It had been a tough season for Reggie Ragland.
A starting linebacker with the Chiefs last season, Ragland was inactive for the first two games this year and logged 19 defensive snaps over the next four contests.
But when Ragland’s number was called Thursday, he responded with one of the best games of his career in the Chiefs’ 30-6 victory over the Denver Broncos.
Ragland scooped up a fumble by Joe Flacco and returned it for his first NFL touchdown. He also recorded a sack. It was part of an inspired effort by a defense that had been getting handled in recent weeks.
Against the Broncos, the unit stepped up ... and so did Ragland, who switched from middle to strong-side linebacker.
“The whole year I’ve prepared the right way to be ready for this moment,” Ragland said. “I have great teammates. My mom and family were praying for me. I knew eventually my time would come.”
Ragland appeared to be squeezed from the linebacker rotation earlier this year. The Chiefs started with Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Darron Lee.
Coach Andy Reid said early on the the Chiefs considered Ragland a starter — he started 15 games last season — but newfound depth at the position and the fact that Ragland didn’t play many special teams snaps were factors in his inactivity.
“I didn’t let my early-season struggles get to me,” Ragland said. “I knew just had to keep going and be the best version of myself.”
That was evident on social media, where Ragland kept on posting upbeat messages.
“Better days are ahead,” Ragland tweeted from his account on Sept. 14 after not playing in the Chiefs’ opener at Jacksonville.
After the Denver game, as replays of his touchdown filled his Twitter feed, Ragland responded, “Blessed and thankful!!!”
The switch to strong-side linebacker against the Broncos, a move made by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, brought out the best in Ragland, Reid said.
“The way he (Spagnuolo) used Reggie, moving him to the SAM linebacker position, I thought Reggie really responded well,” Reid said. “He really was a bigger factor, more than people know. You saw Hitchens make a lot of tackles, but Reggie was part of that by working the different gaps and getting in there. It allowed Hitch to play off of him a little bit.”
The linebackers worked together on the fumble-recovery touchdown. The Chiefs rushed Hitchens and Ragland from the left side. Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay slid to block Ragland, but only momentarily. Hitchens arrived unblocked to force the fumble, with Ragland in an ideal position to collect the ball and rumble six yards to the end zone.
“I came in on a blitz and I saw their running back, so I knew I had to go under because I knew Hitch (Hitchens) was coming in behind me,” Ragland said. “I saw Hitch run in and then I saw the ball pop up, so I just scooped it up and scored.”
The play early in the second quarter was huge. Just moments earlier, Patrick Mahomes sufffered a dislocated right kneecap and would not return to the game. The Chiefs’ lead was 13-6 at the time of Mahomes’ injury. Ragland’s touchdown turned it into a two-score game.
It was biggest moment in a game for the former Alabama All-America since his interception of Tom Brady in the end zone during last season’s AFC Championship Game.
Ragland nearly scored on a 67-yard interception return of Oakland’s Derek Carr in the Chiefs’ 2018 regular-season finale.
The big moments have been there for Ragland. The idea now is to continue to be ready when his number is called.
“I just know I have to keep going and be the best version of myself,” Ragland said.