KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs defense accomplished one goal in a 27-3 loss to Tennessee, holding the league’s leading rusher Derrick Henry to a modest 86 yards on 29 carries, and no one played a bigger role in that achievement than rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, who recorded a combined 15 total tackles including four behind the line of scrimmage.
“We emphasized stopping the run,” Bolton said. “We knew the type of running back they have over there. Our D-line did great upfront, and our linebackers were downhill all day. We were able to minimize the run game and explosive runs and kind of made them pass the ball a little more.”
An injury to starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens put the spotlight on Bolton Sunday. He started the game assigned the “green dot,” identifying him as the player receiving the call from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in his helmet and relaying it to his teammates. As the “Mike” linebacker, Bolton also held the responsibility of ensuring his teammates lined up in the right positions.
Bolton has already taken on a larger role than the Chiefs expected in his rookie season. Spagnuolo envisioned Bolton earning more playing time as the season progressed, and the Chiefs drafted the former Missouri Tiger with an eye toward him taking over from Hitchens as the leader of the linebacker corps in 2022.
But Bolton ranked fourth on the team in defensive snaps through the first six weeks of the season, taking the field 71 percent of the time. That’s more than any other linebacker including Hitchens. With 55 combined tackles on the season, he’s on pace for 134 total stops, which would easily surpass Derrick Johnson’s 96 tackles in 2005 for best by a Chiefs rookie since at least 1987. It would also put him within striking distance of the top 10 most tackles by an NFL rookie in the last 35 seasons.
If Sunday served as a glimpse toward the future with Bolton at the Mike position, he showed he can handle an expanding portfolio with no problems.
“Just calling plays was pretty much the difference,” Bolton said. “Everything else was pretty much the same week to week. Hitch helped me out throughout the week and helped me get comfortable to go out there and play this week. So, a testament to him for that.”
Tackle statistics are gelatinous at best even in the NFL. Most statistics prior to 1987 are inconsistent at best. The Chiefs don’t even list most tackles in a game in their club record book. But Bolton’s afternoon on Sunday certainly ranks up among the best for the Chiefs in recent history.
Bolton’s 15 combined tackles are tied for third-best for a Chiefs player since at least 1987. Only Napoleon Harris (18 in 2007) and Donnie Edwards (16 in 2000) recorded more in a game. Edwards (2000) and Eric Berry (2014) also registered 15 combined tackles in a game.
His four tackles for a loss are tied for the most for a Chiefs player since at least 1999. Justin Houston (2013 and 2016), Duane Clemons (two in 2000), Scott Fujita (2004) and Marvcus Patton (2001) all posted games with four tackles for a loss.
No Chiefs rookie has ever pulled off either feat until today but that didn’t seem to faze Bolton.
“I just took it as any other week,” he said. “I was just trying to be the best person for our defense that I can be.”
Despite Bolton’s best efforts on Sunday, the Chiefs came up short in falling to 3-4 on the season.
“I knew coming in that every game’s not given, it’s earned,” Bolton said. “You just have to earn wins in this league. We just have to continue to do that, continue to get better, and come in next week focused and ready to play.”