Offenses have blurred the lines between wide receivers and tight ends, between running backs and wide receivers. The letters next to a player’s name on a roster have become little more than window dressing, and defenses across the NFL, including the Chiefs’, have been forced to play catch-up.
That’s why late in last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, the Chiefs relied on rookie Dorian O’Daniel as one of the players in the center of the defense as they desperately tried to shut down quarterback Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ passing attack. O’Daniel serves as an example of how physical characteristics and skillset far outweigh where players have and haven’t lined up in the past.
Matchups, and how a coaching staff navigates them, dictate playing time and to some extent a defense’s success. In this age of offenses turning every possession into fast-break basketball on grass, the Chiefs’ have adopted an it takes a village approach at the linebacker position.
“The more the offenses spread out and the more that the tight end is not a primary blocker by himself, that also changes the style of football that you’re seeing,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “It’s not a knock-your-socks-off kind of deal.
“I think that’s what you’re trying to figure out: How are we doing this? The worst thing you can get is in a position you’re mismatched. If they know you’re mismatched and they can isolate that mismatch, it’s really challenging to help all the time.”
Two of the four inside linebackers on the Chiefs’ roster are rookies, and both of those first-year players have started games this season. Undrafted rookie Ben Niemann and O’Daniel, a third-round draft pick, largely played detached from all that traffic in the middle of the field where speed and quickness were paramount.
Playing a different game
For players like O’Daniel and Niemann who’ve been moved to new positions, there’s an adjustment period as they learn how to view the game from a different vantage point.
“I was playing, essentially, what Kendall (Fuller) plays here when we go nickel,” O’Daniel told The Star, referring to the Chiefs’ starting cornerback who defends slot receivers. “Because of skillset change and it being more receivers in the slot, I’m playing inside linebacker, but there are situations where I could be covering tight ends, running backs or third receiver out of the backfield.”
Niemann played both a hybrid linebacker/defensive back on the perimeter and as linebacker in the box (between the tackles) in college. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Iowa product also more closely fits the physical profile of a traditional linebacker. By comparison, Chiefs starter Anthony Hitchens is 6-feet, 235 pounds, while his partner in the middle Reggie Ragland stands 6-foot-2, 252 pounds. The Ravens’ C.J. Mosley — starting middle linebacker for the top-rated defense in the NFL — is 6-2, 250.
The Chiefs list O’Daniel as 6-1 and 220, yet he has played inside linebacker in 11 games (one start), smack-dab in the middle of the defense. He not only uses his pass-coverage skills but also navigates a labyrinth of pulling guards, dogged centers, down-blocking tight ends and anything else an offense might throw at an interior defender.
“One of the things that was good about Dorian coming out of college was there was evidence of him in the box,” Chiefs inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “It’s hard sometimes to project that onto somebody who hasn’t done it. That was a nice thing with Dorian, is I saw him do it. I felt like he was natural, and he really is — in the box — he naturally understands it. He is undersized, but he plays bigger than his size.”
Earlier in his pro career, Hitchens played both the inside and outside linebacker spots for the Dallas Cowboys. What may look like a small difference on a television screen, one position to the other, changes a player’s perspective significantly.
“When you’re outside the box, you’re not keying guards (when you’re) walked out,” Hitchens said. “I just think (the biggest difference) is your keys. You go from reading the end of the line of scrimmage to reading guards and backs.”
Ragland has played in the middle since his days at Alabama. He said at times you can see the difference in players who’ve come up playing the middle and those who’ve made a transition.
On the perimeter “it’s like running in open space,” and a player might run backward in order to make a play. In the middle, players must be ready to go from one sideline or the other sideline and differentiate angles of the running back. Then there’s dealing with blockers.
“When you’ve got a monster in the middle at guard, sometimes you’ve got to learn just to keep their hands up off of you,” Ragland said. “There’s really a technique to doing that. Some guys can sit there, hold the point and just throw them off. Some just feel like you’ve got to touch them and swipe their hand up off of them and make the play. It’s just really what’s comfortable with you and what you like doing.”
By necessity, the middle linebacker position is now almost like a baseball bullpen, with players being called upon to fill a particular role at a particular moment against a specific opponent.
In a two-game span in games against the Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders, Ragland went from playing just 10 percent of the defensive snaps against the Rams to 47 percent in Oakland.
“It’s all about, I guess, the matchups,” Ragland said of his playing time. “Coaches are going to go with whatever they feel like is the better matchup. Whatever the team wants, I’m with it. I’m trying to win. Whatever helps the team win, I’m all for it. So I just gotta keep finding ways to get on the field. I’m never going to go against the team.”
In successive weeks, O’Daniel played 54 percent of the Chiefs’ defensive plays against the Rams, 43 percent against the Raiders and just 17 percent against the run-oriented Ravens.
While Hitchens ostensibly serves as the three-down linebacker who stays on the field regardless of probability of run or pass, he too comes off the field in some pass-oriented packages that include safety Dan Sorensen at linebacker next to O’Daniel.
“The way the league is going is fast smaller personnel and passing,” Hitchens said. “Most teams don’t like to run the ball. It is what it is. That’s the NFL now. You’ve got to either adjust or you won’t be in it for long.”
Chiefs defenders only need look to their teammates on the other side of the ball to see examples of how offenses in the NFL have evolved.
Running backs in the Chiefs’ offense will split out wide like receivers. A wide receiver like Tyreek Hill lines up in the backfield and runs routes out of a running back alignment. Tight end Travis Kelce is basically a supersized wide receiver who splits out wide to create mismatches all over the field.
“A lot of the tight ends in today’s NFL are not typical tight ends,” Sutton said. “They’re big receivers. They’re the guys you get out of college, and that’s the way the college tight ends are in general. That’s forcing you to think about, ‘OK, how are we going to cover these guys because this is as much a receiver as he is a tight end?’
“Then of course a lot of people are looking at the backs in a similar method. They’ve got a back that some people say he’s the third down back. His specialty is come in and he can be a route runner. He can be out of the core and be out as a true wide receiver. You need people to match those up, really not only just in man coverages but in zone where they can drop the ball short and you need speed to respond to those kind of catches and those kind of systems of offense.”
In the Rams game, the Chiefs defense faced just 17 rushes aside from scrambles by quarterback Jared Goff. Earlier in the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they faced a grand total of 13 rushes compared to 60 pass attempts.
Numbers like those are why Sutton believes it’s clear that the best way to force turnovers is quickly becoming through the passing game. That means stripping the ball from the quarterback or going up and getting the ball while it’s in the air.
Sutton also points to the last three or four years, where offenses have shifted to using three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back 70 to 75 percent of the time. In order to match up, the “nickel” and “dime” defenses are played more often than the traditional base defenses — the 3-4, in the Chiefs’ case.
With so many players bringing unique skillsets to their positions, personnel and matchups become so individualized that a defense doesn’t just change from one week to the next, it changes from one play to the next.
“You’re making judgments on why those guys are on that team,” Sutton said. “They’re on that team to do this for them. That’s what they bring to the game for them. We may have to have one D-lineman that’s primarily a run guy. They’ve probably got one tight end that’s primarily a blocker. So those are what you’re really trying to put together as you’re matching up your talent against their talent when they’re on the field.”