Three weeks into an NFL season, it’s not unusual for the Kansas City Chiefs to have one of the league’s dominant units. It is, however, unusual for that unit to be the defense; in recent years, the team has been known for its high-flying offense.
Going into its Week 4 road game against the New York Jets, the Kansas City defense ranks fourth in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed. If the unit holds these spots through the season, both would be high points under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
A large part of the defense’s early success has been their versatility with personnel. Role players like fourth-round rookie defensive back Chamarri Conner, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards and former Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill have provided much-needed depth and flexibility for Spagnuolo.
During Sunday’s 41-10 thumping of the Chicago Bears, Tranquill stepped right in for the injured Nick Bolton as the Chiefs’ starting MIKE linebacker — which not only added half a sack and eight tackles (four solo) to his 2023 tally in Kansas City, but also an opportunity to speak with reporters on Wednesday.
“I really love it here,” he said of the team he joined as a free agent last spring. “I really love the people here. I love the competitive culture. Everything about it — everything here — is about winning. As a player with dreams and aspirations to win the highest honor — [which you know] is the Super Bowl — it’s really cool to be a part of a culture that is driven towards that, has done that and looks to do that in the future.”
While starting last Sunday’s game set a new high-water mark (82%) for Tranquill’s 2023 snap counts, he’s still been getting plenty of work in Spagnuolo’s scheme. In Week 2’s 17-9 win over the the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tranquill played 42% of the defensive snaps.
Tranquill’s versatility has helped him to quickly find a role in Kansas City. He is athletic enough to provide sound coverage, but also strong enough to make an impact against the run. This is one of the reasons Pro Football Focus now grades him as the Chiefs’ top linebacker, ranking him 25th out of 77 qualifying players.
His role in Kansas City has been similar to the way that Chargers’ head coach Brandon Staley used him during his first four NFL seasons.
“My last few years in Staley’s system we were kind of interchangeable — a little bit,” he recalled. “As the MIKE [middle linebacker], you’re dropping three a lot more — [with] the outside backers playing off two [in] quarter-flat [or] seam-flat technique. So I was able to play both of those techniques.
“I think being able to do that has been allowing me to play MIKE in [this] system, [along with] BUCK and WILL and SAM.”
Against the Jets on “Sunday Night Football” this weekend, the Chiefs’ defense has another golden opportunity ahead of it. After losing star quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the season’s first game, the Jets’ offense has been putrid — ranking dead last in both points scored and total yards. But Tranquill believes New York’s other units are strong.
“When you look at the Jets,” he said, “you [see] a defense that is outstanding [and] special teams that are outstanding. They [won] the game Week 1 against Buffalo on special teams with that punt return.
“Then you’ve got an offense that’s entering the season with a quarterback kind of in the driver’s seat — developing the system around him — and boom! [On the] fourth play of the [first] game, they have to totally pivot to a quarterback with a totally different skillset and experience.
“They are in a position [where] they are trying to find [their] identity on offense. We’ve got to go in there and play consistent defense; we can’t allow them to get their footing.”
With Bolton once again sitting out of practice on Wednesday, it seems likely that Tranquill will play a significant part of that effort on Sunday night.