There were multiple defensive starters out for the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1. Still, perhaps the biggest letdown for fans was not getting to see second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. after an impressive performance in training camp.
In his place, another young linebacker had to step up. Rookie Nick Bolton got the start, and he played 76% of the snaps in the 33-29 victory over the Cleveland Browns. He racked up seven total tackles, including four by himself, with one of them being a tackle for loss.
He played slightly more than veteran linebacker Ben Niemann, indicating the coaching staff had a lot of trust in him. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo obviously thought highly enough of Bolton leading up to the game, and that didn’t change after reviewing the game.
“He did a really nice job,” Spagnuolo recalled during his press conference on Thursday. “In the preseason games, it didn’t appear to me that the game was too big for him — and I saw the same thing in this game. I watched him, (linebacker coach) Matt House, [Anthony Hitchens], and Ben all work while they’re sitting down on the bench. Not much fazes him. He picks it right up. He’s one of those guys that when we made a little tweak, he went with it.”
Bolton didn’t really have splash plays. Starting at the SAM linebacker, Bolton’s primary responsibility was to be stout against a strong Cleveland rushing attack. He was close to the line of scrimmage a lot and constantly took on blocks. He won multiple engagements with a blocker, one leading to the tackle for loss.
Nick Bolton is still that dude.pic.twitter.com/zo8LGm4BvL— Barstool Mizzou (@BarstoolMizzou) September 12, 2021
Bolton doesn’t have the flashy athleticism like his teammate at linebacker Willie Gay, but Spagnuolo likes other physical qualities the rookie possesses.
“The one thing about Nick is he’s — what I call — a natural knee bender,” Spagnuolo described. “I’m not into 40 [yard dash] times, I mean, you don’t want five [seconds] flat guys, but I don’t get all caught up in how fast they are. If they play fast, bend and change direction, that’s good enough for me. I think he does that.”
The other thing Bolton did well was sound tackling. According to PFF, he did not miss a tackle. He had three run “stops,” which constitute a failure for the offense by PFF’s definition. No other player had more than one.
That said, the unit as a whole had 12 missed tackles. That number is too high. Spagnuolo was asked about it and how he works to improve it during the week.
“Our term is wrap and release with a padded practice,” Spagnuolo explained. “We want to take care of each other, but I do want the guys to use their arms. Short of that, it’s guys mentally, getting in their head on how we’re going to tackle, mid-target tackle, etc. There were some missed tackles; we had more missed tackles this game than the preseason games, which hurt us a little bit. I’m hoping that changes, because if we don’t make tackles against this crew...”
We all know what Spagnuolo meant with that open-ended quote. The Browns are hard to tackle — but none of their ball carriers are as elusive and hard to stay in front of as Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson led the Ravens in rushes, yards, and yards per attempt in their Week 1 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. Spagnuolo knows he’ll be a handful on Sunday night.
“This is a no-brainer — number 8,” Spagnuolo said of why Baltimore is so difficult to defend. “Because now you have another guy that can run the ball, and you have to account for him. Not only are they really good at edge runs in the option part of football, they come downhill at you and hit you in the mouth. To me, if you only have one of those, you go in there and say ‘this is what we have to take away. ‘But when you got both of them, and you have to plan for both, that’s what makes it the toughest.”
Based on Bolton’s play in Week 1, the Chiefs will once again need a solid tackling performance from the rookie. He’ll have to play just as much as the first game, too; Gay is on IR and not eligible to return until Week 4 at the earliest. It’s an excellent opportunity for Bolton to build some momentum and confidence early in his NFL career.