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Willie Gay Jr. capitalized on Patriots’ mistake to help secure Chiefs’ win

The Kansas City linebacker used a simple (but effective) strategy: taking advantage of an opponent’s mistake.

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

In the third quarter of their Week 15 game against the New England Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs had just extended their lead to 17-10. The Kansas City defense took the field, knowing that for the fourth consecutive game, the unit needed to lock its opponent down in the second half to secure a victory.

On the first play into that possession, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. kick-started that effort with his first interception of the season — the fourth of this career.

After a play-action fake, Patriots’ quarterback Bailey Zappe evaded defensive end Mike Danna’s pass rush and hurried a throw to the sideline. But Gay had covered his underneath target very well — and proceeded to return the pick 24 yards to New England’s 7-yard line.

But Gay was disappointed that he didn’t make it a pick-six.

“I got comfortable, man,” Gay admitted to reporters in his post-game media availability. “I got too complacent. I caught the ball and I saw my leading blockers. Nick [Bolton] was there — the whole defense was there, leading the way. [But] I looked inside [and] I saw the whole offense coming from inside out. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to run out of bounds.’”

It didn’t end up mattering. The Kansas City offense took full advantage of Gay’s interception, scoring a touchdown that stretched the team’s lead to 24-10. This season, though, there has been no guarantee that the offense would take advantage. The fourth-year linebacker thinks that next time, he’ll make a stronger effort to score.

“I don’t like getting tackled,” he shared. “I knew the offense was going to be in great field position, so I just lived with that. Next time, I’m going to score, though — for sure.”

That’s what happened the last time Gay intercepted a pass. He grabbed it behind the line of scrimmage, avoiding contact and returning the tipped-up throw for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in 2022.

This one, however, came with Gay turning and running underneath a route, staying in position to take advantage of the poor throw. Even against an inexperienced quarterback, those opportunities come only so often — which is why the unit carefully prepares for those moments.

“We practice those things: interceptions [and] punch-outs,” explained Gay. “They are hard to come by — no matter how much you practice it or try to do it. You have to capitalize on the other team’s mistakes... We just have to continue to do that more and more — [to] get two or three a game. That’s when you’re really rolling.”

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The benefits are obvious to see: the up-and-down Kansas City offense could suddenly play with a two-score lead, rather than the added pressure of a tighter game.

That’s what the chaos sought by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can do: create turnovers that change games — as quarterback Patrick Mahomes recognizes.

“I think the biggest thing is you see how they can make adjustments in-game,” Mahomes reflected in his post-game press conference. “That takes a special group of guys... When the game plan is working, they dominate — [but] then when the game plan is a little off or [the opponents] come out with a little different stuff, they are able to change the game plan right there. Spags does a great job of that.”

“I’ve said it a couple times: I wouldn’t want to play our defense. They’re able to change and be great at a lot of different things.”

The defense was closer to full strength than they have been in weeks, with both middle linebackers Nick Bolton and Drue Tranquill joining Gay on the field for the first time since Week 7. That helped the unit execute better — and in Gay’s view, that made a big difference.

His interception wasn’t the defense’s only well-executed, significant play. Cornerback Jaylen Watson ended one drive with a sack on a blitz. Linebacker Leo Chenal ended another with a batted pass.

“It’s just the players tightening up the details — the loose screws that people from the outside looking in don’t normally see,” he revealed. “It’s being in your gap this play — or being on your man closer on that play — and now it’s a big play for us because we’re doing the little things right.

“[Spagnuolo] coaches that all the time: the details. He knows it’s nothing more than just us doing our job. So he makes the perfect call — and when we execute it, it’s a perfect play.”

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