Heading into the Kansas City Chiefs matchup with the Denver Broncos, we mentioned that Denver liked to play some heavier offensive personnel. Working through some injuries at the wide receiver position and having many players they had invested heavily in at the tight end position, they were often in 12 and even 13 personnel (one running back and two or three tight ends).
That meant the Chiefs could be forced into their base defense more often than the previous few games and thus, more Willie Gay Jr.
The Broncos had three tight ends play over 40% of their snaps, which put the Chiefs base defense on the field 39% of the time. This meant that Gay was able to see the field for a season-high 39 snaps.
With Gay registering enough snaps in a variety of situations, personnel groupings and formations, we can start to dig into the film of the second-round pick. It is worth noting that for the first three and half quarters, Gay was pretty much only used as a base defense linebacker. During the final drive in the fourth quarter, he did see reps as the BUCK (weak-side linebacker) in the Chiefs Buffalo (nickel) personnel.
Willie Gay Jr | LB
While Gay is a base-down linebacker for the Chiefs, we have to be careful not to classify him as just a SAM (strong-side) linebacker, as he and Damien Wilson often exchange strong and weak-side roles. He is still most often utilized when offenses run out heavy personnel on neutral downs and essentially used as a run-stopping linebacker.
We got to see some of those skills right off the bat against the Broncos:
Willie Gay had a day vs the Broncos— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 27, 2020
1st play of the game, basic OZ that's gapped up pretty well pre-snap. Gay will have to beat the climbing OC to the gap.
3Tech backdoors A-gap, Gay IDs full flow and looks to spill. Works over his gap to the B-gap filling inside shoulder 1st pic.twitter.com/KPK0lWTuF5
On the game’s first defensive play, Gay is able to fill into an open gap and make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. What makes this such an impressive play is Gay’s ability to redirect to a second gap after his initial gap was filled by the defensive tackle. The initial aggressive angle toward his gap was a nice change of pace for a lot of what the Chiefs’ linebacker play has been, but if he was unable to read the gap skip by the defensive tackle and then redirect his momentum, it wouldn’t have mattered.
When Gay is playing downhill and a full flow (the direction of the offensive line and running back is the same) is happening, his explosion allows him to fill into gaps very quickly.
His athleticism shows how quickly he gets into the gap, but his size enables him to finish with power. He drives through the running back and finishes the tackle on the spot rather than allowing him to fall forward. Part of that is his square position and still working to fill the gap with his inside shoulder, but being 243 pounds absolutely helps. When Gay is seeing the play clearly and it’s a simple read, he often does a great job filling downhill aggressively and either making a play near the line of scrimmage or spilling the running back from that gap.
He can take on pulling or climbing blockers with ease when he gets working quickly, too. The issue becomes on a slightly more complicated run reads.
The multi-reads in the run game occasionally follow the same path.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 27, 2020
When working through keys, sometimes he starts at the RB - opposed to the OL - and gets into flow late. Counters and split flow concepts can cause quite the delay.
Work with 1st key, react to 2nd key pic.twitter.com/glWewEEJdW
A significant part of playing linebacker is being able to read the keys — or a specific players’ movement — that tells you where the play is going early on. An elite athlete at the college level, Gay could be a little late in the diagnosis, but his physical speed allowed him to make up for it. In the NFL, that’s not always going to be the case.
What was happening to Gay on more than one occasion was he was caught skipping his first key along the offensive line — usually the nearest offensive guard. Instead, he’d keep his eyes on the second key, which is the nearest running back. This is how you can get manipulated by misdirection — as he was on the first counter play — rather than getting into the proper flow and beating the climbing blockers.
Sometimes, it’s not even misdirection. It can be just the half-second lost while waiting on the running back to get the ball. Gay reads this play correctly, but since he waits for what should be the secondary key, he’s late to open up his hips and get his outside shoulder free.
It’s something that will get better with time, but he simply looks like a player without much experience reading the O-line. Even on play-action passing plays, he’s late to identify when a guard has a “high hat” and is settling into pass protection.
Instead, he’s focused on the running back or where the ball goes. But even as a rookie, Gay has already provided some reason for hope in this regard.
Something @barleyhop hop and I noted when scouting Gay was how he rarely got "got" twice by the same look; super quick learner.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 27, 2020
Counter plays just 3 plays apart, Gay reads the pull and split flow much quicker the 2nd time. Allows him to get over the block and fill 1st open gap pic.twitter.com/sywQvGic8m
The Broncos ran these two counter plays within a couple of snaps. The first one is much like what we saw above: Gay’s eyes are locked on the running back, and even when he motions to slide, it’s after the running back has finished his counter footwork and the offensive guard is well into his pull. This allows the climbing blocker to meet Gay and seal him completely out of the play.
