Chiefs snap counts: Broncos game shows why linebacker play is becoming specialized

Linebackers come in different shapes and sizes, and the Chiefs have kept that in mind as they formed a roster to suit the defensive needs of today’s NFL.

How exactly to deploy that stable of linebackers will likely continue to serve as the subject of debate among fans and pundits, but the past two weeks have shown just how important having diversity in that unit can be in matching up with the varying styles of play and wildly different personnel groupings used from week to week.

Exhibit A: Rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel garnered more playing time, 25 snaps, on defense against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 7 than he had in all the previous games combined. Against a heavily pass-oriented offense, the emphasis on speed and coverage ability has caused the traditional run-stopping linebacker to give way to the O’Daniel types or even a safety like Jordan Lucas.

Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained last week that the Chiefs wanted O’Daniel’s playing time to come in dime packages while he continued to learn the defense and his responsibilities in different packages. O’Daniel and Lucas were even on the field at the same time, playing in the tackle box against the Bengals in passing situations.

“We did it, and we’re going to continue to do it,” Sutton said on Thursday. “That was kind of the way we were going to try to get Dorian on the field more and just kind of work his way into the other one, but when (Terrance) Smith got hurt we said, ‘Guess what. You’re going to have to have know it by now because we’ve got to go that way.’”

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O’Daniel played almost as much as a defensive back as a linebacker in college. The coaching staff could afford to ease O’Daniel into playing time slowly with Smith serving as the safety net before his season-ending knee injury.

“I think we’ll probably have some growing pains with it, but I think in the end it’ll make us a more mobile, quicker team. It helps if a team is trying to put you in a tough matchup,” Sutton said. “You have two more mobile guys — guys that can both cover tight ends, can both cover running backs — and that’s a huge advantage.”

Lucas played linebacker in dime packages before, so the primary adjustment will be learning the Chiefs’ system and terminology. Sutton pointed out that when Daniel Sorensen first got to the Chiefs and started playing dime linebacker, it was a big transition and he got a lot of help from Husain Abdullah at learning that position.

Then came Week 8 against the Denver Broncos, and all that got put on the back burner for a week as the 6-foot-2, 252-pound veteran run-stopping linebacker Reggie Ragland played nearly twice as many snaps (54) as did O’Daniel (28).

The Broncos, who came into the weekend averaging the second-highest yards per carry of any team in the NFL, dictated the playing time by using a high volume of two-back sets with a fullback on the field, two-tight end sets and two-back and two-tight end sets which usually signal a desire to use a smash-mouth, run-oriented attack.

Against what amount to run-heavy personnel groups, the Chiefs usually prefer to match up with linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Ragland on the field. The 6-foot, 235-pound Hitchens, who sustained a rib injury against the Broncos, has been a three-down player on defense the coaching staff can communicate with from the sideline via a helmet transmitter.

For a week, the emphasis on speed was set aside in favor of bigger bodies geared to stopping the running attack.

“I think you see that in today’s world, teams are spreading you out then they pack you in,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Then they spread you out, and they pack you in. I think you have to have some flexibility with your linebacking corps there.”

Reiter rooted: Austin Reiter, the third starting center the Chiefs have used this season, played all 58 offensive snaps on Sunday against the Broncos. Left guard Cam Erving was the only offensive lineman who didn’t play every snap. He came out late in the game because of a shoulder ailment that was not considered serious.

Despite new faces on the offensive line, the Chiefs allowed just two sacks to a Broncos defense that came in with the second-highest sack total in the league — 22 through seven games.

With injuries causing shuffling at right guard and center, left tackle Eric Fisher, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and quarterback Patrick Mahomes are the only players to be on the field for all 519 offensive snaps.

Murray’s mark: Safety Eric Murray played 71 percent of the defensive snaps (52 of 73) against the Broncos though he did not start. Murray missed the New England game two weeks ago because of an ankle injury, but he played 37 percent of the defensive snaps against the Bengals last week. His playing time — he also 69 percent of the special-teams snaps against the Broncos — will be worth paying attention to with Lucas having started the past two games and Sorensen potentially returning to the safety mix.

Steady Sammy: Sammy Watkins played more offensive snaps (55) than any of the other wide receivers for the second week in a row. Tyreek Hill (48 snaps) came out of Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter because of a groin injury. Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce have each played 110 snaps in the past two weeks.

Watkins’ 107-yard performance on Sunday gave him 453 receiving yards on 34 catches through eight games this season. Last year with the Los Angeles Rams, he hauled in 39 catches for 593 yards in 15 games.

Lynn Worthy

Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Chiefs and NFL for The Star.

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