KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Outside and inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense such as the scheme deployed by the Chiefs under defensive coordinator Bob Sutton have very different duties, and starting this season the groups have different coaches.
The reviews so far might make you wonder why the team didn’t make the change years ago.
“I think it is great just to have an outside linebackers coach,” linebacker Justin Houston said during the first week of OTA practices. “There’s so much we get to do now just focusing on ourselves and the little things we need to work on.”
Splitting the linebacker coaching duties isn’t revolutionary. In fact, the Chiefs drew inspiration from the 2012 New York Jets in splitting up their linebacker group.
Sutton served on that defensive staff under former Jets head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan promoted Sutton to assistant head coach in addition to his role as linebackers coach. Sutton worked with the team’s inside linebackers, and the club promoted defensive intern Mike Smith to lead the team’s outside linebackers.
“That’s how me and Sutton met each other, he was inside and I was outside,” Smith said.
Also on that New York Jets staff was defensive quality control coach was Mark DeLeone.
Now those same three coaches have shuffled the Chiefs’ linebacker room. Smith moved from his role as assistant defensive line coach last season to outside linebackers coach this year. DeLeone served as assistants linebacker coach last season under veteran coach Gary Gibbs. The Chiefs did not renew the contract of Gibbs during the offseason, and promoted DeLeone to inside linebackers coach.
“The neat thing with that is you’ve got three guys that have worked together with Bob, Mike and Mark,” head coach Andy Reid said. “They’ve really attacked that linebacker thing.”
Smith and DeLeone both bring distinct experience to their new roles. Smith earned all-Big 12 honorable mention as a linebacker at Texas Tech. The Baltimore Ravens drafted Smith in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. A series of injuries limited Smith to six tackles in his NFL career over four seasons with the Ravens.
He started his coaching career in 2009 as linebackers coach at the University of Hawaii. He spent three seasons with the Jets before returning to his alma mater as co-defensive coordinator and coaching linebackers and defensive line from 2013 to 2015. He arrived in Kansas City in 2016 as an assistant to defensive line coach Britt Reid.
Thanks to that experience, Smith understands the demands placed on outside linebackers in the Chiefs’ defensive scheme. Those responsibilities can mean rushing the passer, stuffing the run or dropping back in pass coverage in the span of three plays.
“That’s just how it is,” Smith said. “So to be a 3-4 defense in this system, which I’ve played in this system and I’ve coached in this system before, outside linebackers are asked to do a lot.”
DeLeone grew up as a football legacy. His father George started his coaching career in 1970, splitting his time between the college and the NFL ranks. He served as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns and spent 19 seasons on the sideline at Syracuse during two different stints. He’s now the offensive line coach at Baylor.
The younger DeLeone joined the Chiefs staff in 2013 as defensive quality control coach before earning a promotion to assistant linebackers in 2015. He started his coaching career as a student assistant at Iowa in 2007.
Reid believes growing up around his father in the game helped groom DeLeone for coaching.
“I think Mark has done a heck of a job,” Reid said. He’s got some new faces there that he’s working with. But he’s a good teacher. His dad’s a heck of a coach, a great character too. He’s kind of grown up with this thing and understands what it takes.”
With Sutton, Smith and DeLeone sharing their New York experience of splitting the coaching, it made sense to give it a try in Kansas City. The disparate roles and responsibilities of inside and outside linebackers often meant downtime for players in the group, Smith explained.
“When you’ve got both of them in the same room, you’re talking about inside linebackers, what are the outside guys doing? Now you’re talking about pass rushes. So in a 3-4 you have to separate them. It’s been a smooth process.”
So far, everyone seems happy with the new coaching configuration, starting with the man at the top.
“Splitting it up was good,” Reid said. “It’s a big job. Splitting it up has worked well.”
Houston agrees as well.
“I think last year, we had a lot going on,” Houston said. “You have to coach a lot of guys inside and out. It is hard to do that in the little bit of time you have. Now you have a separate coach, we can just focus on one thing, that’s us.”
The 30-year-old DeLeone brings a younger perspective to the linebacker room, which appeals to inside backer Reggie Ragland.
“Mark is younger like I said but he also understands us because he’s a little bit closer to our age,” Ragland said. “And we can talk about stuff I feel like I couldn’t talk to Gary about but for the most part Mark is doing a great job and everybody loves him inside the room.”
Ragland believes the change will translate to an improved performance on the field.
“It’s easier to focus in on what I had to do instead of what the outside backers had to do and I just sit there and look,” Ragland said. “I’m really excited about being in one room, and everybody else likes it too because they feel like they’re understanding their position and job better also.”