The numbers behind Ben Niemann’s struggles and why Anthony Hitchens isn’t the Chiefs linebacker to blame.
A few months back I wrote an article on the Chiefs secret weapons entering this season, and one of the players I listed was Ben Niemann (whoops), largely in part due to his special teams ability. However, I thought he fared well throughout the playoffs and made some big plays in the Super Bowl against the 49ers.
This season he has struggled mightily in the areas that the Chiefs claim to best like his game: pass coverage and blitzing. Ironically, out of college this is what many believed Willie Gay Jr. did best. Below we will dive into the numbers behind Niemann’s struggles, why Anthony Hitchens isn’t the Chiefs linebacker to blame, and how Willie Gay is the solution.
Due to Anthony Hitchens massive five-year, $45 million contract he signed in March of 2018, many fingers point to him as the main reason why the Chiefs have such a major hole at linebacker. In the past, the finger-pointing has been valid with Hitchens struggling immensely against the run and pass. However, this season has been a different story, for the first time since signing in Kansas City Hitchens is playing in the same scheme as the previous season. This has given a major boost to his production, reducing his missed tackle percentage down from 12% to just 5.4% and a 82.4 tackling grade (per PFF) which ranks 7th out of 55 linebackers.
The rest of the fingers point to Ben Niemann. In 2019, he was an average performer for a linebacker that played just 36 percent of the defensive snaps. Spagnuolo praised him this off-season for his improvement and said, “Ben moves around a lot better than people give him credit for” leading some to believe he was in store for an increased role that could lead to increased production. Neither of which is has come true.
Niemann’s role is seemingly the same and he is not producing on even an average level. He often looks lost in coverage and has been ineffective as a blitzer. This season Niemann leads the Chiefs in designed blitzes (50) which has resulted in one hurry, two quarterback knockdowns, and one sack. (This statistic does not take into account blitzes by defensive lineman).
In coverage, Niemann has allowed 10 catches on 13 targets and leads the team in passer rating allowed (142.5), yards per target (12.2), and yards per completion (15.8). All these numbers tell me is that Willie Gay Jr. deserves a chance to figure it out in coverage and should be utilized as a blitzer more often. Especially because these are the two areas where he shined in college. While I do understand that his athleticism is not enough to make up for mental lapses in coverage, he is our best option come Week 15 when Alvin Kamara is standing on the opposing sideline.
One last strange thing to note, last season Niemann proved to be a strong tackler with a missed tackle clip of just 5.4 percent. That number has jumped to 13.3 percent this season which is odd because Anthony Hitchens (5.4%) and Damien Wilson (5.3%) have been outstanding this season in that facet of the game. Tackling is what the Chiefs must improve in order to see a dominant run defense similar to the one we saw this past postseason.
This article is not intended to knock on Ben Niemann, as he has continued to shine as a valuable player on special teams, but rather to challenge the perspective behind Willie Gay’s continued low snap counts (19 snaps vs. Carolina) and put to rest the notion that Anthony Hitchens is a terrible football player. Ideally, with continued improvement, Willie Gay will eventually see the field in nickel and dime formations that are used to match the modern NFL passing game and the Chiefs will reap the benefits of doing so.