Since starting linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson were unavailable — Hitchens was on the reserve/COVID list and Wilson was injured — the Chiefs knew they would have to depend more on Ben Niemann to call the defensive plays and get everyone lined up properly.
But then in the second quarter, Niemann left the game with an injury.
“It was a little hectic there,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged to reporters on Thursday, “but I’ll tell you what: Matt House and Britt Reid do a good job of getting those guys prepared. We knew that could happen.”
Spagnuolo was referring to three rookie linebackers: second-round draft pick Willie Gay Jr. and undrafted players Omari Cobb and Darius Harris. The defensive coordinator said that Harris — technically still a rookie because he spent all of last season on injured reserve — had spent that year wisely, which helped him to don the helmet with the green dot and jump into a role for which he hadn’t practiced.
“He practiced all week long at the SAM linebacker because we anticipated Ben being the MIKE,” said Spagnuolo, “and then all of the sudden, he had to switch. But he’s put a lot of time into things. Last year — when he was on injured reserve — he spent a lot of time learning. I thought he performed pretty well. From a check standpoint, he did a pretty good job with that; that’s what the MIKE linebacker needs to do.”
Spagnuolo also praised Gay, who had a higher percentage of snaps on Sunday than he’s had in any game this season.
“What Willie does is he plays fast,” Spagnuolo noted. “He plays fast and he’s physical — and that’s what you want in your linebackers. [But] there’s still a learning curve here — I think that’s true of anybody that plays that particular position in year one. And again, I go back to not having the offseason and whatnot, but we’re getting him caught up. He’s certainly going to see a lot of football now — and that’s a good thing for him.”
Since Hitchens remains on the reserve/COVID list — and even if they’re ready to play, the Chiefs would be likely to rest both Wilson and Niemann against the Chargers — both Harris and Gay are expected to see plenty of playing time on Sunday. Since they participated in one of the defense’s better performances of the season against the Falcons, Spagnuolo should be happy to put them on the field against a Los Angeles team that nearly knocked the Chiefs down in Week 2.