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Chiefs’ playoffs hopes may ride on two unlikely names

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“Started from the bottom, now we’re starting.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Started from the bottom, now we’re here

Started from the bottom, now my whole team relies on me

Started from the bottom, now I’m starting in the NFL Playoffs for the number one overall seed in the AFC.


It may not be quite as catchy as Drake’s hit, “Started From the Bottom,” but the overarching message is still the same.

The Kansas City Chiefs are in a unique position, being a favorite, or at least the highest seed, in the AFC Playoffs but having multiple players on the roster that are still vast unknowns. Every team deals with injuries and young guys coming up through the ranks during the season, but the Chiefs are a little different.

Down in the AP Laboratory, instead of looking back at the previous week and breaking down a player or theme, this week’s film focused on young or new players being thrust into a more prominent role.

Unsuspecting starters

At the beginning of the year, the Chiefs secondary boasted a fair amount of veterans and even some promising younger players on the depth chart. There are two names that were so far down that list, it’s unlikely many fans knew their names.

Of course, we are talking about cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Jordan Lucas.

Charvarius Ward

Ward was a late offseason addition from the Dallas Cowboys that was taken in stride as a depth or future move. The Chiefs had Kendall Fuller, Orlando Scandrick, Steven Nelson and rookie draft pick Tremon Smith ahead of him on the depth chart, as well as numerous safeties that could fill in as nickel defensive backs. Ward so almost no run through 15 weeks of the season, except special teams.

Then Week 16 rolled around.

Ward was given the go starting role heading into the Seattle Seahawks game and after it, Andy Reid had all the right things to say about him in pointing to him holding onto that job.

What he does well: Ward is a longer, physical corner, who when asked to play press coverage, does a good job getting hip to hip with a wide receiver and using the sideline to his advantage. In a Cover-1/3 scheme that asks their outside CBs to play inside leverage and use the sideline, he is right at home when allowed to play up on the line of scrimmage.

Ward’s ability to stay in-phase is also a big plus in his game, because it allows him to use his length to play the ball. The wide receiver does a good job getting a clean release on the inside, but Ward is able to recover, get to the upfield shoulder and maintain his hand on the hip of the wide receiver through the break. This allows him to slow down the inside cut enough to stay on the hip of the wideout and make a play on the ball.

Where he struggles: Ward is a long, high-cut corner that has good overall speed but his change-of-direction ability is very labored and makes it difficult for him to mirror a wide receiver, especially from off-coverage. Ward has to open his hips early when playing off to make the turn and accelerate with wide receivers downfield which then opens him up to underneath routes once WRs press him vertically.

With the stiff hips and slower transition, he is also susceptible to double-moves. Wide receivers can take advantage of Ward’s stiff hips by simply pressing vertically, and then snapping their routes off after the stem because they force him to open early to complete a turn and run. To take it to the next level, if a wideout wants to throw in a double-move, they can get Ward over the top as he has to over-commit to a hard break to defend the first move from a disadvantageous position.

Where he can improve: Ward’s hands on the jam need a little polish, but he does a good job using them downfield to help reduce separation and stop wide receivers from separating at the catch point. He actively keeps an arm on a wide receiver trying to influence his path and uses it to control breaks. Ward just has to keep his feet active off the snap so that he can be more effective and assertive with his hands during the first five yards and not be forced into using them downfield.

Overall, Ward is bringing a new element to the Chiefs cornerback room, as he has good size and the physicality to handle bigger wide receivers. He’s still limited as a press cornerback that can be taken advantage of when he’s forced to mirror wide receivers rather than run on their hip. He will likely see plenty of targets and of better variety than the last two weeks during the playoff run, which will be huge for the Chiefs to see what kind of future he has with the team.

Jordan Lucas

Lucas was behind veterans Eric Berry, Ron Parker, Dan Sorensen (once he returned), Eric Murray and rookie draft pick Armani Watts. There was almost no path for him to take the field as a defender until Berry remained day to day for what seemed like forever.

Murray was struggling and got dinged up, and in the very same game, Armani Watts went down only to go onto the IR. Lucas stepped in early in the season and flashed a far higher ceiling and even more consistency than the other safeties on the roster but quickly found himself back on the bench.

Upon Berry’s return, the likelihood of Lucas playing at all seemed slim to none, and then in the Seahawks game, he was named the third safety. When Berry had to leave the game, Lucas was the guy who replaced him and when Berry was inactive in Week 17, it was Lucas with the start.

Now, Lucas is in a more volatile position than Ward because if all things go well for the Chiefs, he is bumped back to the third safety. The issue is consistency in which Berry could be on the field, which likely means Lucas will be seeing some starter-like snaps at safety in the playoffs.

What he does well: Lucas has a good feel when playing in deep zones, keeping track of multiple routes and mirroring the quarterback’s eyes. He does a good job flowing from one receiver to the next and going through his keys when playing deep. He also adds quality ball skills onto that deep coverage making him a solid free safety option for the playoffs.

Another area that Lucas excels in is as a man coverage option when a safety has to spin down over a receiver or tight end. He has the athleticism and change-of-direction ability to stick with wide receivers and shifty running backs but is willing to be physical enough to contend with tight ends as well.

Where he struggles: Jordan Lucas is a converted cornerback, so like the majority of players in that mold, he isn’t used in the box, ideally. The Chiefs current defensive scheme often rotates safeties from deep to down in the box based on pre-snap motion (although, that’s been changing a little this year) and when Lucas is forced to play more as a strong safety, he is out of his element. He has a smaller frame and if he has to break down, slow his feet and square to tackle at a thicker running back, it doesn’t always go well. He often has to use his momentum from crashing downhill or dive at knees to make tackles.

Where he can improve: Lucas is pretty good filling in the run from the deep safety position. He does a good job coming downhill, finding which lane the running back is targeting and putting his hat in that hole. The issue is that it comes with losing run-fit responsibility at times and when he is kicked down into the box, he has that same mentality to attack the run. He’s trying to mirror the running back like he would when playing deep and is too willing to abandon his run fit when doing so.

Overall, Lucas has still played like a top-two safety on this team when given the opportunities, but he still has a distinguishable difference in where he is best and worst used. If Berry is healthy enough to play, Lucas could be a very worthwhile weapon as a third safety, either taking tight ends or playing deep while the Chiefs go back to moving Berry around more often.

If Berry is unable to play, the tandem of Lucas and Sorensen is the best and most versatile pairing the Chiefs have run out this year, and Lucas has a chance to put his stamp on that in the playoffs.