Nick Bolton vs the Chargers: earning trust and showing progress
Looking at how the Chiefs' rookie linebacker has improved in a short time as a pass defender while maintaining his overall impact.
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If someone had told me this time 4 days ago that Nick Bolton would get 99% of defensive snaps in a game where Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann were healthy, my immediate reaction would have been “I don’t believe you.”
That is only partly because of the rookie linebacker himself. Bolton has impressed when given opportunities this season. In fact, I wrote in early November (after Bolton saw his playing time jump with injuries at the linebacker position) that both he and Willie Gay Jr. had earned the lion’s share of the defensive snaps, despite Bolton having work to do to iron out his pass coverage snaps.
Since that time, though, Bolton’s snap count has remained limited with the return of Anthony Hitchens and the increased role of Gay. Hitchens and Niemann have been generally relied upon in particular on downs gearing towards pass defense (nickel/dime looks), with even Gay (a vastly superior athlete whose instincts and speed shrink the field) coming off the field for certain looks. So when Gay was forced to sit out Thursday’s game due to COVID protocols, Bolton (whose struggles in coverage have been exploited at times) seemed destined to continue to be the 3rd linebacker.
Instead, Steve Spagnuolo chose to give Bolton all but one snap, including as the sole linebacker (sharing the field with Dan Sorensen in a hybrid role) on nickel/dime snaps.
This marked a drastic change for the Chiefs, both with how they treat young linebackers (who they hesitate to rely on) and how they allocate their “coverage” snaps (historically relying on Hitchens and Niemann, much to the frustration of the fanbase and this author). Seeing Bolton out there constantly was a huge surprise and a wonderful opportunity against a good passing team to vet Bolton’s progress as a pass defender and his ability to be an impact guy as a full-time player.
And in his first big time opportunity to demonstrate such things, Bolton didn’t disappoint.
There were multiple plays made by Bolton on Thursday night that were noticeable on the broadcast. He broke up 3 (THREE) passes from the linebacker spot, one of them (the above snap) leading to an interception. This obviously wasn’t a traditional coverage play, but it’s worth noticing how quickly Bolton recognized that it was an RPO (or perhaps just plain-old play action) and converted into rushing towards Herbert. It’s also worth noticing how he realized he wouldn’t get home and smartly got a hand in the air after tracking where Herbert was looking to throw. A fine play overall.
However, the biggest questions that Bolton answered Thursday night came on coverage snaps. How would he handle being alone in space against running backs or tight ends, whether it be in man (not a common assignment for him) or zone (much more common? Would he be able to sift through receivers running through his zones and read the quarterback’s eyes fast enough to close down passing lanes or contest passes? Perhaps most importantly, would he show discipline on fakes and keep himself from being moved out of position?
All of those questions are relevant, because they were areas he struggled earlier this year. He was picked on in coverage in several games, including a few times against the Chargers themselves. Perhaps due to this, he was tested multiple times throughout the game, including the first drive.
The result of this play matters, of course. On 3rd down, a pass being broken up forced the Chargers into 4th down (where they failed to convert). However, it’s the process that’s more important here for purposes of looking at how Bolton has progressed.
Bolton is dropping into zone here, with responsibility to help erase quick throws into the middle of the field but also help shut down throws up the seam by being in the passing lane. The Chargers run an interesting concept here, with the slot receiver looking like he’s trying to break to the outside or make a pick, but then breaking towards the back of the end zone. However, that takes time to develop, and Melvin Ingram gets some pressure on a stunt.
In the meantime, Herbert is going to what appears to be the first read, a quick slant to Mike Williams. He has inside leverage on the cornerback, and in theory there’s space for him to make the catch and either be at the goal line or power through for the score. That doesn’t happen because of Bolton, and that’s where the process matters.
Watch how Bolton handles his eyes and reaction on this play. At the snap he takes a quick look at the receivers to his right, trying to see where their route combination is taking them. Then he focuses on Herbert to try and read his eyes and see where the throw is going. He sees the throwing motion start and immediately shifts into contesting at the catch point, arriving strong right after the ball gets there and delivering a big shot that causes Williams to drop it.
Try to imagine if Bolton takes half a second longer to ID the route and the throw here. That’s a touchdown if he’s a moment later. And that’s where the progress Bolton has made this season shone through on Thursday. He didn’t hesitate and was immediately in the process of breaking on the catch point as soon as the throw started. That wasn’t the case earlier in the season, and it resulted in Bolton being out of position multiple times when the ball arrived.
Bolton isn’t a gifted lateral athlete or a burner who can make up for a false step, and it got him exploited earlier in the year. On Thursday, he was consistently “sped up” in reading the play around him and reacting, regardless of the assignment.
On one of the most crucial downs of the game (a 4th and 2 later in the game) the Chargers drew up a play designed to take advantage of the Chiefs’ lack of coverage linebackers with Gay out (something they did with success earlier in the year, as did multiple other teams). They spread the field and Bolton is left alone in space against a tight end. The tight end runs a quick out route with the idea of gaining just the necessary yardage to keep the drive going. Look at the leverage there. The play, in theory, drew the matchup it was intended to and got the look it needed.