The second play sees Gay start to work with the puller — and I’d even ask for more aggression in that manner (like this Reggie Ragland play), which doesn’t let the climbing blocker to square him so deep. Because Gay is scraping early in the play, the tight end can’t set up and get a clean block, allowing Gay over the top to fill the first open gap.
Reading proper keys in the run game is difficult for rookies, and when you get a player with minimal college experience trying to do it, it’s can be a process. The good news is that Gay is already showing that he is a quick learner and can make an impact on simple, full flow plays as good as any linebacker on the roster.
Let’s first explore why Gay is not seeing many nickel reps.
Willie Gay played as the BUCK the final Def series in the Chiefs Buffalo ("big" nickel) package.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 27, 2020
The athleticism & feel in space is obvious but the processing when matching is still coming along. Sees the TE press him vertically but then takes his eyes off him, gives up the flat pic.twitter.com/5GomsCEMnq
Beyond the troubles diagnosing a pass set early in a play, Gay has a similar issue keeping his eyes on both a receiver and the quarterback when in coverage. This is a vital trait for defenders in a zone-match defense, as they have to know where receivers are breaking and where the quarterback is trying to read.
What Gay frequently does is identify the receiver that he is responsible for in coverage, but he has a bad habit of locking back in on the quarterback afterward. The Broncos were able to slip a receiver into the flat against Gay multiple times, as he lost them after their initial release from the line of scrimmage.
Thankfully, his zone spacing is good, and he’s a great athlete, which limited how harmful it was, but he currently shows a lack of comfort in being able to read the route stem.
Not just the run game either, this PBU by Gay was fantastic— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 27, 2020
Quick snap helps cause the Chiefs LBs to bite on the play fake, but Gay is able to ID the ball was pulled, mirrors the QB rolling out, gets eyes on the crossing route, and then re-finds the ball/QB to knock it down. pic.twitter.com/civJcxiAq6
As mentioned above, the zone spacing is quite good, and he has the athleticism to cover a lot of ground.
Despite getting sucked in quite a bit on the play fake (again, read the high hat), he’s able to quickly retreat to a good depth while looking to find the crossing route. His spatial awareness shows as he’s able to drop deep enough and widen out to stay in the throwing lane of the crossing route. He gets eyes back on the quarterback in time to track the football and make a play on it.
Second PBU for Gay was just another example of him showcasing a natural feel in coverage— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 27, 2020
Get under the #2 going vert
Get eyes outside, behind and see no work
Mirror QB and RB to the flat
Stay deep until the QB pushes towards LoS
Maintain balance and make an athletic PBU pic.twitter.com/ROqrFhOW0N
The second pass breakup was similar in happenstance as well. Gay has the first player to break outside, but when the back doesn’t actually go out into a route, he drifts back to make it difficult to pass over his head. As the play unfolds, he mirrors the quarterback and works back toward the line of scrimmage to stop a run when the quarterback does.
Once again, the ball is released and Gay is able to use his athleticism to make a play and knock it down. Working in open space is something Gay does incredibly well, and he has a nice feel for space on the field.
He also lets the No. 2 receiver on that side of the field get a free release and then completely passes him off to a deep safety. Had that receiver broke outside anytime after passing Gay, it would be a free completion. He’s got to get out and disrupt that route or sink closer to the midway point to the safety. It’s another little thing, but to play in coverage on Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, you have to be able to process multiple things at once.
Gay has all of the tools and natural feel in the world to earn more coverage reps, but he has to improve on his ability to read a receiver’s route stem rather than watch the quarterback.
The bottom line
After the Chiefs’ game against the Broncos, I feel significantly more confident that Willie Gay is going to be a high-end linebacker in the NFL and can even make his mark this season.
Gay’s dynamic ability at his size against the run gives the Chiefs a player to play behind the line of scrimmage and get out of the tackle box to make plays. His athleticism in space and feel for dropping in coverage lead to him making plays on the football.
The concerns that have kept him off the field are not that uncommon for young linebackers, and he’s already showing improvement in them. The more experience he gets as the season goes on, the more ready he will be to help make plays in the playoffs when the games really matter.
Gay will hopefully get the opportunity to build on this performance next week against the New York Jets.