In his first season as a full-time starter, Kansas City Chiefs MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton provided a boost to the team’s linebacking corps — and the defense overall.
Picking up right where he left off in his rookie season, Bolton was among the game’s best run-stopping linebackers — and a key cog in Kansas City’s Super Bowl LVII victory. His physicality, football IQ and effort impacted every game as he became one of the team’s undisputed leaders.
Let’s see how he did it.
Physicality in the box
As the MIKE, Bolton was responsible for the middle of the field. A tackling machine, he finished 2022 with 108 solo tackles — the league’s second-best figure. Using form and physicality, he fought off blocks and bottled up runs before they could get going.
Nick Bolton reads the run quickly and gets downhill. He beats the TE's 2nd level block, and works underneath the pulling TE. After avoiding both blocks he meets McCaffrey head on. No gain. pic.twitter.com/WtgzB7Zwbb— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 8, 2023
Here we see the San Francisco 49ers run a Y-counter with the back side guard and tight end pulling through to the play side. Bolton is the second linebacker in the box, so the play-side tight end is tasked with blocking him at the second level.
As moves closer to the line of scrimmage, he beats the angle the play-side tight end has taken to the second level — but then once the back-side tight end reaches him on the pull, he works back underneath the block and collides with the running back. He immediately drops to wrap up the ball carrier with a great form tackle as his teammates rally to the ball.
One of the league’s strongest players at the initial point of contact, Bolton missed just 3.7% of his tackles — ranked fourth among linebackers who played at least 80% of their team’s snaps — and helped to hold opponents to 1,823 rushing yards, which was the NFL’s eighth-best mark.
All around good play by Bolton. Reads the play, works away from a second-level block, fills the hole, and makes the tackle. Good job also by Chenal and Karlaftis to not giving up movement and fighting through blocks to not get sealed. Chris Jones with good pursuit as well. pic.twitter.com/M37MVg1hIT— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 9, 2023
On this play, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers attempt a power run to the right. The defensive line doesn’t give up any ground. Working over the top of blocks, Bolton flies downhill to make the stop. Defensive tackle Chris Jones comes in to help finish the play, but it’s Bolton who makes the initial contact.
Some of Bolton’s biggest plays of the season were in short-yardage situations. In these moments, he used his great situational awareness (and an understanding of how to defend the line to gain) to step up in big moments.
Third and short. LAC runs the pitch with some action to sell a FB dive. Bolton doesn't bite, takes off to get to the outside, and meets Ekeler in the hole. Delivering a shot Bolton stands him up driving him away from the line to gain and then finishes the play. pic.twitter.com/wRmjKQVrOa— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 9, 2023
Here, the Los Angeles Chargers fake a fullback dive before pitching to Austin Ekeler on the outside. Bolton isn’t fooled by the fake, taking a tremendous angle toward the ball carrier. While he isn’t able to bring him down immediately, Bolton digs in his heels at the line to gain — where he simply out-leverages Ekeler, driving him backward and ultimately getting the tackle.
Bolton utilized his good short-area burst (and playing strength) to make these stops — and when these were combined with his relentless pursuit, it led to positive defensive plays.
Short yardage stop for Bolton against the Bills. He keeps working to the sideline, getting over the blocks on the toss sweep. As Sneed works off of a block to take away the outside, Bolton flies in and finishes the tackle preventing any chance for the RB to gain a first down. pic.twitter.com/EezVOsvVac— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 9, 2023
On this third-and-1 rep, the Buffalo Bills run a toss sweep. As the offensive linemen enter space, Bolton has to get over the top of blocks on an angle to get to the ball. While the defensive backs are responsible for turning the run back inside, Bolton will be tasked with finishing the play.
As the run stretches further to the sideline, Bolton has to speed up to get around the right tackle — who had worked to up the second level. As Bolton accelerates away from the blocker, L’Jarius Sneed is able to work through a block to take away the sideline. The running back slows down to cut back — but thanks to his fantastic angle, Bolton is able to deliver a big hit that leaves the play short of the sticks.
Play recognition and tackles for loss
Bolton's football IQ (and play recognition) are among his biggest strengths. That’s why he’s the defense’s ‘green dot,’ tasked with getting the unit in position before the snap. But these attributes have also led to some of his biggest plays. He recorded nine tackles for loss in 2022.
Run blitz from Bolton. He quickly shoots through the A gap to make the TFL. This is where he is at his best. Downhill, fast and physical football. pic.twitter.com/D52LwDCVLv— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 9, 2023
Right from the beginning of this play, Bolton is playing the run all the way; he gets a great jump. While he recognizes the angle the running back is taking, he’s also aware that the left guard is trying to work to the second level. His quick recognition allows him to blow past the guard to make the tackle for loss.
Staying true to his coaching keys puts Bolton in positions to make these big plays — and his football instincts allow him to finish them.
The WR motions in tight and runs a slant designed to steal Bolton's eyes. He doesn't bite. Instead, he keys in on the C getting out in space, and reads the screen perfectly. He times up the play perfectly and delivers a big-time hit. pic.twitter.com/DMhrMvm9fM— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 9, 2023
On this third-and-long play, Bolton shows that he is one of the league’s best at identifying down, distance and situation. The Tennessee Titans’ rookie quarterback Malik Willis is making his first career start, so it’s likely the Titans will stay conservative.
Bolton notices the wide receiver shift to the inside — and then on the snap, he runs a slant right in front of Bolton. The Titans are hoping the wideout will steal Bolton’s eyes — or get him to follow the receiver in coverage — in order to set up a screen play.
But Bolton ignores the wide receiver, keying in on the center who has entered the second level prematurely. That’s a dead giveaway that a screen is imminent — so Bolton blasts into the backfield, where he’s able to hammer the running back as soon as he makes the catch.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll examine areas where Bolton can improve in 2023.