As the Kansas City Chiefs' season continues, there are always questions not only about how they use their players — which we cover every week in our advanced snap count analysis — — but also why they use specific players the way they do.
On Thursday, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy addressed some of those questions — starting with rookie linebacker Nick Bolton.
LB Nick Bolton
Bolton — whom the Chiefs have primarily used against the run — saw plenty of action during the season's opening weeks, acquitting himself well. He saw even more when starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens — who is widely believed to be the player Bolton was drafted to eventually replace — missed two games after being injured in the Week 6 game against the Washington Football Team. But since Hitchens returned in Week 9, Bolton was used even less than he had been during the season's early games.
Spagnuolo said that this is mostly a matter of Bolton's playing experience.
"I told Nick after the game, when I look at the reps — I get a sheet on Monday with who played what — I'd like to get [him] more reps," recalled Spagnuolo. "We're going to find ways to do that — [linebackers coach Matt House] and I."
But Spagnuolo also said that part of it is that he wants to keep his players fresh by rotating players in and out of games.
"I like the fact that we've got a lot of guys playing," he observed." Hopefully, we can keep winning games and find our way into the postseason. I think keeping guys fresh is really important defensively when you head down that road."
It's something that Spagnuolo has consistently done throughout his NFL coaching career — particularly on the defensive line — when it has been possible.
"You have to have the guys to do it," he explained. "So to me, that's a huge compliment to the other guys who go in: Alex Okafor, Tershawn Wharton and Mike Danna, because if you don't have those kinds of guys — if you think the [playing] level's going to drop — you're not doing as much of that. So I think it's a huge credit to those guys."
CB Deandre Baker
Spagnuolo also said that with Rashad Fenton's absence during Sunday night's 22-9 victory over the Denver Broncos, Deandre Baker's use as an outside cornerback — which is typically when L'Jarius Sneed is playing on the inside — had more to do with normal backup cornerback Mike Hughes dealing with a calf injury.
As we see here, Baker had started in Week 4 (also in relief of Fenton) but had been inactive for five straight weeks before Sunday's game. But it sure didn't sound as if the defensive coordinator was sorry that Baker ended up playing in the game.
"'Bake' — we say it all the time — he's a gamer," remarked Spagnuolo. "He looks so much better on game day than sometimes in practice. Of course, in practice, he's more doing the scout team — but I was pleased with the way he played [on Sunday]. He's another guy that plays aggressive and hard when he gets out there on game day."
S Daniel Sorensen
Spagnuolo also had compliments for another player in his secondary — one who has played a substantively diminished role ever since safety Juan Thornhill returned to his starting job in Week 6: safety Daniel Sorensen.
In the view of many observers, Sorensen — who was clearly a liability in deep coverage while the Chiefs were trying to figure out if Thornhill was ready to return to a full role — shouldn't even be getting snaps as a box safety, which is the role he's currently fulfilling.
But Spagnuolo doesn't go along with that idea — not by a long shot.
"Look, we all know it was a struggle early," he said of Sorensen's play as a deep safety during the opening weeks of the season. "But he never wavered, never complained [and] did his job. That's Dan. He's a pro. And I think that's why you get that reaction from all the other guys, feeling really good about Dan making those two plays. And those were huge."
Spagnuolo referred to Sorensen's interception return for a touchdown on Sunday — and the stop he made on a Broncos two-point conversion in the game's final minutes.
"We never benched him," Spagnuolo said of Sorensen. "We moved around his spots, but he was still playing. He's played in every game. And along the way with all that — when we were having the conversation about moving [Juan Thornhill] in — I told Dan, 'I have not lost any confidence in you. I'll put you out there anytime, anywhere.'
"I wanted him to feel that. And I think our guys feel the same way. The example that he set for other guys that might go through it — and guys are going to go through it — I think is terrific."
WR Josh Gordon
Meanwhile, Bieniemy expressed similar thoughts about wide receiver Josh Gordon.
The former All-Pro wideout was signed to the team at the end of September, getting his first handful of snaps in Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills. For several games, he saw little use — but then he began being listed as a starting wide receiver and seeing substantially more use.
But through eight games — and now five starts — Gordon has been targeted just six times, hauling in only two catches for 18 yards.
Bieniemy pushed back on the idea that the team had failed Gordon — or vice-versa — and even called him "a great success story."
"Josh has been playing a number of snaps," said the offensive coordinator. "It's just unfortunate that the ball hasn't been going his way. Josh is doing a heck of a job of blocking on the perimeter — you see him actively involved out there on the field — so yes, we would love for Josh to have the numbers. But for whatever reason, it hasn't happened. And so, our faith and belief has not gone anywhere; we still believe in him. And here's the thing that I love about him — and this is why I know that he's making the growth that he's making — is the energy that he brings every single day on that practice field and in that classroom."
WR Mecole Hardman
But at least Gordon has only seen a one-week dropoff in his snaps. The same can't be said for his fellow wideout Mecole Hardman.
As the chart shows, the third-year receiver's use in the offense has slowly (but steadily) declined throughout the season. Since Week 9, it has plummeted — even on special teams, where he began the season as the primary kick returner.
"I thought Mecole did a great job [against the Broncos]," insisted Bieniemy. "And I know he only played nine plays. But those nine plays, he played fast, he played hard, and he was productive when given the opportunity to do so.
"So the only thing that you continue to do is to make sure that these guys understand that every play is — by far — the most important play. Everything that we do — and everything we do on the practice field — is by far the most important thing that you would do."