Chiefs ‘didn’t skip a beat’ after a top defender went out with injury. Here’s why

Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has had past situations where losing his middle linebacker was a huge deal.

That player does so much. He’s the communicator and the signal-caller, while also serving as the bridge between the linebackers and secondary players.

So when Chiefs defensive leader Nick Bolton went down with a wrist injury in October, it might’ve been a time in previous seasons when Spagnuolo would’ve pared down the calls to make things easier on his backup.

That hasn’t been the case this year, though — not with free agent signing Drue Tranquill filling in at Bolton’s spot.

“We didn’t skip a beat with Drue,” Spagnuolo said. “We’re really fortunate we got him.”

The latest example was this past weekend. Tranquill tied for third on the team with eight tackles against the Las Vegas Raiders, while his 92.0 Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade was highest among all Chiefs players, offense or defense.

“I’m getting more comfortable each week,” Tranquill said. “I think when you learn a new defense, obviously things are moving fast early on. And as you get more reps, you get more opportunities at it. Things start to slow down a little bit.”

One example of that has been on run fits. Tranquill said he understands his run responsibilities better than a few weeks ago and is starting to recognize how defenses try to attack both the Chiefs defense and his middle linebacker position.

“You just see reoccurring plays happen,” Tranquill said, “and you can kind of see them before they happen out there on the field the more reps you get at it.”

So what has made the 28-year-old Tranquill, who leads the Chiefs with 71 tackles, so effective?

For one thing, he’s sharp. Spagnuolo said from his first days with him in KC, he could tell the linebacker was “a cerebral player.”

“The most impressive thing to me has been that you can give a guy that much volume in the first year in any system, and he’s kind of excelled,” Spagnuolo said. “He hasn’t gone backwards. That’s been the impressive thing to me.”

Chiefs safety Justin Reid, who joined the Chiefs as a free agent before last season, says what Tranquill has done isn’t easy. The middle linebacker not only is responsible for the defense’s checks and audibles, but also often helps get the defensive front set.

“It’s a lot on the mental side of it,” Reid said. “But then to also pair that with the physical ability to go in and attack centers, beat running backs on blocks, tackle tight ends, and sometimes guard receivers too, he has done a phenomenal job for us to be able to come in and do it.”

Tranquill also plays fast.

That shows itself in two different ways. Not only is he literally fast — he wowed some teammates in the preseason when he was one of the first finishers in sprint drills — but he also reacts quickly on the field when plays shift around him.

Tranquill displayed some of those skills during a fourth-quarter stuff last week, charging into the backfield on a fourth-and-1 to wrap up running back Josh Jacobs’ legs for a two-yard loss.

His weekly PFF grade wasn’t just strong among Chiefs players. The 92.0 mark was third among all NFL linebackers in Week 12 and also the best single-game tally of his career.

And though Bolton is expected back soon from his injury, Spagnuolo said one thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed is how Tranquill has played in his absence.

“I know his teammates love him, and I love what he’s doing for us,” Spagnuolo said of Tranquill. “I can’t say enough about Drue.”