Pretty much everything was working for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football — and part of it was a Christmas surprise Steve Spagnuolo unwrapped for the game: slot cornerback Kendall Fuller getting a lot of looks at safety.
Since returning from injury, Fuller has been playing a vastly reduced snap count while slowly working back into the lineup. His usage during that time has changed quite a bit. Tyrann Mathieu has become the primary nickel or slot cornerback, which has left Fuller out in the cold. Fuller has mostly been dropped into deep zones — and sometimes used as a sort of psuedo-safety from the slot. But however he was used, it was still in a relatively limited capacity.
Against the Bears, Fuller’s usage took a pretty big turn. Not only did his snap counts increase, but he resembled that of a traditional safety — and Fuller had his best game of the season.
With his coverage calls — and the ways he uses his players — Steve Spagnuolo has long been a pretty innovative defensive coach. Now he’s found a way to use Fuller more effectively.
So let’s take a quick dive into some of Fuller’s film from Sunday.
Kendall Fuller has had a resurgence as a safety/nickel back hybrid. Early on in the transformation it was just occasional deep half-field drops from the slot but vs Chi he got some true S reps.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 24, 2019
- CF in Man Free
- IDs mesh early
- Cut call made
- Drives downhill for the tackle pic.twitter.com/SLjhJBXjRQ
In some of the looks where Fuller played as a pure safety, some were as a true centerfield safety.
Here, the Chiefs are running Man Free (Cover 1) with Fuller as the only deep safety; everyone else is in man coverage and there’s a linebacker to spy on the quarterback. The Bears have a perfect play dialed up: a mesh concept with some shallow crossing routes.
But Fuller reads it like a book. Quickly identifying the play, he makes a cut call. This lets Charvarius Ward know he can slow-play the trail through the traffic — looking to impact throwing lanes — while Fuller is driving downhill on Ward’s man as he crosses the middle of the field. At the completion, Fuller is right there to make the tackle, which forces a punt.
Fuller’s ability to quickly process the Bears’ passing concept, communicate an adjustment and drive downhill to finish the play was impressive for a new safety convert.
Another Man Free rep as a center fielder, this time off play-action and gets challenged deep— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 24, 2019
- Leverages the field w/ hip tilt from boundary hash
- Tops #1 receivers on either side
- Works to field hash as the Over route develops
- Squares on the Sail route to drive on it pic.twitter.com/qtbCFbwBAe
Here’s another Man Free rep with Fuller as the deep safety — but this time, he is defending deep rather than crashing down on an underneath route. Getting a natural feel for playing in deep zones is probably the biggest transition that cornerbacks who move to safety have to make — and Fuller looked pretty good on this rep.
He leverages the field space well by tilting his hips to the field side but stays on the boundary hash in case the wide receiver on that side goes vertical. As that receiver crosses the field — reducing his vertical options — Fuller works him while staying on top of the most vertical threat: the field wide receiver. Fuller even goes as far to keep his hips angled, staying balanced to drive on the Sail/Corner route if the ball is released that direction.
Given the pressure and movement of the quarterback, Fuller doesn’t jump off the screen; it’s likely he didn’t impact the play at all. But this is the kind of rep that speaks to the coaching staff’s trust in Fuller as a safety. They believe they can isolate him in that position because they trust his ability to excel as a deep zone defender.
Modified 2-Read for the Chiefs on this play but with the #2 WR to the boundary going under, Fuller is able to drop back into the high hole— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 24, 2019
- Tops the TE as he crosses under
- Drops to cut under field #2 WR up the seam
- More accurate throw = INT pic.twitter.com/pbs9E7iTpI
This play is a little less about Fuller playing safety; it’s more about Spagnuolo’s coverage versatility. But this rep is still a positive one for Fuller.
Lined up as an apex defender over the tight end, Fuller is matching the number two receiver — the tight end — in this modified 2-read coverage. As the tight end releases underneath, Fuller first stays over the top. But as he crosses into the hook defender’s zone, Fuller drifts back into the high hole that is often filled by a linebacker in Tampa-2 coverage.
The Chiefs have often utilized safeties from deep zones (and the slot) in this role. You can really see how it affects a quarterback looking at the opposite side of the field. Had the throw been more accurate, Fuller would have been likely to undercut the receiver and get himself an interception.
Fuller is a high end run defender from the slot and it likely plays a role in why the Chiefs feel confident in trying him as a S— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 24, 2019
- Apex over a TE, Fuller has contain
- A pulling OT works over to him
- Fuller keeps his outside arm free to hold contain
- Fights through contact pic.twitter.com/3LUdGv5Crw
In the last couple of years, Fuller has been one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league against the run. This is likely part of why the Chiefs feel confident using him as a safety. While he doesn’t have the size and strength to stack blocks — he’ll likely never stack up a pulling lineman in the hole — he has the tenacity to stick his nose in there.
On this play, he has to keep contain while attempting to squeeze down the C gap, helping the defense flow to the play. Fuller does a good job keeping his outside arm free as he steps into contact, which helps him keep contain if the running back bounces outside. After the initial push — a tripping blocker helps — Fuller keeps fighting, working back to the runner and assisting with the tackle.
The bottom line
Kendall Fuller’s return from injury has been a nice surprise.
Ever since he arrived from the Washington Redskins, he has really struggled with the Chiefs — at least compared to the expectations we had for him. He has always excelled when the play stayed in front of him, allowing him to drive downhill using his quickness and football IQ. But playing with the Chiefs, he has been in positions where he has also had to defend vertically. That didn’t always go as well.
So when he returned from injury, he couldn’t return to his previous job as the starting slot corner; the Chiefs had moved on. With Mathieu playing so well in the position, the Chiefs looked for new ways to incorporate Fuller. All year, the team has experimented with dropping Fuller deep from the slot — along with other disguised coverages — but after a few weeks using him as a second slot cornerback, the Chiefs tried him as a traditional safety against the Bears.
Fuller did well in his reps as both a safety and a cornerback. But the most impressive part was how comfortable he looked playing as a true centerfielder. Even though it was his first opportunity to play safety full-time, whether playing deep or driving on plays underneath, Fuller was able to make an impact.
If he continues to show a natural feel for the position, it wouldn’t be too much of a shock for Fuller to continue in this role. If he continues to do well, he could really earn some extra cash this offseason — whether it’s from the Chiefs or another team. The NFL covets players who have the versatility to play as a safety and also kick down into the slot.
This was a small sample, so we’ll need to see more. But in his first showing, this was a promising reboot for Kendall Fuller.