After his most impactful performance of the season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu popped up on Friday’s injury report with a hip injury. Head coach Andy Reid didn’t address it in his final media session of the week, and Mathieu was immediately listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.
While the hope is that Mathieu simply had a stinger that limited him in practice, it brought up an important question: who would take Mathieu’s spot in this defense?
The simple answer is “nobody.”
Mathieu is a true chess piece that Spagnuolo moves all over the defense to get ideal matchups and cause chaos for the quarterback. However, the Chiefs have three options they could look to if Mathieu truly has to miss Sunday’s game:
Outside of Daniel Sorensen, no other player has moved throughout Steve Spagnuolo’s defense quite as much as L’Jarius Sneed. Sneed started this season on the boundary, moved inside to nickel cornerback, and has even lined up in the box next to Anthony Hitchens in some run fits over the past two weeks.
Sneed’s experience as a safety at Louisiana Tech University during his senior year definitely caught Spagnuolo and Sam Madison’s eye during the 2020 draft process, and it may come in handy this week if Mathieu is unavailable. Sneed could comfortably play deep in split-safety coverage calls, drop into hook zones as a robber and is comfortable in the slot or the box. Those are the positions that Mathieu has occupied most during his time in Kansas City, and Sneed may be a natural fit there.
However, moving Sneed around may force some other moves. If Spagnuolo opts for Sneed to play more in the box snaps in the nickel, Juan Thornhill likely comes on the field earlier than he has in recent games as a deep safety. If Spagnuolo opts to replace Mathieu’s role over the past two weeks with Sneed, the Chiefs could opt to bring Rashad Fenton into the slot role, keeping Thornhill as simply a deep dime safety.
On the surface, inserting Thornhill into the lineup makes the most sense. He’s familiar with the scheme, has been a first-choice safety for Spagnuolo and requires the least amount of shifting within the box or slot for the Chiefs.
However, Thornhill has been asked to play a much different role than Mathieu has in his time in Kansas City. Even though he has cornerback experience from his college days, Thornhill has primarily been asked to play as a deep safety for Spagnuolo, and his man coverage reps are rare. Even when Spagnuolo rotates a safety down in a robber role, that job doesn’t typically fall to Thornhill.
That being said, the Chiefs could opt to bring in Thornhill and hand the “Mathieu” role to Daniel Sorensen. That’s a lot to put on Sorensen’s plate, but he’s been asked to move around significantly more than Thornhill has to date. Positioning Thornhill as a single-high deep safety with Sorensen as a robber or in man against running backs could offer Spagnuolo the versatility he needs without disrupting the box against a team that could focus on running the ball.
Armani Watts is a third — albeit unlikely — option to rotate into the Mathieu role for the Chiefs defense. Spagnuolo often chooses to deploy three safeties in his sub-packages, and Watts will certainly be the third player into the lineup if Mathieu is out.
Primarily a special teams player, Watts doesn’t have the exceptional range on the back end but is at his best in a robber role — with his eyes in the backfield. Watts made plenty of splash plays in coverage in college, jumping a route as a back-side defender to come up with a tide-turning play. We’ve seen Mathieu do that often in his time in Kansas City, and Watts could slot into that role well.
However, Watts does have some struggles deep — see the Mike Evans touchdown from two weeks ago — and isn’t particularly fluid in man coverage. The Chiefs will likely see a safety matched up against Mike Gesicki for most of the day, and Watts could struggle with such a difficult assignment.
There’s a lot of give and take with Watts, and it would require quite the change-up in Spagnuolo’s regular coverage calls. That said, Watts might get the nod if the Chiefs feel like they’re missing that playmaking presence in coverage in the middle of the field.
If Tyrann Mathieu is unavailable, who gets his snaps on Sunday?
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