Few things have concerned me more this preseason than the cornerback situation (well, outside linebacker, but let’s not talk about that right now, OK?). After both Seattle and Los Angeles seemed to pass at will on the Chiefs, it was hard not to get uneasy about the players lining up to replace Sean Smith.
Phillip Gaines, the guy everyone expected to take Smith’s spot opposite Marcus Peters, didn’t practice during a great deal of training camp and had yet to make an appearance in a preseason game (rumors that he was struggling to come back from injury kept creeping up among fans). Steven Nelson, the second year CB assigned to replace him, seems eager but hasn’t impressed. Marcus Cooper has hurt us before. D.J. White, while promising, is a rookie. And everyone else (including much-hyped rookie KeiVarae Russell) looked like they weren’t up to the task at times even against second and third team receivers.
So it was with a great deal of relief I heard that Gaines was finally going to suit up against the Rams (for those of you who don’t know, I’m about as big a Gaines supporter as you’ll find). Following the game, when I asked fans what player they would like to review, Gaines won by a narrow margin beating out Chris Jones and Justin March.
Of course, it’s exceedingly difficult to review a corner’s play without all-22 film, and the NFL (for some reason) doesn’t provide those views in the preseason. So I can’t provide the usual wins / losses charting I would normally bring to the table reviewing a corner. What I CAN do is talk a little about how Gaines looked from a limited view and what that potentially means for the Chiefs.
First of all, I watched Gaines in on 10 snaps. He played every snap of the first Bears drive, then was swapping time with Steven Nelson. The very first snap I SWEAR it looked like Gaines pulled up limping after the play, and my heart went into my throat. Fortunately, after that I didn’t see (again, in a limited view) any sign that Gaines was coming back from an injury.
A big part of Gaines’ ability comes from the fact that he has good quickness and exceptional speed. Because of this, he’s able to jam aggressively at the line of scrimmage with his oddly long arms without worrying about getting beaten deep. I kept a close eye on Gaines to see if he still seemed able to turn and run with receivers without any difficulty. I’m very happy to report that it still seems to be the case. On several snaps I saw Gaines press at the line, then turn his (always smooth) hips to run side-by-side with the receiver out of view (again, darn you NFL for not giving me all 22!).
I also saw Gaines press as aggressively at the line as he ever has, which I take as a good sign. If you don’t trust your leg to hold up, one would imagine it would affect your physicality at the line of scrimmage against receivers. This didn’t appear to be the case, and Gaines also engaged blockers as physically as he ever has (that is to say, not very, but he makes a good show of it at least).
This is a difficult thing to describe, but Gaines didn’t look like a guy who still has physical limitations out there. However, I didn’t get a chance to see him genuinely tested in coverage, as the only time he was targeted the throw was off.
This is the only time Gaines was targeted in 10 snaps. Take from it what you will, seemed in position, throw was off pic.twitter.com/KjIXBJHFyC— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) August 28, 2016
If I were to over-analyze that play, I guess Gaines was in position to contest the throw (had it not been, you know, an awful throw) and was close enough in coverage that the ball needed to be put in a pretty specific spot for a completion. He also looked OK in his backpedal and was fine laying a hit on the receiver.
Of course, without seeing the crucial moment on that play (when Gaines had to change directions and close), we can’t say for sure just how healthy he looks. Frustrating, no?
What I can say for now is that Gaines, from all we can see, looks like he’s ready enough to play. Considering there are still a couple weeks of healing and practicing (thus gaining confidence in the injured leg, a major obstacle for some players), that’s really good news for the Chiefs.
Having Gaines back has a domino effect. First, it means that Steven Nelson (probably) doesn’t have to start and play every snap, which based on what I’ve seen may be a good thing. Again, without all 22 it’s tough to say for sure, but Nelson seems to let guys get separation more often than I’d like. Of course, that may change when he’s allowed to be physical more frequently (press seems to be his bread and butter), but I’m much more comfortable with Gaines’ ability than Nelson’s.
Second, it bumps everyone else one more spot back in the lineup. The third CB is no longer Marcus Cooper or D.J. White, it’s Nelson. Every spot gets a little bit better down the line with the insertion of Gaines. I’m not comfortable with Peters / Nelson / White out there. Peters / Gaines / Nelson? That’s a much more palatable group in my opinion.
The Chiefs defense has taken a lot of heat this preseason and responded by dominating a talent-starved Bears offense. That’s a good first step toward regaining their form from last year, as is getting Phillip Gaines back. Hopefully his return and the defense’s coinciding return to form are a sign of things to come.
And hey, since this article was rather light on GIFs, let’s allow Chris Jones to play us out...