The Kansas City Chiefs started off the Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons with the two linebackers at the top of their depth chart ruled out of the game. Anthony Hitchens remained on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Damien Wilson dealt with a knee contusion.
The plan was for third-year linebacker Ben Niemann to wear the green dot for the defense, but he would be injured early on in the game. Just like that the Chiefs were down to three linebackers who’d seen very few snaps at the NFL level. They were thrust into what would typically be a compromising situation, but two of those linebackers were up to the challenge.
“I give Darius Harris a lot of credit,” Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo told reporters on Thursday. “He practiced all week long at the SAM linebacker because we anticipated Ben being the MIKE and then all of a sudden he had to switch, but he’s put a lot of time into things. Last year when he was on IR, he spent a lot of time learning. I thought he performed pretty well. From a check standpoint, he did a pretty good job with that, and that’s what the Mike linebacker needs to do. So, was it a little hectic early? Yeah, but we kind of settled in and I thought he did a nice job.”
Harris was hyped up by Chiefs GM Brett Veach when he was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019. Veach considered Harris to be a future starter at the position and it seems that he proved himself to the coaching staff in Week 16. To play your first snaps in the NFL and act as the quarterback of the defense is a pretty impressive feat. He did so without making many mistakes and added a fumble recovery off of a fumble forced by rookie LB Willie Gay.
Harris should see more playing time in Week 17, alongside Gay, who saw the most snaps of his career against the Falcons. Just as Harris did, Gay proved himself in a big way to the coaching staff with his performance against Atlanta.
“Same thing,” Spagnulo continued. “What Willie does is he plays fast — He plays fast and he’s physical and that’s what you want in your linebackers. There’s still a learning curve here, I think that’s true of anybody that plays that particular position in Year 1. And again, I go back to not having the offseason and whatnot, but we’re getting him caught up. He’s certainly going to see a lot of football now, and that’s a good thing for him.”
These snaps are helping to build a foundation for the future at the linebacker position for Kansas City. Players like Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann set to become free agents in 2021. If these young players continue to capitalize on their opportunities, the possibilities are endless for the type of impact they could provide.