Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton’s second season was a major success. Finishing with the franchise single-season record for tackles, he helped elevate a defense that showed immense improvement week to week.
As good as Bolton was in 2022, there are still ways he can improve in 2023. These ways mainly consist of his ability to play the pass and his ability to finish plays in space.
While Bolton is a top-notch run defender, he still leaves some to be desired in the passing game. Bolton was not awful in coverage with an ADOT — average depth of target — only at 3.7 yards. This reflects that receptions assessed against him were frequently short passes — largely around or just beyond the line of scrimmage.
Targeted 74 times, Bolton gave up 61 receptions. While the majority of them were in and around the line of scrimmage, teams did advantage of him on occasion.
KC shows blitz at the LOS. Gay spies on the LOS while Bolton goes to cover the RB in the flat. The RB breaks and accelerates up the middle catching a pass for a big gain. Bolton got to the spot out of control and could not regain his footing to recover. pic.twitter.com/b5bmh09WMu— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 22, 2023
The Chiefs are showing blitz on the line of scrimmage, but the Denver Broncos had a play call designed to counter the look. While the Chiefs did not end up blitzing, Bolton heads out to the flat to cover the running back, initially appearing to be on a short route out of the backfield. Bolton heads to the flat with a head of steam, but one quick cut and the back blows past him vertically up the field. Russel Wilson puts the ball on him, and it is a big gain.
Bolton is good as a downhill runner and running to the sideline in pursuit of outside runs or screen passes, but quick transitions and change of direction are not where he excels.
The Broncos did a good job to take advantage of his deficiencies in transition, as well as his aggressive play style.
The play action sucks in Bolton and the TE is able to find the void. Seattle catches him as the only LB in the box with KC bringing six in pressure. Slow to react Bolton can't recover in time as the TE gets behind him to make the catch. pic.twitter.com/PhYhumNAGY— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 22, 2023
The Seattle Seahawks run a play-action pass with their tight end running an over route across the middle of the field. Bolton is keying in on the backfield and starting to step forward to look to play the run. Geno Smith pulls the ball, and the tight end gets behind Bolton, making the reception for a solid gain.
Bolton was too aggressive and looking to play the run off of the snap, causing him to take a step forward. The step was just enough for the tight end to get free. Bolton’s lack of quickness in and out of transition showed again — and was amplified by his rare misread on the play.
Closing in space
Related to pass coverage, Bolton struggled at times to close plays in space.
What does this mean?
Bolton was excellent when he was able to make a quick read and get to the football, but he wasn’t quick to react against more athletic opponents.
These situations exposed his athletic physical deficiencies.
He didn't miss many tackles in 2022, but this is a play Bolton would like to have back. The WR runs a drag route from the opposite side of the field. Bolton is dropping in his zone but is late to react to the movement across the middle. The WR uses the space to force the miss. pic.twitter.com/1bLAdlkBx3— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 21, 2023
On third down, Bolton is dropping into zone coverage near the line to gain. The wide receiver comes from across the field and is not initially in Bolton’s peripheral. As the receiver enters Bolton’s zone, the linebacker looks to his right and is late to recognize the play. He tries to make the play at the last moment, but he misses the tackle and it ends up being a first down.
This stems back to him being uncomfortable in pass coverage as a whole, and teams found multiple ways to take advantage of this lack of comfort.
3rd and 4 Cinci runs the Y on a in route with the RB getting ready to leak out. Bolton and the other LB's are at the first down depth in zone. As the Y gets to Bolton he is able to do enough to prevent Bolton from attacking downhill which causes a missed tackle and a first down. pic.twitter.com/siLAl5I6K7— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 19, 2023
On third down, the Cincinnati Bengals are trying to leak their running back out of the backfield. In order to prevent Bolton from getting a read on the play quickly, they run their tight end across the field on a crossing route.
Bolton sees the leak to the running back and starts to react, but the tight end gets to him first, attempting to use his body on the block.
As Bolton sheds the block, he finds himself in space and has to redirect himself to attempt to make the tackle. The back beats the arm tackle and surges ahead for a first down.
Had Bolton been able to run freely to hit the back, it would likely have turned into a play for his highlight tape, but the crafty wrinkle from the Bengals threw just enough of a wrench in the play to create a first down.
How he can improve
After two solid seasons in the NFL, Bolton is just that. For him to go from solid to elite, he must find a way to mask the deficiencies in his game, starting with overall improvement when it comes to playing the pass.
Bolton’s physical tools are good formany things— such as big collisions and strong box play— but they don't equate to a great player in space. To make up for these limitations, he must continue improving the mental aspect of his game, get better at processing certain routes in zone coverage, and see the play before it happens — as he frequently does in the run game.
The plays I chose to break down also all had wrinkles in them designed to target Bolton — but all were much more than just basic play calls. To beat a high IQ player— which Bolton very much is— high-level play calling is required.
This was just Bolton’s first year as a full-time starter, and green dot — play caller — of the defense. As he continues to progress, these plays will become easier for him to read — and he will start becoming more comfortable in pass coverage.
Part one and part two of this series have discussed where Bolton excels and where he has room for improvement. Part three will examine his knack for making big plays in critical situations.