As a rookie in 2021, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton logged five starts at MIKE (middle) linebacker, tallying 38 tackles and two quarterback hits. But the majority of his snaps came from the WILL (weak side) linebacker position, where he excelled at stuffing the run, earning a run defense grade of 75.4 from Pro Football Focus.
When the Chiefs made the decision to move on from Anthony Hitchens earlier this offseason, the table was set for Bolton to step in and take his place in the middle of the defense.
Speaking with the media on Thursday, Bolton said that while he feels like he is making improvements every day, he believes that he still has a long way to go.
“I definitely feel like I’m trending in the right direction,” he said. “Playing the MIKE is different from being on the outside.”
In most defenses, it’s the MIKE linebacker’s responsibility to make sure the unit is in the correct alignment — and before the snap, to call out reads and make adjustments. This is why the MIKE linebacker is often referred to as the “quarterback of the defense.”
Bolton said he is ready for the increased responsibility — and also noted that Kansas City has numerous other young defenders who are ready to step up.
“I feel like it’s our time,” said the second-year linebacker. “It’s not just me. [It’s] Willie [Gay Jr.]. We got Justin Reid, who’s come in to join. [It’s also] our young guys on the D-line. It’s our time to step up and lead as a group. It’s not one person.
“Nobody should be able to replace Hitch or Tyrann Mathieu. Those guys are special guys; there is a reason those guys wore C’s. And so it’s up to us to come in as a group, and try to get guys in the best position possible to play.”
A MIKE linebacker is expected to play sideline to sideline, while the WILL predominantly stays on the weak side of the formation. Bolton admitted he is still adjusting to the difference in the spacing of his assignments — but that he is getting better at it every day. And to help him cover more space, he said he has been focused on improving his fitness.
“Playing at the MIKE position, you’re going to be in on the play more times than you are in the WILL position,” he explained. “I kind of liked where I was weight-wise last season. So I’m just going to get [in] better in shape as we go along.”
If there was one knock on Bolton coming out of college, it was that he struggled in pass defense — which is a problem for any linebacker who plays in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 Under scheme. In it, linebackers are expected to drop into coverage on almost every single passing snap.
In 287 coverage snaps last season, Bolton allowed 36 of his 45 targets to be completed, which led PFF to give him a coverage grade of 58.3. Bolton knows that he needs to improve in 2022 — and said that he is now seeing the field better.
“Coming into the first year, everything was moving kind of fast,” he said. “But as the season progressed, everything kind of slowed down a little bit — and so this season, it just opened up my vision, [being] able to see more things on the field at one time. I kind of have to play a little bit faster — and so that’s kind of what I’m aiming toward.”
Andy Reid agreed with his linebacker’s assessment, saying that the more reps Bolton gets, the more comfortable he gets with trusting his instincts.
“And so where you saw him in the run game really be effective. Now he’s able to work on the pass game... And so that’s where you see linebackers make a little jump for their first year. And in the second and third year they get all these reps with the pass game — and I think that’ll help them down the road.”
Luckily for Bolton, he faces some of the NFL’s toughest competition when he lines up against Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce.
“[Kelce] can make a stem look different — and run a different route,” he observed. “And so [I’m] just kind of learning from him, seeing what he sees when we run zone coverage. He runs routes differently versus man coverage and stuff like that. So learning from him, learning how he sees himself, learning how they do their spacing on offense. It helps us out a tremendous amount.”
At the end of the day though, Bolton knows that to improve his pass coverage, he ultimately has to make big plays when it matters.
“I’m trying to capitalize on turnovers. I had a couple of opportunities late in the season — two of them, [against] Cincinnati, I believe I probably could have brought in. It probably could have changed the game a little bit. So just kind of working on those things, being on the jugs... When you get opportunities presented, you got to make them.”
But Reid isn’t concerned about it.
“He’s attacking it like crazy right now,” said the head coach.