Until fourth-round rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed broke his collarbone in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Week 3 victory against the Baltimore Ravens, he looked like the steal of the draft. Forced into an unexpected starting role because fellow cornerback Bashaud Breeland was serving an NFL suspension through Week 4, Sneed picked up 11 tackles, three passes defensed and a pair of interceptions; his injury actually occurred while trying for a third.
Sneed missed a total of six games before returning for the Week 11 victory against the Las Vegas Raiders. In his absence — and also with Charvarius Ward’s injury in Week 1 — second-year nickel cornerback Rashad Fenton had to assume a starting role until Breeland’s return. All of this is clearly visible in their respective snap counts through the first part of the season.
But when Sneed returned to the lineup, the Chiefs were back to full strength on the outside. Despite the fact that Fenton had done well as an outside corner, the Chiefs decided to move Sneed into Fenton’s nickel corner position when he returned from injury.
“Mental capacity is really important,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo of Sneed’s move to the inside. “The guy that goes inside and plays nickel has to be somewhat cerebral. We do a bunch of different things: [the nickel corner] plays zone, he plays man [and] he goes back and plays the half with the way we rotate people. And the one thing about L.J. is that he’s got ‘football get-it.’ I mean, he understands football.”
But when Spagnuolo spoke to the media on Thursday, he made a point of mentioning that the move wasn’t just about which player is better suited for the nickel job.
“Listen, Rashad Fenton was doing a good job in there, too. We just felt like L’Jarius could do some things that we needed,” explained Spagnuolo. “It freed up Tyrann Mathieu from having to be [in] that nickel spot. You know, all those times we were moving Tyrann around, it was really a credit to him that he could play all those positions, mentally. Now, I think he can settle in at a couple of spots, we still move him around — and I think that makes us all better.”
Through the first nine games of the season, Mathieu was being used all over the field — but relatively rarely at his own free safety position. Since Week 11, however — when Sneed returned to become the primary nickel corner — Mathieu has largely been able to return to his normal role: being a free safety who is the hunter of the Chiefs’ defense. That was immediately reflected in his production.
Through the first nine games of the season, Mathieu had one interception. In the last three games, he’s had three — and against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, his two interceptions were crucial, game-altering plays. The week before, Mathieu’s safety blitz opened the way for Breeland’s interception of a third-quarter Tom Brady pass that played a significant role (along with his own third-quarter pick) in the team’s 27-24 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Spagnuolo also said that part of the reason why Fenton was been largely (but not entirely) moved out of his previous role as a nickel corner is that he is currently useful on special teams. And that’s all right with Fenton.
“I’m a defensive back — wherever coach Spagnuolo wants me to play,” said Fenton in October. “I could play safety. I could play nickelback. I could play corner. Wherever my number needs to be called, I’m going to be ready to go.”
“I think we’re a very adjustable team,” said Sneed after his return from injury. “Wherever they throw us [in] at, I think we can adjust at it, put our heads down and go to work at it.”
Early in the season — when the Chiefs were shorthanded in the secondary — both Fenton and Sneed were outside. Now — as the unit is more back to full strength — Fenton’s emphasis is on special teams, while Sneed is inside. And Mathieu is back to doing what he does best: making big plays.
“I’ve never been one of those players to tell the coach what I want to do,” Mathieu said after the Tampa Bay game. “I always do what my coaches ask me to do. But obviously, blitzing is something that I love to do. If I could blitz on the first play of every game, I think I could get into a much quicker rhythm defensively. But I’m not the play-caller. I just believe in my coaches; I believe what they see. And I think that’s really the position you have to take as a player. You have to trust that your coaches are seeing the right things.”
As the season progresses, the Chiefs continue to use their available players in the way that gives them the best results.
“Listen, what we try to do as a staff is obviously get the best 11 out there we can in situational football,” Spagnuolo said on Thursday. “And then, try to get guys and using their talents that they have in where we put them — and we’d like to be able to continue to do that. At some point. it would be nice to get them all out there at one time. We’re not probably at that point yet, but we can find our way there because those guys are doing a real good job.”