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Rookie linebackers played big role in Chiefs’ win against Falcons

With the team’s starting linebackers out, the rookies had to step up during Sunday’s win.

Atlanta Falcons v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In early November, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens set the standard: the goal of the team’s defense was to hold opponents to 17 points or less.

It seemed reasonable. In the eight games played to that point, the Chiefs had met that standard four times — and in three more games, had kept opponents to just 20 points.

But in the next six games, the defense couldn’t get that done. Only one opponent — the Denver Broncos — was held to Hitchens’ low bar. In fact, opposing teams averaged 26.3 points.

Then on Sunday, the Chiefs defense got back on track, holding the Atlanta Falcons to just two touchdowns in a 17-14 thriller. But Hitchens and fellow starter Damien Wilson didn’t even play — and Hitchen’s nominal backup Ben Niemann left the game in the second-quarter after sustaining a hamstring injury.

That left the second level of the defense in the hands of three rookies: second-round draft pick Willie Gay Jr. — along with undrafted linebackers Darius Harris and Omari Cobb. It was only the third time this season that Harris had even been active for a game. Until Saturday, Cobb had only been on the team’s practice squad.

Gay — who had previously been used only sparingly in 13 of the previous 14 games — said that he was at least familiar with his rookie teammates.

“I told those guys — when Ben went down — I was like, ‘Man, it’s like rookie mini-camp all over again,’ [when] it was just us three out there, doing drills, running over plays,” he told reporters after the game. “And I told them, ‘If we win this game... it will be something special.’”

Gay also said that they missed Hitchens and Niemann’s leadership.

“Hitch is a great leader, man,” he declared. “He really keeps all of us going — all the linebackers, every position — and when he’s out, Ben Niemann does a great job. Today Ben went down, so it was like, ‘OK, so now we’ve got to be self-starters.’ I told myself I had to lead the linebackers the best way I could — vocally — and show it on the field.”

But Gay also acknowledged that Harris did a great job wearing the “green dot” — being the defensive players who is outfitted with the radio helmet to receive instructions from the sideline. And Gay himself made one of the game’s big plays: blunting a fourth-quarter Falcons drive into the red zone by forcing a fumble from Atlanta wide receiver Brandon Powell.

“I didn’t realize it at first, Gay admitted. “When I hit him, I just rolled off to the side. I looked back and I saw Darius Harris scoop it up and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a pretty big play,’ you know? I was hoping he was going to score.”

Harris didn’t score — and the Chiefs were unable to capitalize on the turnover — but Gay’s forced fumble stopped a drive that had moved the Falcons from their own 25 to the Kansas City 20 in just six plays.

“I thought it was a valuable time for Willie Gay and a couple of the other linebackers there,” said head coach Andy Reid after the game. “It’s hard to put a price on that experience they just got against a good offensive football team. This [Atlanta] team here, it’s a weird deal because they’ve been so close — like this game, they’ve been so close — and just haven’t been able to finish it off with a W, but they’re right there battling.”

But Gay — a young player getting his first real opportunity to have an impact on an NFL game — had another perspective.

“It was a lot of fun being able to play as much as I did,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect for me, but we came out with the win — and I had a lot of fun. It was a great feeling.”