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Question of the Week: Can the Chiefs rediscover their linebacker rotation?

Kansas City is back to full strength in the linebacker room.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly series for Arrowhead Pride, I’ll ask one big question about the Kansas City Chiefs’ season. A week ago, we discussed Wanya Morris’ status when it comes to the starting offensive line.

This week, we’re looking at the Chiefs’ linebacker rotation.

Can the Chiefs rediscover their linebacker rotation?

Coming into this season, one of my biggest questions about the team was what they were doing at linebacker. After signing linebacker Drue Tranquill this offseason, I had concerns about a potential snap crunch at linebacker. Having four playable linebackers is better than not, but how were the Chiefs going to balance their roles?

Tranquill and Willie Gay Jr. were on contract years, so would there be any struggle with them desperately wanting to get on the field? Would this affect Leo Chenal’s development? Could the Chiefs find a run defense and coverage balance with guys like Tranquill and Nick Bolton?

Through six weeks, all those questions were answered perfectly. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo seemed to have the ideal plan to utilize all four linebackers. Spagnuolo found packages to get all four on the field in different spots. In their base defense, the Chiefs kept their 2022 trio of Chenal, Bolton and Gay. Gay and Bolton were primarily used in nickel packages, but Tranquill was able to step into either Gay’s or Bolton’s spot if they decided to. They even deployed more 3-3-5 or 3-2-6 packages, using Tranquill and Chenal’s speed and blitzing ability as an extra layer in their pass rush plans.

The packages were good, and all four linebackers were in ideal roles for their skill sets. Bolton was playing more optimal snaps and being used most as a run blitzer who could create negative plays. Gay was finally appropriately used, with Spagnuolo letting him fly downhill on blitzes and not having to process as much — even though he has made massive improvements in this department. After a rookie year without a ton of exploration, Spagnuolo came into this year with a great plan for Chenal, ostensibly using him as a standup defensive lineman who could either use his speed to chase quarterbacks down or use his strength to bully offensive linemen around.

Even after never coaching Tranquill, Spagnuolo immediately found ways to get him on the field. Tranquill was his main chess piece, and he used him in a variety of roles to clean everything up. Whether they needed him in coverage, blitzing or defending the run, Tranquill could do it from any spot. This allowed Bolton, Gay and Chenal to play to their best versions of themselves. Tranquill was the main piece in unlocking that, and Spagnuolo recognized that immediately.

Unfortunately, injuries started to pile up. Bolton dislocated his wrist against the Los Angeles Chargers, which sidelined him for five games. The Chiefs were fortunate to have Tranquill on the roster, who had experience relaying plays to the defense with the Chargers. However, it did feel the Chiefs lost some element of their linebacker room once Bolton went out. The tackles for loss weren’t piling as much, and Chenal and Gay weren’t able to be quite as maximized.

Then, in the Packers game, Tranquill got a nasty concussion after hitting his head on the leg of an offensive linemen. He couldn’t return that game and then missed the next week. After that, Gay and Chenal’s play cratered, which made sense. Tranquill was able to clean up the messes they made with their downhill aggression, but without it, they had to play more traditional linebacker, which they struggled to do.

Finally, on Sunday vs. the Patriots, they had all four linebackers back for the first time in six games. Even though Bolton was struggling with wrist and oblique issues, the Chiefs could finally get back to their early-season success at the position.

The results were up and down. I thought Chenal and Gay had excellent days as blitzers, which has been a theme for them for the entire season. The Chiefs were struggling to defend the middle of the field, which is partially due to the linebackers. Bolton was back to around 80% of snaps, close to his average before the injury. Tranquill only got 20 snaps, which is likely due to him easing back into play.

Now that all four are back and getting healthier, it will be up to the staff to find that formula at linebacker again.

Will it be as successful this time? With the linebackers adjusting to different roles, will they struggle to acclimate to their old roles? Will there be any more tension as snaps reduce across the board to get four linebackers acquitted and comfortable?

The bottom line

I’m not worried about these problems since Spagnuolo had such a perfect plan to start the season. For years, he’s always done a fantastic job finding the right roles for players. There are countless examples of this happening, so I’m not fretting too much thinking about this.

However, the concern does come that the Chiefs don’t have a long runway to rediscover their ideal rotation. They only have three regular-season games before a potential Wild Card playoff game. They don’t have much time to experiment, so they’re going to have to find that mix again.

This is a defensive-led team at this point, so that side needs to be humming again by the postseason. It starts with how the linebacker rotation plays out, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Chiefs rediscover their early-season success at the position again.

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