As chaotic as this last NFL offseason was, there was one Kansas City Chiefs player that had some much-needed normalcy. Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens didn’t have to learn a new defensive coordinator’s scheme and strategy — something he had to spend each of the previous two summers doing.
His familiarity with his role in the current system is showing up on the field. He leads the team in tackles and run stops through Week 13 — and has also being noticeably active in aligning his teammates in the right defensive formation before each play.
Hitchens acknowledged the improvement during his press conference on Thursday.
“It’s just being more comfortable,” Hitchens admitted to reporters. “It’s the second year in the system; my last three years, I think I’ve been in three different systems. Finally getting comfortable in one and hopefully can be the same one for years to come. Just like with everything in life, the more you do it, the more comfortable you get, and the better you get at it — as long as you work at it. I’ve just been working my tail off the last two years to better myself and my teammates, and it’s finally showing.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo relies on Hitchens to relay the game strategy from the chalkboard to the field on each play. There has to be trust in the player for that relationship to work, and Spagnuolo left no doubts about whether Hitchens has earned that role.
“To me, he’s the glue,” Spagnuolo told reporters in his Thursday press conference. “I showed something this morning from [Wednesday’s] practice, and made the point that we should all feel fortunate that we have Hitch as our MIKE linebacker. He does a lot of things before the ball is snapped, and he helps everyone else play better. I’m sure glad we got him, I think he’s playing some really good football. He’s always played aggressive, he’s always tackled physically... All of us, players and coaches, appreciate what he does.”
Hitchens was asked about being labeled as “the glue” by coach Spagnuolo.
“We talked recently, and he shared that with me as well,” Hitchens revealed. “That’s a lot of praise coming from the head guy right there. He put a lot of faith in me to get everyone lined up, making sure we get in and out of troubled downs and situations. Knowing that, I know I have to be ready and prepared every week and be out there for my teammates.”
Anyone can see the pre-snap impact that Spagnuolo and Hitchens are referring to.
Watch the game: when the Chiefs are on defense, Hitchens point out things, yells to members of the secondary and shifts around defensive linemen before most plays. That isn’t for show; Hitchens is putting his teammates in the best position for them to succeed.
“He’s as good as I’ve had at [pre-snap communication], and I’ve been lucky enough to have been around some really good ones,” Spagnuolo shared. “You need that in any defense, the guy in the middle is like the quarterback on the offense. The guy that can control things and everyone feels real comfortable with how they’re doing it — and it makes everyone play a lot faster, I believe that. We’re really fortunate to have him; I can’t say enough about him to be honest with you.”
Hitchens’ impact can also be seen when he’s off the field.
As Craig Stout pointed out in his weekly defensive film review, the Chiefs defense got shredded on the ground by the Denver Broncos when in their dime formation — a personnel grouping that does not include Hitchens. In their base formation with Hitchens, the Chiefs performed exceptionally well against the run.
Besides the on-field performance, Hitchens excels in his role because of his personality traits.
“Hitch can handle anything,” Spagnuolo noted. “He’s calm, he’s peaceful, he doesn’t let anything rattle him. When you’re a leader of any unit, and you can let things roll off your back and be solid as a rock, it’s a great quality to have in the position he plays.”
While some argue that Hitchens is being compensated more than his production would suggest, his importance to the unit’s success cannot be questioned. The defense is better when he’s on the field — and much more exploitable when he’s on the sideline.