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Chiefs’ deep linebacker room ready to step up in Nick Bolton’s absence

Drue Tranquill will again step up for Kansas City’s defensive leader — while other players will have a chance to state their case.

Kansas City Chiefs v New York Jets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When the Kansas City Chiefs play the Denver Broncos on Sunday — for the teams’ second meeting in three weeks — they will play without linebacker Nick Bolton.

Bolton, who finished second in the league in total tackles a season ago, dislocated his wrist during the Chiefs’ Week 7 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. The injury required surgery and will likely sideline the third-year player for two months.

While Bolton recovers, Drue Tranquill will again serve as the team’s starting MIKE linebacker. Tranquill already handled those duties earlier this season as Bolton missed three games with a high ankle sprain.

Speaking before Thursday’s practice, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo believes that Tranquill will thrive in the role — because they have already seen it.

“We’ve played a couple of games,” the coach recalled, “I want to say it was three total without Nick — Drue has been in there. The guys have felt Drue in front of the huddle all week long, obviously. I think there’s a comfort level with the other 10 [players] with Drue in there now having done it. I think they felt that way when Nick went down the first time.”

Spagnuolo knows the Chiefs are fortunate to have a backup in Tranquill who can operate the entire defense.

“It’s nice to know,” he stated, “we have a guy that can fit in there and not skip a beat. I said this before, I never felt like we had to cut things back when Drue took over in those three games. Nick was gone, and I feel the same way now, so hopefully we can keep tracking upward.”

Speaking from the locker room on Thursday, second-year linebacker Leo Chenal expects his position group to rally in Bolton’s absence.

“[Bolton is] a huge piece of our defense,” said Chenal, “[and] a strong leader for our defense. He has been since his rookie year. All I can say is we have good guys in the room to step up — and we have done it before previously, when he was down. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do.”

Detroit Lions v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

One of those players who may need to step up is second-year player Jack Cochrane. Cochrane joined the Chiefs in 2022 as an undrafted rookie free agent out of South Dakota. After playing exclusively on special teams in his rookie season, Cochrane saw his first action on defense earlier this season against the Chicago Bears and New York Jets during Bolton’s absence in Weeks 3 and 4.

“We have a lot of faith in Jack,” Spagnuolo confirmed. “When Nick was out before Jack was in a rotation of a package. We’ve got no problem doing the same thing – all those guys have played good enough football to this point where they all merit some playing time, so we will see how the game goes, what the situations are and whether that happens or not.”

Although the Broncos are — again — off to a disappointing start that may result in fire sale ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline, Chenal knows not to take them lightly. In particular, he knows Bolton’s absence may be felt against quarterback Russell Wilson.

“[Wilson is] showing what we he can do,” Chenal explained. “We definitely have to contain the run game. They’re dangerous if you let them be. Russell Wilson, he can make you pay with his feet. If he sees certain looks, he’s going to take off. So, have to contain him too. Never let up, really.”

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Although the Chiefs’ defense looked almost flawless at times against the Broncos in Week 6 — and took a shutout deep into the second half — Chenal sees the quick turnaround to the rematch as a chance for him and his teammates to perform even better.

“We try to look at the game two weeks ago,” he claimed, “when we played them as best as we can and learn from the mistakes from then. It is kind of nice that it’s still fresh in our heads — and that fresh to learn from and to grow from. Not much has changed — [we’re] just trying fix our mistakes.”

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