Coming into the 2020 season, the Kansas City Chiefs knew they would be without their best cornerback from last year, Bashaud Breeland, for four games due to suspension.
Out of training camp, the Chiefs turned to Charvarius Ward — Breeland’s Super Bowl running mate — and a mix of rookie L’Jarius Sneed and second-year cornerback Rashad Fenton. Safety Tyrann Mathieu has manned the slot.
Sneed and Fenton played well enough against Los Angeles to afford Patrick Mahomes an opportunity to muster a late comeback — and the rookie, in particular, intercepted his second pass in as many games. Sneed broke his clavicle nearly intercepting his third pass in Kansas City’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, leaving the Chiefs to turn to the Ward-Fenton combination against the New England Patriots.
“Listen, we have been bumped and bruised out there at the corner, certainly losing Breezy (Bashaud Breeland) kind of hurt right from the beginning, but Rashad Fenton has done a great job, LJ Sneed was playing really good football,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said on Thursday. “I feel really terrible for him in dealing with that injury, but it’s part of the league and hopefully we can get CW (Charvarius Ward) back, I know he’s going to have to deal with that hand a little bit. But they’ve got to step up. Our corners are really needed in the package that we play, and fortunately for us, our D-line has done a decent enough job that it’s made it a little bit easier for the corners on the outside.”
The Chiefs performed especially well against the Ravens, holding every pass-catcher — including wide receiver Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews — to 38 yards or less.
“Well, what our saying in the room is, ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” defensive backs and cornerbacks coach Sam Madison described. “Throughout training camp, we put a lot of these guys in a lot of different situations, as far as playing the nickel position, playing corner. With coach Spags’ defense sometimes they have to go back and play safety, different things of that nature. We put them through a lot of different things, and they answered the bell. Rashad, he stepped up as soon as Ward went down a couple of weeks ago and then he’s been playing phenomenal. Once again, Sneed goes down and Ward was able to step right into it and didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t hesitate going out there, even with his hand situation that he feels is a whole lot better this week. It’s always the next man up. We’ve thrown a lot of different things at these guys and they just respond.”
This week’s challenge for the Chiefs features revamped quarterback Cam Newton, who has seemingly turned back the clock while playing in a new-look offense for New England. Despite frequent use of three-wide receiver sets, nearly half the Patriots yardage comes on the ground, including an ample amount of designed runs by Newton.
“You throw a quarterback in there that can run it and is willing to run it like they certainly are with him back there, it’s always going to put a stress on the defense,” added Spagnuolo. “If you add another player to just stop the run, he’s a good enough quarterback to throw it out there, (Patriots offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) is smart enough to recognize that, and they’ve got talent on the outside with a couple of receivers that can hurt you.”
The Chiefs defensive backs will need to have their head on a swivel, defending the likes of slot receiver Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry — who mixes inside and out — while keeping an eye on New England’s talented tandem of running backs and Newton.
“We’re going to have to mix it up,” Spagnuolo explained. “Hopefully we can get it in a situation where—you want to get it one-dimensional, right? That’s what every defense tries to do, be successful on first down, try to do the same on second down and get them in a situation where you know they have to throw it. Hopefully, when we get in those situations, we can win them.”
Through the first three weeks of the 2020 season, the Chiefs have managed three wins without Breeland by utilizing less than four year’s total experience on the outside. Now, only one game stands between a perfect record despite his absence.
“Hopefully we can get through this game and come out victorious,” noted Madison. “[The cornerbacks] know that they’re going to be relied on a lot to play man-to-man, play the different zones and all the different things that we do.
“They’re up to the challenge. That’s the one great thing, they never back down from a challenge.”