There was poor tackling ability and effort all over the field in the first two weeks of the Kansas City Chiefs 2020 season. All levels struggled with finishing ballcarriers to the ground, and a few individuals stood out — including one young, promising player that went through rehabilitation to recover from a torn ACL this offseason.
It’s OK to acknowledge that second-year safety Juan Thornhill has not looked like the best version of himself so far. Not only was his injury late in the calendar last season; he also didn’t get any preseason action to help him work into the swing of things quicker for the regular season. He’s a sharp player, so the intelligence hasn’t gone anywhere — but Thornhill can feel his natural limitations.
His All-Pro teammate helped him identify and recognize the effects of post-ACL surgery life on a football field.
“Talking to Tyrann (Mathieu) about it, he’s been through it two times, and he told me there’s going to be some times I would be so close to making a play but I’m going to be a little short just because the fact that I’m not comfortable and I’m not where I was,” Thornhill explained in his Wednesday press conference. “I just have to remind myself like, ‘it’s going to come, just be confident’ because that’s the main thing. If you’re not confident in your ability, you’re not going to make any plays at all. So, I just see myself getting better each week and just pushing myself even harder each week in practice and hopefully, I’ll start making more plays.”
He definitely made more plays in Week 3.
He led the team in total tackles while also registering a run stop. He earned a quarterback hit for his first official pressure of the 2020 season. He also looked like more of a stout tackler. Currently, he has the second-most missed tackles on the team with four, according to Pro Football Focus. He only missed one against Baltimore, and the team as a whole saw missed tackles go down.
Thornhill knew he had to play better. He was critical enough of himself to believe that other coaches would bench him for his play in Week 2.
“Well first of all, I just like to say thanks to my coaches, because with the game I had, the second game I missed a lot of tackles,” Thornhill began about his play in Week 2. “Some coaches they just give up on you and just try to take you out of the run game since I missed so many tackles, but they had faith in me, they still kept me in there and allow me to go in and redeem myself and actually put me in there in those run fits to make those plays to show that I’m still there. I definitely feel like I’m getting back to where I was, it’s just all about confidence, making those plays just showing myself that I could do it.”
Just as Thornhill gets closer to full recovery week by week, the defensive unit gets nearer to its full potential. They may be dealing with injuries to other key players, but it’s about playing with the physicality and calculated aggression that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo expects.
As they have gotten their legs under them through three weeks of play, they have improved. Spagnuolo, Mathieu, defensive end Frank Clark, and now Thornhill have all acknowledged the early, ugly stretches on their side of the ball.
“Coming into Week 2, I just feel like we didn’t come in mentally prepared,” Thornhill admitted. “We were just lackadaisical, and guys weren’t ready to play and that’s what it showed on the field. Guys were missing tackles, guys messing up on the signs, but going into Week three guys, went into practice with a whole different mentality thinking we’re going to stop the run, we’re going to make those tackles, we’re going to make those plays that we didn’t make in the past week. So that was just one of the main things that we focused on and it showed.”
Thornhill has yet to come away with his first interception of the season — but he’s had opportunities to make plays on the ball.
This play has stuck with me this week. We know Thornhill is a ballhawk, showed it in his rookie year, and had the perfect opportunity to get his first pick of the year here.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 24, 2020
I get he may still be recovering, but is this seems like more of a mental lapse than a physical #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/oIvjl1PsoP
As he talked about in his Wednesday presser, he looks to be very close to making a play but is just slightly off, resulting in an allowed catch. He’s in the right position, but the quick explosion needed in to make a play in that scenario is understandably tough to have at this point in his situation.
There was also an opportunity for a press breakup at the least against the Baltimore Ravens. Tight end Nick Boyle caught a touchdown pass with Thornhill in tight coverage on him. It appeared that Thornhill had a slim chance at intercepting the pass, let alone deflecting it away.
In the eight targets he’s seen in coverage this year, he’s yet to break up a pass. He wants to make these plays on the ball, but he’s learning to be patient with the process he’s going through.
“You know a [defensive back]’s dream is always to catch interceptions and that’s my biggest thing,” Thornhill emphasized. “But I’m not going to do anything extra, just do my job and hopefully the balls start coming my way and I’ll make those plays because once you start trying too hard, that’s when you start making mistakes. If you just focus in on your technique and do what you’re supposed to do those balls will come.”
In his rookie season, Thornhill didn’t nab his first pick until Week 6. From then on, he tied with Mathieu to lead the team in interceptions with three. He has the talent, he’ll just continue to work back to his full physical ability.
It will take patience, but the payoff — for when he is able to play at 100% — is one of the best safety duos in the National Football League.