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Examining rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed’s hot NFL start

Chiefs’ rookie CB - L’Jarius Sneed - is off to a hot start after being thrust into starting action

Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Los Angeles Chargers 23-20 in over time during an NFL game. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs narrowly escaped with a 23-20 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

Despite the defense only giving up 20 points to the Chargers, there wasn’t much to be excited about, as they squared off with a first-time starter at quarterback. The Chiefs’ defensive line wasn’t nearly as dominant as it was last week against a very bad offensive line, the linebackers were slow in coverage and in run pursuit and the secondary still left a few more cracks in coverage than you might expect against the Chargers’ talent level on offense.

One bright spot for the Chiefs was the play of rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who played well for the second week in a row.

Sneed was thrust into starting action Week 1 against the Houston Texans and played quite a strong game despite facing a very fast wide receiver group. The Texans did not provide the most unique challenge because all wide receivers are of a similar type, but in Week 2, Sneed was placed under even more pressure.

With Charvarius Ward ruled out, Sneed took over as the top cornerback for the Chiefs and spent time squaring up against both Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Those two guys provide entirely different skill sets, and Sneed held up incredibly well yet again.

Let’s head down the AP Laboratory and crank up the tape (that was thankfully released in a timely manner this week).

L’Jarius Sneed | CB

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When examining Sneed’s performance against the Chargers, I think it’s most pertinent to start with where and how he was asked to play. For the most part, Sneed was playing outside cornerback opposite of the Chiefs sideline, which is interesting to note, as the Chiefs have been steady about playing their cornerbacks on specific sides.

I would imagine this decision to be about getting Rashad Fenton near the sideline (if Chiefs needed to quickly add coaching points). It still showed a high level of trust in Sneed’s game, especially early on. Even more impressive was that the Chiefs asked Sneed to kick into the slot and play man coverage against Keenan Allen on some critical downs.

Kicking inside

On the first drive of the game, the Chiefs’ defense was reeling.

On third-and-4, the Chiefs dial up a Cover 0 pressure and ask Sneed to cover Allen one on one from the slot. The coaching staff putting Sneed in that situation says a lot, but Sneed was actually quite impressive on this rep.

Allen is difficult to jam at the line of scrimmage, but Sneed does a good job kicking, gaining his balance and locking his hands into Allen’s chest while squared up. This allows him to latch onto Allen and drive control him working up the field. Sneed gets a little handsy at the top of the route, but you’d rather see that than him allowing a clean break.

Sneed is a long, explosive cornerback with a lot of speed, so playing in the slot isn’t his best utilization. He doesn’t have the most fluid hips or crisp footwork to work against quick wide receivers, but his physicality and trust in his athleticism allow him to put together some high-end reps.

I wouldn’t be surprised to keep seeing some timely reps on the inside but wouldn’t expect him to transition to a full-time slot cornerback.

The most significant issue on this play was Sneed simply not being ready for the ball to be snapped.

Sneed does not get his feet working until the wide receiver has pushed up to his hip, and then he has to turn and run without ever shuffling or re-routing the receiver. Most of that is due to Sneed not being ready for the snap, but there are reps where he can give up a quick release, and then you can see the moderate change-of-direction skills while trying to recover.

When Allen sinks down on the whip route, it takes Sneed a moment to chop his feet, sit down and turn back around.

Zone spacing and ball skills

Sneed recorded his second interception in as many weeks — and not only was this one much more impressive than last week’s, but it also was a significant turning point of the game.

The Chiefs are in Quarters, and Sneed is on the back side of the play with no one challenging him off the line of scrimmage. He has no receiver to match, so he works up to the line of scrimmage before drifting back in case someone cuts back outside.

Sneed does not fall asleep. He keeps his eyes on the quarterback across the field and tracks the receiver that could pose a threat. This has been called a “gimme” interception, but the read is not that simple, and the range Sneed covers is quite impressive. Sneed gets deep enough and closes fast enough that he can circle behind the ball to come up and attack it, showcasing top-end ball skills as well.

Not that it is the most difficult feat in the world to achieve, but Sneed has the best ball skills of any Chiefs cornerback right now. His ability to track the ball while maintaining his gait and his approach to the ball from the most advantageous position is unmatched on the roster.

Footwork

We looked at one example of Sneed’s questionable footwork in the slot. Now let’s examine a couple of reps on the outside, where he is much better since he can use the sideline to his advantage.

This is a great rep from Sneed despite the completed pass.

We see how much more comfortable Sneed is on the outside by focusing on his feet and appreciating the use of the outside hand work. He kicks out of his stance, staying patient and square to the receiver but isn’t pedaling out to give space. He does lean outside on the outside fake but because of his base and quality footwork, he is in perfect position to re-direct inside and stick to the upfield hip.

Sneed uses his hands to slow down the wide receiver, so he can get his hips behind his body, allowing him to explode on anything underneath. When the slant is thrown, Sneed is again squared up and able to break down and make contact at the catch.

Sneed’s footwork isn’t always perfect, but he looks so much more comfortable on the outside. He has a good kick-step and as long as Sneed can remember to stay patient and square up the receiver before shooting his hands, he will turn out more and more reps like his previous one.

This plays shows a good initial kick-step, but Sneed then tries to punch immediately rather than continuing to slide. If he can get one more shuffle step in — whether he has space to shoot his hands or not — the wide receiver is forced into the sideline.

Sneed won’t be forced in trail technique so quickly. Even with rather ticky-tack technique on this play, Sneed is still perfectly in trail technique and just a millisecond behind turning and locating the ball.

Learning on the fly

I don’t want to spend too much time on a cornerback playing the screen, but it was an area in which the Chiefs clearly missed Ward and Bashaud Breeland.

It was positive to see Sneed learning how to play off the point man on the second screen play in overtime, showcasing a quicker trigger than he did earlier in the game.

The bottom line

Through two games, Sneed has been targeted 11 times, only given up six catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns.

The stats are clearly impressive and the wide receivers he’s faced off against have offered a variety of challenges. Last season — when Ward was in a similar situation — I reviewed his film and was left underwhelmed compared to the stats.

I thought Ward was given a lot of help and was not asked to perform highly difficult coverage while giving up space on throws he was targeted. Sneed was the exact opposite experience when watching this Chargers game.

Even more impressive than the stats is simply how good on each and every rep. On reps he isn’t being targeted, it’s because he’s on the receiver like glue. There aren’t very many plays of wide receivers getting open against Sneed. When receivers do get open, it is because of small technical inconsistencies that can easily be improved upon.

Add on to all that how much the Chiefs staff has asked out of him from alignment, coverage type and one-on-one matchups, and Chiefs fans ought to be incredibly excited about his future and need not be worried about a Marcus Cooper or Phillip Gaines repeat.