KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann stood at his locker answering questions from a crowd of reporters gathered about his first NFL start when fellow linebacker Reggie Ragland walked past the group
“Steamin' Niemann!” Ragland bellowed out.
One start into this NFL career, and Niemann already owns a nickname from his teammates that reflects the all-out effort with which the rookie plays.
“Man, Steamin' Niemann was the truth,” Ragland said.
Niemann served as the biggest surprise during the Chiefs' 26-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday. Starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens was limited in practice during the week, but he seemed likely to play. After all, Hitchens played while nursing his bruised ribs last week at Cleveland.
But when Niemann came out with the first-team defense during warmups on Sunday, everyone knew what the rookie suspected during the week.
“I kind of thought I was going to play,” Niemann said. “Just going through the week it was kind of communicating with how Hitch felt, and then he wasn't going to be able to go. I was just ready the whole week.”
Sunday's start marked an incredible journey for Niemann since not hearing his name called during this year's draft. The former Iowa linebacker signed with the Chiefs as a free agent and entered training camp looking to make an impression.
“Back then I was just trying to make the team,” Niemann said.
Make the team he did. He picked up 17 total tackles during the preseason with an interception return for a touchdown and two other passes defended. He made the team primarily as a special teams player and a developmental player at inside linebacker behind Ragland, Hitchens, Terrance Smith and Dorian O'Daniel.
In his first NFL game at the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1, Niemann tweaked his hamstring, an injury that would keep him on the sideline for two games. And with Smith now on injured reserve and Hitchens dealing with bruised ribs, that opened the door for Niemann.
“Definitely happy to be in this position,” he said. “There was a lot that went into getting this far, so I'm happy to be here.”
Niemann shined in his first NFL start, finishing with a team-high six unassisted tackles. At first glance, head coach Andy Reid thought Niemann played well.
“I thought he made a few plays in there and did a nice job,” Reid said. “I’ll have to look at it, look closer. He’s kind of tucked in there in the mess. I thought for the most part he did okay. Great experience for him.”
“Ben's very smart, man, physical too,” Ragland said. “I'm happy for him to come out there.”
The modest rookie downplayed his tackle numbers on Sunday, attributing merely to more opportunities.
“It's different when you're playing defense and special teams,” Niemann said when asked about leading the team in tackles Sunday. “You're on the field more and you're going to be in more opportunities to make plays.
Niemann spelled Hitchens briefly last week versus the Browns, and on occasion he looked a bit lost, turning to Ragland for help on position. But Niemann looked much more comfortable and confident on Sunday against the Cardinals.
“If you're taking practice reps versus just kind of getting throw in there on game day,” Niemann said. “I think that definitely helps because I practiced more,” Our ones are getting the looks and the work. With me getting some of those looks during the week that helps.”
But Niemann admitted feeling a bit worn out after the game.
“I was still on on four phases of special teams, so I got a little tired out there, but it was good,” Niemann said. “You want to play, you want to take as many snaps as possible. So I had fun out there.”
Fun seems to be the operative word. Niemann certainly plays with enthusiasm and fire. Ragland said the defense seemed to be missing that carefree attitude at the beginning of the season. Now with young players like Niemann contributing, Ragland feels the defense is now finding its identity.
“I feel like the first couple (of weeks) we were playing too much into it, just trying too hard,” Ragland said. “Having fun with it, whatever happens, happens. It's football. We've been playing this game too long for us not to have fun with it. It's a child's game, and we're grown men playing it.”