Kansas City Chiefs fans know it better than most: the NFL has experienced a drastic shift toward pass-heavy strategies on offense. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is just one of the many signal-callers who are being trusted to sling it all over the field — at higher rates than we’ve ever seen.
To counter, defenses have focused more on pass coverage. Linebackers now tend to be athletic players who can cover receivers — rather than the big run-stuffers who were common in decades past.
In Kansas City, those player traits are embodied by linebacker Willie Gay Jr. As he enters his third season, he knows where his strengths lie— and he wants to prioritize them.
So he was feeling good after Wednesday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri — a day in which he had intercepted Mahomes for the second time since camp began.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Gay told reporters. “I got goals to lead linebackers in the NFL in interceptions this year. So when Pat throws me some, I know other quarterbacks will — because they aren’t as good as him.”
While Gay is confident, that doesn’t mean he can’t be humbled by the former NFL MVP. He noted that when he intercepts Mahomes, he doesn’t say anything to the team’s offensive leader — because he isn’t “that cocky.”
VIDEO: #Chiefs Willie Gay snags an interception during Friday’s 7-on-7 period. @KSHB41 pic.twitter.com/wLIJaLmvgz— Aaron Ladd (@aaronladd0) July 29, 2022
Gay’s Wednesday pick was in the red zone. He returned it the entire length of the field to complete the pick-six — but since practice had been moved indoors, Gay didn’t get to enjoy it with the fans.
Gay’s ability to create these turnovers broke through in 2021, when he earned interceptions in back-to-back games against the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants. Per Pro Football Reference, he had four defended passes on the season.
It’s a solid season for a linebacker — only five second-level players had more than two picks last season — but Gay believes he was close to having a higher interception total, which feeds into his confidence for 2022.
“I know I can do it,” Gay insisted on Wednesday. “Coming out of college, I feel like I was drafted because of my coverage ability — and last year, I feel like I dropped four of them: Cowboys, Broncos, a couple other teams. I feel like if I make those opportunities, that’s like five or six interceptions last year. This year, I can really take it to the next level; I know that for a fact. So I’m definitely going to do that.”
Willie set high expectations for himself today, wanting to lead the league in INTs #Chiefs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 4, 2022
He said he should've had more than 2 INTs last yr, and pointed to Dallas and Denver as games he should've had one.
Safe to say he remembers correctly. (Plus a good play from the AFCCG) pic.twitter.com/hhnjWzGTVt
The tape backs up his memory of those near-interceptions. Both of these plays look like they should have resulted in Gay making a big return.
Gay makes these picks not only because he can change direction so quickly, but also because of his great straight-ahead speed — which some quarterbacks don’t anticipate when throwing towards his zone.
These skills extend the energy Gay always displays. Whether it’s leading into a big game or going from drill to drill in training camp, Gay’s energy is noticeable.
“I’ve been like that since I started playing football,” he acknowledged. “They call me ‘The Juice Man’ for a reason. So that’s what I try to do every day: bring the energy, bring the juice. It’s nothing that I do because people look at me; I just have fun doing it and being out there. It’s part of who I am.”
Now that Gay is one of the defense’s key players, that intangible is even more important. For the majority of the unit’s snaps, he and MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton will be patrolling the second level of the field together. Gay recognizes the added responsibility.
“I definitely feel like my role has increased,” he said. “I feel like me and Nick both have bigger roles to fill to lead this team on the defensive side — and do what we need to do to make sure we’re in position to lead.”
Gay both realizes and admires the leap Bolton has made to wear the green dot on his helmet — to be the unit’s on-field play-caller.
“He runs the show, man,” Gay beamed. “Since he got here last year in my second year when we both were learning, he took off ever since — and hasn’t looked back. We’re both just trying to take things to the next level.”
With new faces — and plenty of question marks at the other levels of the defense — the unit can rely on having one of the NFL’s rising duos at linebacker. Bolton may be more likely to play more snaps and fill up the box score, but Gay’s ability to create turnovers could often become the single deciding factor between a win and a loss.