It had been a while since two Kansas City Chiefs safeties had an interception in the same game.
The last time was September 25, 2016, when both Eric Berry and Daniel Sorensen had a pick against the New York Jets — a game in which the Chiefs picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick six times.
Then there was November 15, 2015 against the Denver Broncos — the day Manning set the NFL’s career passing yards record and also turned in a passer rating of 0.0. Berry and Ron Parker both grabbed an interception as the Chiefs picked Manning (and then Brock Osweiler) a total of five times.
So when Chiefs safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill both picked off Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr during Sunday’s 40-9 beatdown of the Raiders, it wasn’t something you see every day — something that wasn’t lost on the quarterback for either team.
“It definitely started the game off the right way and got the momentum in our favor,” said Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes after the game. “We scored [after the first interception by Mathieu] with that touchdown — and then we fell short on the fourth down. With [Thornhill’s] pick-six, it made our job easy as an offense to move the ball down the field and score points.”
In the other locker room, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was still shaking his head.
“Mathieu just fell off of his responsibility and made a great play. In that type of coverage, I think I’ve completed that ball to Darren Waller a lot this year; we’ve made that play a lot. You drop back and as soon as you release the ball, you feel good. Then you see number 32 fall off and make a play. I don’t want anyone to take away anything from the play he made, because it was very impressive.”
Carr described Mathieu’s play perfectly. He saw an opportunity to make a play and took it — the kind of thing you expect to see from a veteran safety.
“Once I see something, I just see it,” said Mathieu in the locker room. “Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t.”
But Mathieu said that preparation played a big part in what he — and the rest of the defense — were able to do.
“I think the biggest thing is that we knew that when he did take shots down the field, we were able to understand it pre-snap by the formation — and it would put us in a position to make a play,” he explained. “Derek Carr is going to try to take care of the football. Tight ends, running backs, check-downs — that’s kind of his game. I was glad that we were able to capitalize on him when he did try to throw the ball down the field.”
“We just studied — studied all week,” added Thornhill. “He wasn’t really giving us much. We were just doing what we have to do and doing our job — and it was allowing us to make more plays.”
Thornhill’s interception in the second quarter came after he and cornerback Bashaud Breeland had noticed something in the Raiders formation and were signaling to each other before the snap — something that CBS commentator Tony Romo highlighted for the TV audience after Thornhill jumped the route, intercepted Carr’s pass and returned it for a touchdown.
“I was just doing my job,” said the rookie safety. “I saw the receiver break in. I took the opportunity, jumped it and took it to the house.”
That’s just the way Romo saw it, too. And while Romo spent much of the game talking about the effect the weather was having on both quarterbacks, Carr wasn’t interested in blaming the two interceptions on the cold — or the wind.
“It wasn’t a factor,” said Carr, “because I don’t want to take anything away from the plays that they made, to be honest with you. They made two great plays. If it was 80 degrees or 30 degrees, it doesn’t matter. Those two safeties made two great plays and I tip my hat to them.”
“You’ve got to give them credit — that is a good defensive team,” said Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. “They do a lot — and they came in with a very unorthodox package. They mixed their coverages and mixed their looks. We had some opportunities, we just did not cash in on them. They did. That is a big part of this game.”
Gruden isn’t the only opposing coach who is noticing. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about Mathieu during his conference call with Kansas City reporters on Tuesday morning — per the Kansas City’s Star’s Herbie Teope.
“He’s a very instinctive player,” Belichick said of Mathieu. “Not a real big guy, but a tough kid for his size. Really, pound-for-pound, one of the toughest players in the league. Physical guy. Really good instincts — can close at great quickness and anticipation to get to the ball. He’s a very productive player. I have a lot of respect for him. He gets in on a lot of plays — and he’s a very, very instinctive player. Juan Thornhill has done a great job for them, too. So they’ve got two — plus Sorensen — they’ve got good depth at that position. Those guys give them a lot of good plays.”
And when the Chiefs face Belichick’s Patriots on Sunday, they’re likely to need more of them.