The Chiefs’ injury report has grown in size this month, as typically is the case this time of year in the NFL, and each absence presents its own challenges.
But one in particular alters the responsibility more significantly.
It’s looking more and more likely that the Chiefs will play without linebacker Anthony Hitchens this weekend at Tennessee. And regardless of the subjectivity of what they lose in production, they objectively must replace his most basic duty — play-calling. Hitchens wears the green-dot helmet, the one with an ear piece lodged in the side.
When defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo calls in the play, in other words, Hitchens is on the receiving end, at least when he’s on the field. But that will change Sunday in Tennessee.
“He’s the quarterback (of the defense),” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “It would be like an offense losing their starting quarterback.”
Per league rules, only one player on the field is permitted to wear the green dot helmet. When Hitchens leaves the field, Ben Niemann is often that Plan B. You’ll often see him sprinting to the sideline to exchange helmets — that’s the reason.
After Hitchens departed Sunday’s win in Washington with a triceps contusion that has kept him from practicing thus far this week, Niemann saw an uptick in playing time. He played 43 snaps, the most of any linebacker.
Nick Bolton played 39 snaps, and Willie Gay just 18.
“I thought Ben did a really nice job stepping in. He’s done that in prior games in the time we’ve been here,” Spagnuolo said. “We’ve got great trust in Ben. Nick’s out there (and) Willie. Between the three of them, they’re going to have to pick up the slack.”
The Chiefs showed some packages Sunday with only Bolton and Gay on the field. Spagnuolo said that was the plan going into the game, even before Hitchens left. What he didn’t say out loud: They’re making a point to get more athleticism on the field.
In those cases, they’re asking Bolton, a rookie who has played six career games, to make the calls in the huddle. Gay, still, should see an increase in snaps — that’s long been part of the blueprint as he returns from a turf toe injury that caused him to miss the first four weeks. It’s accelerated now, though.
“He’s getting back in the swing of things,” head coach Andy Reid said. “He did a good job. He’ll keep getting more (snaps) as we go.”