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The Chiefs’ Drue Tranquill has been the ultimate substitute linebacker

Since MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton went down, Kansas City’s defense hasn’t missed a beat.

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

For many NFL teams, losing their starting MIKE (middle) linebacker sets off alarm bells. Defensive coaches must cross plays off the sheet, simplifying the defense so that the backup can process it — and be the field general of a dumbed-down system.

But this has not been true for the Kansas City Chiefs. When starting MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton left Kansas City’s Week 7 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers with a dislocated wrist, Drue Tranquill stepped in. According to Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, having the former Los Angeles Chargers linebacker has allowed the team to keep the defense running as they had planned it.

“We lost a really good football player in Nick Bolton for a number of games here,” he explained to reporters on Thursday. “And yet — I think I’ve said this before — we’ve slid Drue in there and really haven’t skipped a beat.”

Spaguolo intertwined his fingers, exhibiting the connectivity and chemistry needed between his players.

“You guys know that the back end and linebackers, they’ve got to be like this,” he noted. “We didn’t lose that at all — and sometimes that happens. I’ve been down that road before with a MIKE linebacker who’s been the communicator and the signal caller. [When] we’ve lost them, it takes a little while. But we didn’t skip a beat with Drue. We’re really fortunate we got him.”

Tranquill was taking a chance when he signed with Kansas City last March. The team’s linebacker room was already stacked with Bolton, Willie Gay Jr. and Leo Chenal. Spagnuolo credits Tranquill for being willing to sign under those circumstances.

“We had a lot of linebackers,” he noted, “but he’s a team guy. His teammates love him — and I love what he’s doing for us. So I can’t say enough about Drue.”

In his turn with reporters on Thursday, safety Justin Reid agreed with Spagnuolo.

“To come into this defense and play MIKE backer — [with] all the different checks and coverages and responsibilities, getting the defensive line set the right way, making audibles and what coverages we’re playing, where to send the pressures that [are] based on the looks you’re getting?” marveled Reid. “It’s a lot on the mental side of it. But then [Tranquill] also pairs that with the physical ability to go in and attack centers, beat running backs on blocks, tackle tight ends — and sometimes, guard receivers, too.

“He’s done a phenomenal job for us to be able to come in and do it — but that’s the reason why we brought him here.”

The fifth-year veteran out of Notre Dame is just the kind of player Spagnuolo likes: one who excels at the game’s mental aspects.

“Immediately when he got here,” he recalled, “I could see that he was a cerebral player. And he plays really fast. Like, he is fast physically — but he plays fast. He reacts to things really well.”

For many players, the volume of data might be too much to process — like drinking from a fire hose — but with Tranquill, that hasn’t been the case. Even in his first year with the team, Spagnuolo says they’ve loaded him up.

“He’s kind of excelled,” said the coordinator. “He hasn’t gone backwards. That’s been the impressive thing to me.”

For his part, Tranquill is just happy to be able to prove he belongs on the field.

“We have a great linebacker room,” he reminded reporters on Thursday. “A lot of good players. So I knew I’d have to come in and earn some reps — earn a spot on our defense. And you know, through great coaching, great players, learning the defense [and] taking reps, I have kind of been able to craft a little role for myself.”

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