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Charvarius Ward and Herb Miller are battling for a starting cornerback role

The Chiefs may have an outside cornerback battle on their hands

NFL: Preseason-Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the few storylines coming out of the Kansas City Chiefs preseason matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers last Saturday was a sudden battle at one of the Chiefs’ boundary cornerback positions. Even though Charvarius Ward started the game opposite Bashaud Breeland, the second series saw Herb Miller enter the game in that spot.

Before then, Miller hadn’t seen much time with the first team — yet he found himself out there with the likes of Frank Clark, Chris Jones and Anthony Hitchens. Miller and Ward continued to rotate through the second-team defensive snaps — clearly giving defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a good look at both players in similar situations.

With new cornerback Morris Claiborne serving a four-game suspension at the beginning of the year, one of these two players will likely be the starter for the first quarter of the regular season. Today we’ll take a look at the good and the bad from both players coming out of preseason week two.

Charvarius Ward

Ward showed up immediately in this week’s game with a big third-down stop in the first series.

With the Steelers sitting on a third-and-two situation in their own territory, Spagnuolo shows pressure pre-snap. Ward lines up with inside leverage. The condensed split to the boundary forces him into off-coverage. Since the defense is showing pressure in a short-yardage situation, the secondary knows a pass is coming out quickly. Ward is prepared to break underneath — and he shows patient footwork to keep the receiver square on his release.

On the receiver’s vertical release, Ward opens with a man turn to the boundary. Juju Smith-Schuster breaks on the out route, but Ward’s turn allows him to drive on the out route quickly. He’s able to stay in phase with the receiver and use his long arms to obstruct the receiver’s vision and force a stop.

Ward also made a big play to stop a scoring drive — coming up with a goal line interception against the Steelers’ second-team offense.

In zone coverage, Ward has to read the bunch formation and is responsible for the number one receiver out of the bunch. Two clear out routes — coupled with a pivot route — leave Ward with the responsibility for a quick transition against a slot receiver underneath.

Ward does well to sort through the interior routes and picks up the angle while it’s still on the out. He keeps his eyes in the backfield and feels the break — a poor one with an extra step — then stays in phase with the receiver back inside. Ward keeps his eyes on the quarterback and is able to see the poor throw. He sees the ball in for an easy interception and then uses his speed to get free for a big return.

Ward’s transitions in coverage tend to be stiffer and slower than most of the other cornerbacks on the Chiefs roster, so plays where he’s able to break on routes and stay in phase are positive developments. But his issues with transitions weren’t completely absent on Saturday.

One of the attributes that Spagnuolo desires out of his cornerbacks is a good click and close — the ability to recognize a route underneath and drive quickly to the catch point. Unfortunately, Ward has struggled with this so far.

Against a 3x1 set from the offense, Ward plays bail technique and flips his hips to protect against a vertical route on the boundary. The apex defender collides with the number two receiver, then transitions to the flat to pick up the running back out of the backfield. The number one receiver runs a deep out with the apex tucked in, leaving a nice throwing lane for the quarterback.

With no vertical routes being threatened from the number two or number three receivers, Ward needs to transition to the number one receiver — especially with the apex on the running back in the flat. When the number one receiver hits his break, Ward is slow to transition; he can’t explode downhill to attack the catch point. The receiver makes the catch just inside the boundary.

In preseason Week 1, the Cincinnati Bengals attacked Ward underneath with curl routes and quick outs. This week, the Steelers were also able to exploit the space underneath Ward on a handful of occasions. Since Spagnuolo relies on a zone-heavy scheme, it’s something that bears watching in this week’s matchup.

Herb Miller

Miller’s first series of the game was an eventful one. He started with a big turnover that showcaed his aggressiveness and ball skills.

Miller plays with outside leverage and stays patient through the receiver’s stem. He jams the receiver at five yards and opens his hips, leaving separation. He peeks into the backfield as the ball comes out and he’s late to drive to the catch point.

He does, however, collapse on the player for the stop and he throws a strong punch to the ball. He jars it loose, and linebacker Damien Wilson is there to scoop up the fumble.

Perhaps Miller’s best play of the week came on the next series — a play that should have resulted in another turnover for the Chiefs defense.

Miller again has outside leverage. He does well to mirror the receiver’s stem. He keeps Smith-Schuster inside his frame, opening his hips to turn and run while keeping leverage. The receiver comes out of his break and Miller is able to plant hard and transition well with the receiver.

Smith-Schuster slips on the break, but Miller remains in phase and is able to find the ball in flight. He extends a hand to the catch point and pops the ball into the air for a pass breakup. Ben Niemann locates the ball, but is unable to come down with the interception.

Miller has shown comfort in Spagnuolo’s zone scheme — particularly defending underneath routes. But this week, he showed a major flaw on the boundary.

Miller isn’t the fastest player on the field. Against the Steelers, this lack of speed showed up on a couple of occasions.

Late in the first half — when the Steelers needed to throw the ball — Miller gives plenty of space against a tight bunch formation. The number one receiver releases vertically. Miller shuffles well to gain depth. The receiver throws a shoulder shimmy to sell an out, but Miller doesn’t take the bait and flips his hips to run with the vertical.

Miller is even with the receiver at the 30-yard line, but finds himself two yards behind the receiver at the 40-yard line. The quarterback underthrows the ball, so Miller is able to catch up and bring the receiver down after the catch.

Miller’s lack of vertical speed is concerning, because it limits what Spagnuolo can run with his boundary cornerbacks. In this Cover 3 look, Miller is responsible for the deep third of the field. The deep safety is limited to the ground he can cover in this single-high look. So if Miller can’t run with the faster receivers in the NFL, this could spell disaster.

If Spagnuolo has to rely on split-safety looks, that limits some of his ability to put defenders in the box for stuffing the run and covering shallow routes. Miller’s lack of speed is less of a problem in split-safety looks, but if he’s on the field, it limits what the coordinator can do.

The breakdown

Most thought that Charvarius Ward was the clear leader to start for at least the first four weeks of the season. That still might be the case, but Herb Miller’s snaps this week show that Steve Spagnuolo isn’t done tinkering with the lineup just yet.

Ward’s length and straight-line speed are going to be key on the boundary, as it gives Spagnuolo a cornerback he can trust to carry a receiver vertically down the field. However, Ward’s struggles with clicking and closing downhill to the receiver are going to limit what types of schemes Spagnuolo can run.

Conversely, Miller’s footwork and comfort in a zone scheme are great fits for what Spagnuolo wants to do against short and intermediate routes. His aggression and ball skills can result in some big plays in those situations. His problem, however, is that he doesn’t have the vertical speed to carry speedy receivers down the field — something Spagnuolo would have to remedy with a safety over the top. That too will limit what the defense can implement in their coverage calls.

As you can see, it’s a tough situation. In its most basic form, Ward would give up fewer big plays, but offenses could keep drives alive by attacking him underneath. Miller would be significantly more comfortable with a lot of his zone responsibilities, but is a step away from giving up big yardage — and maybe points.

I think Ward will keep his outside cornerback position until Week 5 — when Claiborne becomes available. But if Ward sees some struggles, don’t be surprised to see Miller inserted into the lineup.

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