As the Kansas City Chiefs headed north to take on the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, they were without starting middle linebacker Nick Bolton for a third consecutive game. With Bolton out of the lineup, Drue Tranquill would again take the reigns of the defense. Tranquill had been fine in the Chiefs' prior two wins against lackluster offenses, but the Vikings posed a much harder task.
With one of the best passing attacks in the NFL, the Chiefs would need all hands on deck, especially from Tranquill, who would have to battle with elite pass-catching tight end T.J. Hockenson.
In his biggest test since joining the team, Tranquill made some eye-popping plays while showing off his coverage skill and range as a player.
While all eyes were on the matchup between superstar wideout Justin Jefferson and the Chiefs' standout secondary, the other important Viking pass catcher to watch was Hockenson. Entering the game as second on the Vikings in targets and receptions, stopping Hockenson would almost be as important as slowing down Jefferson.
This would leave Tranquill with an opportunity to put his coverage skills on display.
Drue Tranquill covers a lot of ground on this play. He starts out walking up in the B gap, drops at the snap, and runs across the field to get to Hockenson. He doesn't quite get there in time, but just his presence impacts Hockenson's ability to catch the ball. pic.twitter.com/OfYwSu5I4T— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) October 9, 2023
The Chiefs blitz looks and simulated pressure packages can be a nightmare for opposing offenses and quarterbacks to decipher. While the Chiefs bring a blitz off the left side of the line, Tranquill drops into coverage.
With the pressure coming from the secondary on the left, Hockenson has room to operate out of the slot. He breaks into an out route just in front of Bryan Cook and appears to be open.
Tranquill is on a bead and has the play read from the second he dropped into coverage. Showing off his speed and quickness, he gets to Hockenson around the same time the ball is delivered. He doesn't quite get his head around to find the ball, but his presence alone is enough to break Hockenson's concentration and force an incompletion.
Tranquill blankets Hockenson here. The motion even takes him a step further away, but he still covers ground quickly and disrupts the concentration needed to bring in the ball. Spags has a lot of confidence in him very early in his Chiefs tenure. pic.twitter.com/69BH9B1RnT— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) October 10, 2023
The Chiefs bring a five-man pressure out of their base defense personnel. This ball is going to have to come out of Cousins' hand quickly, and he looks to target Hockenson on the seam route.
Before the snap, Tranquill shifts with the motion — giving the illusion that Hockenson will have more room to operate on the seam. Cousins sees this, and with the pressure in his face, it appears like he predetermines he will go to Hockenson as soon as the ball is snapped.
Cousins drops to throw, but with smooth transitional speed, Tranquill puts himself between Cousins and Hockenson. With the distance sucked down from Tranquill to Hockenson, the pass is delivered high and unable to be hauled in.
Plays like these don't show up in the stat book, but they can make all the difference in winning and losing games. The Vikings are setting up a possible big play, but Tranquill made a key play in coverage to prevent anything substantial.
Hockenson goes in motion and breaks into a wheel route. Cousins pumps to Jefferson and then looks to go to Hockenson, but Tranquill is on it all the way. He closes the gap quickly. As pressure gets to Cousins he has to take the short route which is bottled up quickly by McDuffie. pic.twitter.com/DtpOyX1uKj— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) October 10, 2023
Cousins shows a quick pump as Minnesota attempts to sell the wide receiver screen. Hockenson, in motion, quickly turns upfield and breaks out into a wheel route. The Vikings are attempting to pick on the Chiefs' man coverage, but Tranquill recognizes the route right away and sprints toward Hockenson.
Tranquill cuts off the top of the route, and Cousins elects to take the drag route, which goes for a minimal gain.
Range defending the run
Excellent coverage was not the only way that Tranquill made an impact on the game. He also led the team with nine total tackles and showed off his range and movement skills while stopping the run.
Tranquill is lined up outside of the tackle box but once he reads the run he takes a good angle and brings down the back. pic.twitter.com/Ol7oo1YOMg— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) October 10, 2023
Aligned just outside of the tackle box in a position to cover the slot, he has to cover a lot of space to play the run.
The back makes his cutback and initially appears to have a decent-sized area to operate, but Tranquill glides in to shut the play down quickly. It looks routine, but if Tranquill was a second slower it could have resulted in a larger gain.
Something tells me Tranquill might have seen this play a time or two before...— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) October 10, 2023
Good work to see the flip pass off the motion and shut it down before the cutback yielded more yards. pic.twitter.com/PMElljwhHR
With an arsenal of athletic skill players, the Vikings have forced teams to defend the field from all angles. Tranquill has true sideline-to-sideline speed and quickly diagnoses the flip pass off of a jet sweep.
Tranquill's ability to move laterally also helped him take away the Vikings' outside zone game.
Outside zone for Minnesota. Tranquill initially looks to take away the B gap, but as the run continues to stretch to the outside, he flows back over the top to the C gap and helps finish the play. Great change of direction while moving laterally. pic.twitter.com/PhTQQvDO8o— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) October 10, 2023
As the play side linebacker, Tranquill is responsible for flowing over the top of the play and meeting the running back in the hole.
The Vikings run the play to the short side of the field out of an even formation. The Chiefs are in an odd front, so this outside zone gives the Vikings a numbers advantage to the outside as well as an angles advantage.
Initially looking to take away the B-gap, he reads the running back and has to change directions on the run to work his angle more toward the sideline.
In one fluid motion, he works over the top of the block and stops the back in the C gap for a minimal gain. If Tranquill was unable to transition himself into the C-gap this could have been a major gain for the Vikings.
The bottom line
This game was tailor-made for Tranquill and allowed him to put the best of his skill set on display. He is the best coverage linebacker the Chiefs have had since Derrick Johnson, and his speed and closing speed in space have already made him a valuable asset for the Chiefs in nickel and dime defenses.
This strong showing will likely earn him more playing time and will create a situation where the coaching staff will have to find a way for his and Bolton's skill sets to coexist.
Having too many talented players at middle linebacker is a good problem and will only further strengthen the Chiefs' defense.