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Steve Spagnuolo faced with decision at middle linebacker position

The defense has gained momentum in recent weeks, which makes it harder to go away from what has been working.

Kansas City Chiefs v Washington Foootball Team Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When Kansas City Chiefs’ starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens left the Week 6 game in Washington with a triceps injury, rookie linebacker Nick Bolton was asked to step up. The following week, he started at middle linebacker and took sole responsibility for play-calling duties.

Since then, the Chiefs’ defense has built momentum: they shut out Washington in the second half, held Tennessee Titans’ running back Derrick Henry to an uncharacteristically mediocre performance and limited the New York Giants to 17 points in Week 8.

All that with Bolton leading the way from the middle linebacker position. Now, Hitchens is back on the practice field in a full capacity, and it’s putting the Chiefs in a position to make a tough decision:

Do they continue starting Bolton, or do they hand the job back to the incumbent starter Hitchens?

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wouldn’t answer that question directly on Thursday, but he hinted that there’s still room for both to have contributing roles.

“Hitch — to me — is the guy that smooths everything out,” Spags described. “So he’ll be out there in certain situations; I’m sure we’ll have Nick in there in certain situations. They’ll both be in there together. Any time you can have intelligent, good football players at the linebacker position, I think that’s a good thing for us.”

NFL: OCT 10 Bills at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What Bolton was asked to do in his first NFL season was not easy.

The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense and requires much more than the physical talent a player possesses. Not only has his performance been impressive, but it has also said a lot about what Spagnuolo thinks of Bolton.

“You don’t see too many rookie middle linebackers tasked with that duty,” Safety Tyrann Mathieu explained to reporters on Wednesday. “To see coach Spags put his trust in him... obviously, the kid is a good football player. He has a bright mind too. I think that helps slow it down a little bit.”

Bolton isn’t the only young linebacker that has emerged in recent weeks: Willie Gay Jr. has also increased his impact on the game progressively. The combination of those two has impressed Mathieu.

“They’ve been coming along,” Mathieu assured. “There is a lot on their plate as far as this system and this scheme: trying to communicate and line people up. Those guys are still playing fast after they get everything set, that’s the biggest sign of encouragement as a deep defender. You have guys in front of you that got a little speed and can really make plays all over the field. It’s been good to see them progressing.”

Mathieu touches on the “speed” of the linebackers in front of him, perhaps a word that wouldn’t be used to describe Hitchens. For all the pre-snap work that the experienced Hitchens excels at, Bolton is superior at quickly reacting to a gap and getting downhill to stop a play as close to the line of scrimmage as possible.

You want to keep that talent of Bolton’s at an off-ball position, where he can better read the blocks and make a play no matter the direction of the run. At the SAM linebacker position — where Bolton started the season — those skills aren’t as utilized.

The solution could be to put Hitchens at SAM with Bolton still at the MIKE, but Spagnuolo disregarded that idea when asked about it specifically.

“I don’t know if we’ll go that route,” he answered. “There’s usually four of those guys that work in there. They’re all going to work; we have packages for all of them, so we’ll get them in there.”

It’s tough for a coaching staff to bench a player that has been the center of their defense for more than two seasons — but in this case, it’s the right choice. Bolton is not only the better player, but his play-making ability has also helped ignite a unit to play its best stretch of games all season.

With the small margin of error they face for the rest of the schedule, the Chiefs need their best players on the field — and that means Bolton should continue playing over Hitchens.