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Steve Spagnuolo emphasizes the importance of Anthony Hitchens’ return

The Chiefs’ top linebacker is back in the building after time on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

You can debate whether it was too much or not, but there’s no denying that the extended period of rest between Week 16 and this weekend’s Divisional round was needed for many Kansas City Chiefs players. No position needed an extra week to re-group more than the Chiefs’ linebackers.

Injuries have plagued that room. Starter Damien Wilson played in the Week 17 contest but missed the previous three games before that with a knee injury. Ben Niemann tweaked his hamstring in Week 16, although has been a full participant in both days of practice this week. Rookie Willie Gay Jr. has not practiced this week as he recovers from the leg injury he suffered in Week 17.

The only major linebacker that avoided the injury bug was Anthony Hitchens — but he had to be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list after the team’s Week 15 victory in New Orleans.

The following week, the defense held a good Atlanta Falcons offense to 14 points in a low-scoring victory. They performed well despite the linebacker group consisting of Gay Jr., Darius Harris and current practice squad member Omari Cobb after the Niemann injury. After Gay’s injury in Week 17, defensive tackle Khalen Saunders even got some reps with the linebackers.

As Hitchens returned to the facility last week, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likely blew a sigh of relief. He knew the impact Hitchens would make when he was back on the practice field.

“It feels completely different,” Spagnuolo described of Hitchens’ return. “First of all, Ben Niemann and Darius Harris did a great job... but getting back to Anthony, you felt his presence in the bye week — the minute we had those practices and he was back with us. The guys gravitate to him in front of the huddle, the communication he makes on the line of scrimmage, the whole thing. The guys felt it, we feel it as coaches — we know we can do a little bit more when we have a guy like that — so we’re sure glad we got him back.”

Hitchens’ return was important just for having enough players at that position — but it’s more than that. He’s been called “the glue” of the defense, he’s the primary communicator between the coaches and the unit, and he’s an excellent leader.

Impressively, the Chiefs have two of those special types of leaders on their defense. Safety Tyrann Mathieu makes everyone on the field around him better — but Spagnuolo made sure to include Hitchens in that same category when asked.

“There are a few guys I could think of,” Spagnuolo responded. “Antonio Pierce in New York, Brian Dawkins in Philadelphia, James Laurinaitis when I was in St. Louis... Even Anthony Hitchens is the same way with us here. It’s the guys that can walk in each individual grouping whether it’s D-Line, linebackers, defensive backs, and they just kind of get along and people respond to them. Those are the kind of guys that you need as many of those guys as you can get. I think we have a few of those guys that can do that, talk to all of the groups and they listen. People respect them.”

Hitchens’ respect has been earned this season. After being in a different defensive scheme for three consecutive seasons, he finally had continuity this season with Spagnuolo’s game plans — and it shows. He leads the team in run stops, he’s second in total tackles and heads a run defense that seems to be stingier than it has been in years.

That run defense will need to be at its stingiest against the Cleveland Browns this Sunday. With Hitchens back on the field, the defense should know exactly where to be and what to do — which is half the battle in stopping an effective rushing attack.

He may not have made an All-Pro team like Mathieu or the Pro Bowl roster like Frank Clark, but Hitchens is as important to the unit as any of his teammates — if not more.