However, Bolton does an excellent job recognizing where the route is going and driving on it immediately. He takes advantage of a throw that was a bit behind the receiver (a great throw may have resulted in a completion) and physically contests at the catch point, knocking the ball away. This play is demonstrative of how a player who reads and reacts quickly to what is going on can make up for being an average lateral/burst (at least when not moving downhill) athlete.
This is the PRECISE sort of snap the Chiefs didn’t trust Bolton on earlier in the season, and he passed the test with flying colors. He’s never going to be a great coverage ‘backer due to his athletic toolset, but by processing quickly and reacting accordingly he can do the job well enough to be a genuine 3-down player who isn’t a weak spot that can be exploited.
This is a pretty mundane zone coverage snap, but that’s sort of the point. Again, we’re talking process here, not result (a chunk gain for the Chargers).
Bolton is asked to help patrol the middle of the field. The Chargers try to utilize play action to try him and the other linebacker up the field. Notice that while he takes a step up and over, he quickly recognizes that it’s play action and moves to get depth while ID’ing where a receiver might be entering his zone. That shuts down the initial path for Herbert over the middle of the field. Bolton does a better job getting real depth here than he was earlier in the season, and his mental processing looks improved as well.
You can see Bolton watching and responding to the routes as they develop. Watch as he starts (prior to seeing Herbert make the throw down the field) to shift back to the delayed shallow crosser, a route that often comes open when underneath zone defenders get sucked into intermediate routes. It’s nice recognition by him, and again, something he looked much more comfortable doing Thursday than he did earlier in the season.
That play action fake is relevant, as Bolton struggled a great deal earlier in the year taking multiple false steps towards fakes. On Thursday, he showed a marked improvement in his speed of reaction and getting himself in position in coverage. That’s a huge progression by him, because (as stated earlier) he’s not the sort of athlete (like Gay) who can take a false step and then recover with raw speed and acceleration. Him seeing where the play is going and reacting on time can help him in coverage situations he couldn’t have handled earlier in the year.
This is the sort of assignment Bolton perhaps couldn’t be trusted with earlier in the year, being asked to not get sucked in by play action and then following his man across the formation going the opposite direction of the threatened run play. His improved patience and processing keeps him from getting wrong-footed, and he shuts down the initial read for the quarterback.
Bolton being a player who can stay on the field on passing downs would be a big development, because his stopping power as a tackler is something the defense desperately needs.
This is a play that should be a win for the offense; Spreading the field and getting their running back 1x1 in space against a lone linebacker. It’s the sort of play that Austin Ekeler has made a career out of winning, as he’s so tough to bring down alone.
Bolton is an exceptionally strong tackler, though, even when coming in hot against a very good player. He’s one of those players who seems to just have unusual “weight” and the ability to stay wrapped up on arrival, and he stops this play for a minimal gain.
The Chiefs have been a much better tackling team over the last few months, and Bolton (along with Gay) can be a big part of the solution at the second level by stopping plays in their tracks rather than allowing for multiple extra yards gained after initial contact.
Bolton still has things to iron out as a pass defender. His processing and recognition could take another step forward, which would allow him to compensate even better for physical limitations. However, there’s going to be a ceiling for him in this area.
It doesn’t look like Bolton does anything wrong here, getting a little depth and moving laterally to take away the seam throw and the curl. If he were to read the play perfectly here he would be a half-step faster to start to close on the running back, and it would be a perfect play from him. Instead, it takes him a moment (though not a long one) to see it, and you can see that getting the angle to stop the play can be a problem for him to the sideline.
In other words, Bolton needs to read plays correctly and quickly or he’ll get exploited. That’s exactly what happened earlier in the season. Against the Chargers, he was quick, comfortable, and on time on the vast majority of his zone reads and it made a tremendous difference. He’s a sharp player, and his improvement is remarkable in a short time. But there will always be a fine line for him to walk, and he’ll always need to have his assignments a little more limited than an athlete like Gay.
However, with his improvement in processing and with the defense compensating for his skillset (something they have to do with Hitchens regardless), Bolton was able to be overall a plus player in coverage on Thursday. That’s a massive development for a rookie who struggled there earlier in the year, and allows the Chiefs to keep a player who is highly impactful at the line of scrimmage on the field if it continues.
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And make no mistake, Bolton is an impact guy at the line of scrimmage.
Bolton isn’t perfect as a run defender. He’s not consistently able to shed blockers at the second level when they get to him and can be washed out of the play that way. However, he’s a already a plus-player in that area who consistently explodes downhill, gets to the right gaps with power, and finishes very strong. He’s also excellent moving down the line on plays like the one above.
We’ll see where things go from here for Bolton. One game isn’t predictive, and he still has work to do. But he’s been a productive player every time he’s stepped on the field, and to show (at least in one performance) such a big step forward in a problem area is a big, big deal. The coaches have clearly seen that step forward mentally as well, given that they went with him over a pair of players they’ve consistently trusted in those roles in previous games.
Hopefully, this was a preview of what is to come for Bolton, and when Gay (who again, is a wildly important player for the Chiefs with his athleticism and physicality) returns, it at least appears that the smart move is for the Chiefs to start the future at linebacker now. And the impact those two can have at that second level of the defense moving into the most important phase of the season is… well, it’s exciting, and should be fun to watch.