Reggie Ragland spent Thursday night’s preseason game on the sidelines with Anthony Hitchens’ voice echoing in his ears all every time the Chiefs’ defense took the field.
Hitchens, one of the most high-profile free-agent additions the team made this offseason, didn’t play but spent the night barking out observations and predicting play calls from the sideline based on formations, situations and alignment. Hitchens’ behavior reminded Ragland, a projected starter at inside linebacker, of his former partner on the field: Derrick Johnson. Johnson signed this offseason with the division-rival Oakland Raiders.
“He reminds me of DJ, how smart he is and everything,” Ragland said of Hitchens. “Before the plays, we’re both calling out everything. We’re both talking to each other.”
This offseason, the Chiefs emphasized improving their run defense. When the season starts, Ragland and Hitchens will be tasked with leading that effort. However, Ragland has had few opportunities to partner with Hitchens this preseason due to Ragland’s ongoing knee issues.
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Neither he nor Hitchens, who was a partial participant in practice on Saturday as he gradually works back from hamstring tightness, played against the Houston Texans on Thursday night. Ragland wouldn’t make any guarantees about playing in Friday’s second preseason game at Atlanta, but he spoke definitively about the Chiefs’ defense looking ahead to the regular season.
“Oh, we’re gonna stop that run,” Ragland said. “We ain’t playing this year about that run. We gonna stop it this year. Everybody has the right mindset.”
Last season, the Chiefs ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and tied for 23rd in rushing yards allowed per play during the regular season. Then they were gashed on the ground by Tennessee in the playoffs to the tune of 202 rushing yards on 31 attempts (6.5 yards per rush).
Ragland insisted this year’s group has the ability and coaching to stop the run, and their success will come down to attitude.
“We just have to be one, as a team,” Ragland said.
Ragland, a 6-foot-2, 252-pound human Mack truck from Alabama, missed the first 13 full-squad practices of training camp after his surgically repaired left knee swelled up following a trip to Mexico, where he was representing the Chiefs and promoting their November game against the Los Angeles Rams in Mexico City.
A second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2016, Ragland suffered an ACL tear in that knee during training camp in 2016. He spent that season on injured reserve. The Chiefs acquired him last August via trade with Buffalo. According to Ragland, the combination of the long flight and training on turf at elevation without a knee sleeve caused his knee to become inflamed.
That knee irritation prompted the Chiefs to hold him out of drills for the first part of training camp. He suited for the first time on Aug. 5, and he’s progressively taken part in more drills since.
“It was tough not to be out there with my guys the first couple weeks and everything,” Ragland said. “But everybody just kept telling me, ‘Man, just take your time and make sure you’re right when you come back.’”
Ragland credited Chiefs vice president of sports medicine and performance Rick Burkholder and his staff for getting him ready to return to the field. Ragland admitted he’s still dealing with soreness right now, but he added, “It’s football. If you can’t work through soreness, you might as well not play.”
While they haven’t taken the field for a game together, Ragland and Hitchens have spent plenty of time together. The bonding process has apparently gone well so far, with the two hitting it off, according to Ragland.
The two converse during meetings — they’re always talking, laughing. They’ve gone to movies and gone out to eat. Ragland described that acclimation as important because the time is coming when things go so fast on the field that he and Hitchens will have to know how to work off one another without thinking.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid hasn’t said, one way or another, if they’re likely to take the field together in a game this preseason.
“You’ve got to be smart with it; that’s just how it is today,” Reid said. “So we’re doing that. I just want to make sure those guys are right. They’re coming out and practicing, and we practice fast. So if (Ragland) can get out here and do that and gradually build himself up, we’ll just see how it goes from there. You want him to play, but you want to make it right.”