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Matt House on starting linebackers, backup MIKE and Ben Niemann

The linebackers coach offered a little more clarity on the rotation during Thursday’s presser.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to your regularly scheduled Kansas City Chiefs linebacker discussion!

We at Arrowhead Pride are excited to see how the Chiefs linebackers perform in 2020 after being one of the weakest position groups in 2019. In just the last 10 days, I’ve covered Willie Gay’s SAM and BUCK alignments as well as Ben Niemann’s evolution in year two of Steve Spagnuolo’s system.

Chiefs linebackers coach Matt House took the podium for Thursday’s media availability, and I was very interested to see what — if anything — came out of his presser.

Naturally, he was asked right off the bat where he expected players to line up and what he was working on going into the Houston Texans matchup in two weeks.

HOUSE: “We’re still evaluating. We’re still competing to improve...We don’t want to get stale by getting into Houston too quick.”

House is notoriously tight-lipped about his players, but the “evaluating” and “competing” lines stuck out with so little time left in camp. With Anthony Hitchens locked into the MIKE role for the Chiefs defense, only one spot is truly up for grabs in the Chiefs’ most prevalent Buffalo package. Damien Wilson has been absent, giving Gay and Niemann a chance to make their case next to Hitchens.

While Gay indicated that Wilson was the starting BUCK in the Chiefs Buffalo package last week, House’s comment indicates that it’s not set in stone. Contrasting these comments with Spagnuolo and Sam Madison’s cornerback notes — as well as Dave Toub’s gunner thoughts — make House’s words stick out just a little bit more, especially with just two weeks left until the season kicks off.

While the Buffalo BUCK and base SAM/WILL roles may not be fully settled yet, the MIKE role is going to be manned by Hitchens this year. House was asked about the backup to that position, a spot that has some questions going into 2020.

HOUSE: “The one thing that we try to do is train those guys in multi-roles. Especially in our situation, you don’t know who’s going to be up and who’s going to be down. Hitch and Ben have taken the majority of our MIKE reps, but we’ve repped a variety of guys in that position, just in case we get forced into that realm of things in a game week and we’ve got to adapt and adjust.”

Niemann filled in for Hitchens during the 2019 regular-season game against the Houston Texans — a game that was not among the best performances for the Chiefs defense. It was expected that Niemann would get the nod again this year, but with some starting WILL linebacker reps being offered to him throughout camp, there were questions about who could realistically fill that role.

House is smart to approach the year with flexibility. The typical injuries to the position will certainly happen, but players could end up missing games and weeks due to COVID-19, causing some thin position groups. The Chiefs may very well need their linebackers to be proficient in every single spot in 2020 to find success.

Chiefs media also followed up on last weekend’s praise for Niemann, asking House where he’s seen the most improvement from the third-year linebacker.

HOUSE: “Strength and also his confidence. Last year as he grew into a bigger and bigger role, he just became more confident. This being his second year doing similar things, his confidence has improved. I think it’s huge. Ben’s got a good feel for the game. He sees the game with a wide lens. That definitely helps you and the more flexibility you have, the more you can get a guy ready with limited reps if you have to.”

Niemann appears to be the veteran most primed to take the next step at this position group (if the camp hype is to be believed). A stronger, more confident Niemann unarguably makes the linebacker group better — especially in a flexible role.

While House didn’t want to tip his hand earlier in the press conference, reading between the lines here — and in Niemann’s presser last weekend — would indicate that Niemann is expected in a backup role early. While I hypothesized that Wilson may start as the base WILL with Gay at the base SAM early this offseason, it appears to be aligning that way for the beginning of the year.

However, Niemann’s versatility could truly be tested this season. He might have consecutive weeks switching between MIKE and WILL to fill in for injured or sick players in the group. While it remains to be seen what his effectiveness at those positions will be, it bodes well that Spagnuolo, Hitchens and House are singing his praises going into 2020.

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