Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ Defense Can Survive Without Willie Gay Jr.

Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove (USA TODAY Sports)

When someone mentions the Kansas City Chiefs, the first thing that comes to mind is their ridiculously talented offense led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid. Who can blame them? Every Chiefs highlight for the past three seasons has pretty exclusively featured Mahomes throwing absolute bombs to his litany of weapons at awkward arm angles that make everyone over the age of 30 wonder if they should grab some ice for their own shoulders after simply watching.

However, for perhaps the first time in the Mahomes era, it’s the defense that has grabbed the fair share of headlines during this year’s camp and preseason. Now, before we go any further, this is not an indictment of the offense. Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy still have that locomotive churning along at full speed, but the defense has not backed down this summer.

Day after day the defense showed up in team drills, and that momentum carried over to the three preseason games. In those games, the first-team defense played a total of nine drives and allowed just three points, an opening-drive field goal from the Vikings in the final contest. The praise has come pouring in for the usual standouts, like defensive tackle-turned-defensive end Chris Jones, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, and All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu.

It’s the lesser known commodities that have also turned heads this past month. One of those players, second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr., finally displayed his ability to be an every-down linebacker capable of chasing down opposing tight ends and running backs all over the field, a type of talent missing from the middle of the Chiefs’ defense since the departure of Derrick Johnson following the 2017 season.

Mahomes and the high-powered offense finally had a defense that can run with them. That was until the Chiefs announced on Sept. 2nd that Gay would be placed on the injured reserve, shelving the Mississippi State product for the first three weeks of the season at a minimum. Gut punch.

Chiefs fans saw the potential of Gay in this defense towards the end of last season. Drafted in the second round of 2020, Gay was brought along slowly by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo throughout his rookie campaign, steadily increasing his snaps until week 16, when he finally played half the team snaps, producing nine tackles and a forced fumble against the Atlanta Falcons. Then came week 17, when Reid rested most of his starters with the No. 1 seed in the AFC locked up. Gay suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter and couldn’t finish the game, missing the first two playoff contests. He later tore his meniscus in a practice leading up to the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, ending his season.

Days later, the football world watched (and Chiefs fans cringed) as Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones combined for 196 total yards, while tight end Rob Gronkowski Hulk-smashed multiple footballs into the end-zone turf during his two-touchdown performance in the Super Bowl. It was clear the Chiefs just didn’t have the ability to match up with the Bucs’ runningbacks and tight ends up and down the field, and Tampa Bay knew that.

Fast-forward seven months, and many of the Arrowhead faithful harness the same fears with Gay on injured reserve. Can the Chiefs’ defense survive without him? The idea of facing Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert in a row in the first three weeks doesn’t help either. PANIC! EVERYBODY PANIC!

Take a deep breath, sit down, and relax with some of your favorite Joe’s Kansas City BBQ. It’s going to be alright. This defense is far better equipped to handle the loss of their star linebacker this time around.

The depth on defense for Kansas City this season is vastly better than it was last postseason without Gay. The defensive line was far from consistent, the linebackers were over-matched in roles exposing their weaknesses, and the secondary was missing a key contributor. Today, all three levels of the defense are better equipped to help fill the hole left by Gay Jr.’s absence, specifically due to three key additions.

1. Jarran Reed, DT

When Reed refused a contract restructure with the Seattle Seahawks in March, the line of teams attempting to sign the former second-rounder was long, as it should be for an interior lineman coming off a 10.5-sack season. Reed fielded multiple offers but in the end turned down more money for the opportunity to play alongside his old Seahawks teammate, defensive end Frank Clark, and perennial All-Pro Chris Jones. In fact, the Reed addition was even more welcomed by Jones, as his desire to switch positions from defensive tackle to defensive end was now made possible. Moving Jones to the outside opposite of Clark and pairing Reed with emerging young interior talent such as Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Warton, and Khalen Saundersgives Kansas City the deepest defensive line they’ve had in years. Adding another three-down force like Reed inside allows the linebackers behind him a clearer lane to the ball carrier, which is welcome news to the linebackers replacing some of Gay’s snaps who are undersized, such as Ben Niemann and Dorian O’Daniel.

2. Nick Bolton, LB

When Bolton was drafted out of the University of Missouri in the second round of the 2021 draft, many penciled him in as the eventual replacement for starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens once his contract expires after the 2022 season. Until then, he could provide depth. Most were hoping that added depth wouldn’t be tapped into by week 1 already, but here we are. However, Bolton brings a skillset neither Niemann nor O’Daniel possess: size and power in defending the run. Deploying Bolton in early-down situations can help replace the missing production Willie Gay Jr. brought in the run game. As for his missing value in the passing game….

3. Juan Thornhill, S

I know, I know, Thornhill isn’t exactly an addition to the roster, but his 2020 season was marred by a lingering ACL tear in his knee from the 2019 postseason. He never was the same explosive center fielder in the free-safety position we saw from his rookie campaign. This preseason, however, all signs point to Thornhill returning to form. How does this help fill the void left in Willie Gay’s absence?

Spagnuolo’s defense relies heavily on three safety sets, and when Thornhill was demoted from the starting lineup last year, too many players were slotted out of position. Daniel Sorenson was asked to cover tight ends and some slot receivers – definitely not his forte. Meanwhile, Mathieu was needed more often than not to patrol the middle of the field, again not his most impactful position. With Thornhill back at free safety, Mathieu can spend more time in the box, picking up the toughest assignment between the tight end and slot receiver, leaving Sorenson to the second option. Simply adding Thornhill into the mix allows for the defense to make up for Gay’s absence in obvious passing situations.

Losing a defender who can impact the game as much as Gay does can be devastating, and to last year’s defense it at times was. But with a shrewd free-agency signing, solid draft pick, and returning talent from injury, the Chiefs’ defense can weather the storm in the beginning of the season until their promising young linebacker returns.

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