The Kansas City Chiefs have started the season 6-2, surprisingly due to the quality play of its defense — in spite of the team's recent reputation as an offensive juggernaut.
A major reason Kansas City suddenly has one of the league's best defenses is the strong play of its linebacker corps — arguably the deepest in the league at the start of the season.
Suddenly, that depth is being tested. Starting MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton — who missed only 29 defensive snaps all of last year— will be out until late in the season after undergoing wrist surgery last week. On the heels of losing Bolton, the Chiefs suffered another injury to the room in Week 8 as Willie Gay Jr. left the 24-9 loss to the Denver Broncos with a tailbone injury.
Gay was back with the team as a limited participant on Thursday after missing practice on Wednesday. Speaking earlier on Thursday, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo appeared genuinely uncertain of the linebacker's status for Sunday against the Miami Dolphins in Germany.
Spagnuolo expressed confidence that Drue Tranquill will continue his strong work stepping in for Bolton, while second-year players Leo Chenal and Jack Cochrane may be called upon should Gay be held out.
"Nick and Willie are speed linebackers," the coach observed. "They cover as much ground as anybody in this league. We're not sure Willie is out right now. Nick, we know is not going to play. We're just going to have to rely on the guys we put in there.
"Now, Drue certainly is going to run around real fast, and you guys can see that. Jack will step in there if he has to. Leo will step in there. He made some plays for us last week. I feel confident in the guys we'll put out there.
"We certainly would like to have Nick and Willie, but we'll see what happens with that. If we don't have them, we'll use the guys we've got and rally around that."
Tranquill spoke before Wednesday's practice and expressed trust that linebackers coach Brendan Daly will have whichever players actually take the field ready to perform.
"I think we can hold up well," Tranquill predicted. "I think we have great personnel in that room. I think we've got a great leader in Coach Brendan Daly, and I think they do a great job of putting us in good positions. Obviously, we're deep in that room. We've got good experience, and as guys heal, we're going to have to have other guys step up, and we'll certainly continue to do that."
The Chiefs added more experience to the room this week by signing linebacker Darius Harris off the Las Vegas Raiders' practice squad. Harris signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2019. After missing all of his first season recovering from a shoulder injury, Harris was on and off the Chiefs' roster for two seasons before playing in all 17 games and Kansas City's playoff run in 2022.
Spagnuolo doesn't see Harris missing a beat despite his time away from the team.
"The one good thing about Darius," Spagnuolo stated, "is he was here...He was a very cerebral linebacker; he's really smart. So, I think he'll pick up things quickly, and if we got stuck in a situation where he had to go, at least we know he's had parts of the system before."
Cochrane has mainly played on special teams in his short career. Should he be forced into a heavier role on defense, Harris would be expected to take on some responsibilities with the third unit. Chiefs assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Dave Toub is just as reassured by Harris' presence as Spagnuolo is.
"It's good for us," Toub said on Thursday. "With losing Bolton and now Willie Gay, we needed a guy. We definitely needed to get a linebacker in the building. He's a guy that knows us [and] he's smart. He knows what we do, and I trust him on special teams to be a player for us. We can plug him right in."