One of the items often overlooked during the course of an NFL regular season is potential improvement from the inside. We have become so transfixed on how to better the team by trading for one piece or another that we sometimes miss what is happening right in front of us.
Sure, there are many issues with the Chiefs defense right now — but one of the few positives in their 31-24 loss to the Houston Texans came from the play of Juan Thornhill, who had four tackles and an interception in the game.
I NEED YOU TO STOP WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING AND WATCH THIS. KC brings a blitz off the edge. Fuller their fastest WR gets a free 10-yard release. Juan Thornhill stays with his stride for stride locates the football and makes the pick. Incredible ability. #JacobsEyeInTheSky #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/m9YbpqK6v0— Nick Jacobs (@Jacobs71) October 15, 2019
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the interception was on fourth-and-1 from the KC 40, so Thornhill probably should have batted the pass down instead of catching it. But isolated from down and distance, the athleticism Thornhill showed to make the play was incredible to watch.
“I’ll be perfectly honest with you: when he caught it, I was fired up for him to catch it, too,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo of the play. “Then quickly, when I realized where we were, we now had the ball [and it had been] fourth down. My guess is that it would have taken a real savvy veteran that’s been back there for a long time [so] that it all registers to knock it down. I think it was a really good job covering.
“They caught us in man. They took a shot. I don’t think that’s what they really wanted to do, but they saw an opportunity — and Juan took it away. So I was happy for him on that.”
Pro Football Focus called Thornhill the Chiefs’ highest-graded defensive player for his efforts in the game. Asked about what changed, Thornhill explained that his mind has finally caught up the speed of the pro game.
“At first, it was like I was out there thinking a little bit,” said Thornhill. “I wasn’t playing fast and then last game, I felt like I was pretty comfortable and the game was just like slowing down for me, and I actually felt it, and I started to see a lot more, and that just allowed me to make plays on the football.”
Thornhill felt that accumulating six games under Spagnuolo made the difference.
“I came into that game feeling a lot different,” said Thornhill. “I feel like I knew our defense a lot more. I feel more confident in everything, so that was the biggest thing—just going into that game with more confidence that I have usually have because I feel like I know our defense.”
Thornhill’s fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu, who discussed the recent adversity on Tuesday, was brought on to not only perform in his own right but also help rookies like Thornhill come along faster than they otherwise might have. According to Thornhill, that is working.
“I just felt like it was time,” he added. “Getting the repetitions in-game and also being able to play next to guys like Tyrann — he’s been into this, so I’ve been following in his footsteps, and he’s been leading me in the right direction.”
The Chiefs travel to Denver to play the Broncos on Thursday night. They won’t have defensive tackle Chris Jones and they will likely be without cornerback Kendall Fuller.
But let’s not overlook that they will have this version of Thornhill — the one who said he’s flipped the switch.