I’ve been through this first year thing a number of times. Sometimes it’s gone really good and sometimes it hasn’t gone so good, so it’ll be dictated by what the guys can do. I do believe that as you approach this thing, you better make sure they’re not thinking and they’re playing, if that makes any sense. I’m hoping that we got the kind of guys that can handle multiple defensive packages and still play fast, but we’ll see.”

“It’s a lot of challenges, but at the end of the day we got to get it done,” Hitchens added. “If we want to win, we’ve got to get it done. There’s other teams in the league that are going through the same thing.

“No one’s going to feel sorry for us on Week 1, so we got to find a way to get it done, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Observations (via defensive film analyst Craig Stout, who attended practice)

  • Defensive line coach Brendan Daly wastes zero time in camp. He’s always looking to get a little extra work in off to the side and makes sure every single player gets each rep correct. He’s very hands-on with the position group and very vocal with criticism and praise alike. It’s refreshing to see this year.
  • Frank Clark has also adopted this mindset, regularly pulling others in his position group aside to teach technique. Alex Okafor was asking Clark for help on a pull/rip move, and that prompted rookie Khalen Saunders to come over and ask for help as well. Clark was happy to oblige, and he’s already showing his presence as a leader.
  • On the field, the defense won the day. Okafor, Clark, and Juan Thornhill all looked particularly great. Clark and Okafor racked up several would-be sacks in the team portion of practice, and both set the edge well in the run game. Thornhill had a great pass break-up in the back of the end zone on Mecole Hardman as well as an interception off of Patrick Mahomes.
  • Speaking of defense, the linebackers had another good day stuffing the run. With Damien Wilson out, Reggie Ragland moved to the base SAM linebacker and Ben Niemann came in as the MIKE linebacker. Ragland and Anthony Hitchens are playing faster and getting downhill quickly. Ragland even had an interception off of Mahomes in team drills.
  • Nick Allegretti continued to get looks with the second-team offensive line today, this time at right guard. He’s seeing plenty of time at multiple spots and holding his own.
  • For the second day in a row, Carlos Hyde and Travis Kelce had multiple drops. Kelce improved as the day went along, but on a day in which the defense had their number, those drops were a little bit deflating.

Injury report

Wide receiver Mecole Hardman and defensive lineman Xavier Williams returned to the field after missing time on Friday. Linebacker Damien Wilson missed practice due to a sore knee. Check out our full injury report here.

Tweets of note

Quote of the day

Carlos Hyde on how he feels about his offensive teammates: “Everybody comes out every day to compete. The receivers, they bust they ass, the running backs bust they ass, the tight ends. Everybody’s working. It’s not just one guy, which is good. The whole offense out here working together, coming out here every day, competing and trying to get better, so the whole offense has been standing out to me.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs resume practice Sunday in St. Joseph at 8:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will speak to the media and the full team will sign autographs after practice. The next scheduled day off for the Chiefs is Tuesday.

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