K.C. linebackers embrace change with Willie Gay’s arrival

Sam McDowell Kansas City Star (TNS)
San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert (31) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (53) and nose tackle Derrick Nnadi (91) during the first quarter in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium.

As their offseason programs turned virtual, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo opened his initial video meeting with a speech.

Sure, the Chiefs might have been only a few months removed from a Super Bowl, but the defensive players shouldn’t mistake that for some sort of finished product. An examination of the 2019 season in its entirety supplied a different determination.

The unit left room for improvement.

“There were a lot of heads shaking ‘yes,’” linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “We can be better.”

While Spagnuolo pointed to a lackluster start to the season — something of an learning period — Hitchens pointed elsewhere.

He identified his own group — the linebackers. “Our secondary saved us a lot of games,” he said.

The linebackers room has welcomed one significant change in personnel, adding Mississippi State product Willie Gay Jr. in the second round of April’s NFL Draft. But it’s also embracing another change — a more intricate education with a defense in which it now possesses some familiarity.

“When you’re in the second year with a room and there’s not a lot of change, you get to get a lot more into the details of the why,” Chiefs linebackers coach Matt House said. “Why are we calling this? Why do we install it this way? Why are we teaching this specific technique this way?

“When you first put in a scheme, you’re teaching base level — here’s your assignment. But now when you sit back and you can peel it off, you get to teach the why a lot more. What (are) the strengths? What (are) the weaknesses? And why are we doing this? Why are we calling it?”

It goes both ways. House has been able to teach more during the online video meetings this offseason. He’s enjoyed the daily time with players. But he’s also starting with some added knowledge himself, equipped a better understanding of his own personnel.

The Chiefs opened 2019 with Hitchens flanked by Darron Lee and Damien Wilson. Lee lost the starting job after just two games, and thus began the ever-changing assignments as House and Spagnuolo tinkered with the group.

In the season opener, for example, Hitchens did not leave the field once. By season’s end, he was departing passing-down situations in favor of Ben Niemann. Reggie Ragland, who signed with the Detroit Lions this offseason, combined for only 19 snaps in the first four weeks before solidifying a late-season role in running situations.

Spagnuolo hopes Gay will fill the role departed by Ragland, at least initially, but he’s a player they have not yet had the privilege of working with on the field. Their determinations come from the skill-set they observe on film — athletic, explosive, fast.

That would leave Hitchens in the middle, with Wilson and Gay on the outside at SAM and WILL, the latter two positions representing only slight deviation in Spagnuolo’s scheme.

The expectation is he eventually grows into a role the Chiefs don’t currently possess — an every-down linebacker who can help a run defense in need of aid and still play the pass.

None of the team’s linebackers played even two-thirds of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps last season.

“Guys’ role are constantly developing and adapting off what they can handle and how the unit advances,” House said. “But I agree with Spags — I think that’s a good starting point. And then we’ll see what he can grow into.”