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Anthony Hitchens: We should have a top-five defense

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The veteran middle linebacker talked about how his unit can improve headed into 2020

With the ambiguity of the 2020 NFL season, it’s easy to see how the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs have a leg up on the rest of the league. Their well-documented “run it back” campaign has kept the team together — an advantage that most fans believe will make a second straight championship easier to accomplish.

Veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens quickly put down that idea when he spoke to the media on Friday morning.

“You still got to play football. I don’t think it’s easier, there’s nothing easy about winning the Super Bowl or getting to the playoffs.”

As easy as Kansas City’s offense made it look last year, the defense felt the difficulty of achieving their ultimate goal. They came up big when they needed to — but the players and coaches aren’t ignorant. Following what head coach Andy Reid said in his press conference a few weeks ago, the unit knows they could have performed at a higher level.

“It was good enough to win a Super Bowl,” Hitchens began. “But even in our first meeting with [defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo], he was like ‘we all know we won a Super Bowl, but we could do a lot better’ and I saw a lot head shakes yes saying, ‘Yeah, we can get better.’”

NFL: FEB 02 Super Bowl LIV - Chiefs v 49ers Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Some of the challenges just stemmed from being new to Spags’ schemes and philosophies.

“It’s hard to play fast when you don’t know all the details. Over the whole last year, as a team we grew. We all got more detailed in the defense and got better.”

There were flaws to pick at with every level of the defense — but Hitchens basically shouldered most of the blame. He spoke about the needed improvement in one aspect of the game that the middle linebacker controls the most.

“I think we can get better in the run game.” Hitchens remarked. “Our [defensive backs] and our secondary saved us a lot of games. [Tyrann Mathieu], people getting picks, and batted balls on fourth downs, all that. Once we get that going with the run game, not making predictions or anything like that, but we should be a top-five defense.”

Yes. You read that right.

The play-caller of the defense feels the unit could be among the elite in the NFL with better play against the run. So what have they done to get better? Hitchens acknowledged the selection of second-round linebacker Willie Gay Jr. by describing his on-field play.

“He’s rangey,” Hitchens noted. “He has a lot of tools that you need to stop the run, he goes sideline to sideline, he’s physical, and he has energy. Energy stops the run. We need more guys like that. If you ever watch [Tyrann Mathieu], anytime he makes a play, he’s doing something. He’s trying to energize the defense, letting you guys know, ‘I just made a play. Everybody else, let’s do it.’ That’s the type of energy he’s going to bring.”

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers

Hitchens is entering his seventh season as a professional football player. He isn’t used to be being the older guy in the room, but he’s embracing the natural leadership that comes with mentoring young players.

“I texted [Gay] the other day, he was asking me like ‘hey, what do I need to learn?’ I said just learn the playbook. You have enough ability to play — obviously, we drafted you. I just can’t wait to work with you and give you all the knowledge that I know for the game so you can give it to next guy under you. That’s my biggest thing, is giving knowledge to the younger guys so they can keep passing along.”

Even with good intentions, it’s assumedly tough to lead through a virtual conference call. That being said, Hitchens pointed out that Kansas City may be utilizing the offseason workout programs more than other organizations.

“The Chiefs are taking advantage of [virtual workouts]. I’m not going to say teams, but I know friends from other teams that aren’t even doing it. There’s some people that are just doing once a week, two times a week, but I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re doing 12:00 - 2:00, four times a week.”

Overall, Hitchens continues to work hard with the understanding that no one knows when or how the 2020 season will be played. When pressed on his thoughts about it, he finished the call with an admirable perspective.

“I feel like the world is more important than the NFL, in my opinion. Once everyone gets safe, and once everyone has the ability to be able to access things and go out in public, shake hands and say hi, then the NFL should return.”