Rookie linebacker Nick Bolton was instrumental in the Kansas City Chiefs’ big 36-28 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night — especially considering the Kansas City defensive stars who were unavailable: defensive lineman Chris Jones, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Still, the rookie linebacker was able to fly all over the field for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Bolton does a good job of reading Herbert’s eyes, then reacting to the ball as he helps knock it loose from Mike Williams pic.twitter.com/KKeTUoIR4u— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
While Bolton has been the most impressive when tasked with stopping the run this season, it has been Gay who has excelled in pass coverage — but on this goal-line play from Thursday, Bolton does an excellent job. He reads Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert’s eyes well, saving a touchdown by reacting to the throw in time to jar it loose from wideout Mike Williams.
Bolton comes on the blitz and slightly bites on the pump fake, still quick enough to get in on the play pic.twitter.com/lTLRj8Y3ug— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
Here we see Bolton display his speed and athleticism, which was one of the biggest reasons general manager Brett Veach brought him to the organization. It’s a draw play — but Herbert’s pump-fake gets Bolton to widen a little. He is still able to recover in time to help take the ball carrier down for a minimal gain.
Idk what’s better, Bolton tipping the pass or his reaction to the interception pic.twitter.com/F2xk1inc3Q— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
In what is perhaps Bolton’s best play of the game, he reads the play and is able to get a hand on the pass attempt — sending it into the air. Fellow linebacker Anthony Hitchens completes the play to create the turnover for the Chiefs. Bolton’s play is great — but his energy following the interception is infectious.
Bolton’s speed and athleticism at LB is reminiscent of Derrick Johnson pic.twitter.com/bTWz5a0lTf— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
In this play, Bolton is barely on the screen prior to the snap — but then in a blur, he gets downhill, squeezes the line-of-scrimmage and tracks down running back Joshua Kelley from the back side.
It’s just another good example of how fast Bolton plays. For the foreseeable future, he and Gay will make a great combination in the middle of the defense.
But by himself, Bolton is going to cause plenty of headaches for opposing offensive coordinators.
Bolton doesn’t hesitate at the snap, shoots the gap to initiate contact at the LOS, combination of film preparation & instincts pic.twitter.com/cLzWNs9RC8— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
He makes this play in the blink of an eye, making contact with Kelley at the line before the play can ever get going. He fills the gap, forcing the running back to bounce to Bolton’s help — where Hitchens is waiting.
On Thursday, Bolton was great at stopping the run — but by now, that is to be expected. In multiple instances, he also stepped up in pass coverage — which was less expected. He left SoFi Stadium with three deflected passes.
Without Willie Gay there, Bolton stepped up nicely in pass coverage, he dissects this quickly and limits a potential big play pic.twitter.com/fxzhuV1PNp— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
Here we see him stay home — and be in the right spot to make a play. This sort of misdirection can go for a big chunk of yardage but No. 54 makes sure that doesn’t happen.
Here is a good example of a pass deflection.
Big 4th down stop, Bolton breaks on the route and knocks the pass away to force the turnover on downs pic.twitter.com/s6yHPTQhpt— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
On one of the Chargers’ fourth-down attempts, Bolton quickly breaks on the route, timing it perfectly to knock the ball away. Given Bolton’s pre-snap alignment, this is not an easy route to cover — but he is all over it.
We saw him make a similar type of play numerous times.
Nick Bolton is a stud, runs the play down from the backside for only a 1-yard gain, he’s already one of the better Missouri Tigers in the league pic.twitter.com/AiJXwqZRyf— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
With Bolton’s closing speed, there is just nothing the ball carrier can do. Coming unblocked from the back side, Bolton gets in behind the pulling tight end and easily runs down Justin Jackson for one of his 14 tackles during the game.
Bolton was a mad man in LA, making plays everywhere, have to remind myself he’s a rookie pic.twitter.com/tz3btfJdRY— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
Bolton has yet to record his first career sack — but on this play, he came awfully close to taking Herbert down. This is a great example of how well he reads plays — and how quickly he is aware of what is happening. On the play-action, the ball isn’t hidden at all — which allows Bolton to knife through, getting his hands on Herbert before he can find anyone open. Herbert deserves credit for being able to throw this one away.
Bolton ran free a lot — and capitalized on those opportunities.
May want to send a guy 54’s way next time pic.twitter.com/POL0WaMzuN— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) December 20, 2021
Here, Bolton gets through the mess to snag Jackson for limited yardage — demonstrating that he has a sixth sense to locate the ball.
When you pair his quickness in short areas with his natural speed, it’s a rare skillset.
The bottom line
When we discuss Kansas City’s 2021 rookie class, offensive linemen Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith get a lot of the love — but the first-year linebacker out of the University of Missouri has been solid for the Chiefs’ defense, too. As a whole, the team’s class is off to a great start — and down the road, we could see even more stars emerge. Thursday was Bolton’s best overall performance as a pro — but it is only the beginning.