Willie Gay Jr. spoke to reporters about stepping up with his Chiefs teammates in a strong defensive victory.
The linebackers were supposed to be the biggest problem for the Kansas City Chiefs. Instead they might have provided the biggest source of inspiration. In a game that was expected to be an offensive shootout between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chiefs, it was the defenses that came up big for both sides, and a perilously thin group of linebackers for K.C. stepped up big in Week 16.
The Chiefs allowed the Falcons only 14 total points on Sunday afternoon in a 17-14 win that clinched the AFC’s top seed. The defense came up with one big play after another for all four quarters, which allowed a sputtering Chiefs offense to still put enough points together for the victory. From a strong secondary anchored by L’Jarius Sneed‘s well-rounded performance to the front line getting 12 hits on Matt Ryan, the defense earned a lot of accolades. However, the linebackers were the biggest surprise on the day.
Coming into the game, the Chiefs were already down starting linebacker Damien Wilson due to a knee injury that has kept him out since Week 13. Then word came that Anthony Hitchens, the Chiefs most reliable linebacker, was also going to miss the game due to being placed on the COVID/reserve list. With Dorian O’Daniel also on injured reserve, it meant that Ben Niemann and Willie Gay Jr. were going to start in the team’s base defense.
Then Niemann was forced to leave with a hamstring injury.
Coming into the game, Gay told reporters after the Chiefs victory that he felt the pressure even before the game to come up big but that was especially so after watching Niemann leave the field.
"“Hitch is a great leader. He really keeps all of us going, all the linebackers, every position. When he’s out, Ben Niemann does a great job. Today Ben went down, so it was like, ‘Okay, now we gotta be self-starters.’ I told myself I had to lead the linebackers the best way I could vocally and show it on the field, do my part, do my job, most importantly. We came out with a win, so it was a lot of fun.”"
Gay likened the linebacking corps to the Chiefs rookie minicamp, held last May, when the team was down to just himself and other inexperienced linebackers like Darius Harris and Omari Cobb. Both Harris and Cobb have been practice squad players for most of their Chiefs tenure, and both are former undrafted free agents—Harris from 2019 (Middle Tennessee State) and Cobb from this season (Marshall).
"“When Ben went down, I was like, ‘Man, it’s like rookie minicamp all over again.’ It was us three doing drills, running over plays. I told them this in the second quarter, if we win this game, it’ll be something special to not have none of the starting linebackers, but we did our job. Darius Harris did a great job at the end in the fourth quarter calling plays and doing his job. It was big.”"
Overall, the linebackers got the job done and Gay, in particular, earned high marks for his incredible athleticism and instinct for making a play on the ball. He led the team in total tackles with 9, one for a loss, and he had a forced fumble as well. He was happy after the game but made it clear he’s still focused on improving.
"“It was a lot of fun being able to play as much as I did. We was building on this week. It wasn’t perfect for me, but we came out with a win and I had a lot of fun. We had fun and it was a great feeling.”"
On the season, Gay has 38 total tackles, two for a loss, and 1 sack for the Chiefs in his rookie campaign.