The Chiefs offense was absolutely dominant — which was somewhat expected. It was the defense that surprised everyone. The Chiefs’ defense only allowed 15 points through three and half quarters had significantly shut down one of the NFL’s best offenses for the majority of the game.
From disguised pressures to tight man coverage and fantastic situational play-calling, the Chiefs defense had the Bills’ offense reeling from the start of the game forward. One of the biggest reasons for the uptick in play from the Chiefs’ defense was the ability for the defensive backfield to lock down opposing offenses with its versatility and physical play.
The only thing missing from this defensive backfield was Juan Thornhill not being completely healthy as he returned from an ACL injury.
Well, good news Chiefs fans — Thornhill looks dangerously close to all the way back. It was partially evident last week against the Cleveland Browns — as there were a few occasions that he was flying downhill to break on some plays. This past week against the Bills, Thornhill not only looked like a super athlete but he also may have played his best game in a Chiefs uniform.
Thornhill is playing like someone who has something to prove and it’s been a huge benefit to the Chiefs. Let’s dive into the film.
Juan Thornhill | Safety
Return to elite athleticism
One of the greatest issues facing Thornhill early this season was the recovery from a season-ending ACL injury late in the 2019 season. He missed his explosiveness and was hesitant to change directions or to drive downhill. It slowed down his process as a result.
Juan Thornhill looks like he is getting fully recovered for last year's injury.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 26, 2021
He's been flying around the field in the playoffs but this play is insane. Drives on the flat, goes under the rub, turns, and carries up the SL while locating the ball. pic.twitter.com/qJQarCDUOz
Early on in the Bills’ game, we saw the final piece to Thornhill’s game.
He was one of the most explosive players on the field last year and finally looked it again. On this rep of Cover-0, Thornhill has the slot wide receiver in man coverage and has to drive downhill on what looks like a little bubble screen.
Thornhill was able to close the window on the bubble, but it was a great call by the Bills to fake the bubble and go vertical up the sideline. It didn’t matter — Thornhill was able to effortlessly flatten out, flip his hips and carry the wide receiver, vertically squeezing the sideline. During this entire process, he still had some time to locate the ball and elevate to make a play.
Not a ton of players in the NFL could replicate what Thornhill does, including himself just a few months ago. The return to his “normal” athleticism has gone a long way in helping the Chiefs and allowed him to play more confident on the field.
Confidence is flowing
Something that gets into players’ heads when working back from an injury is the lack of confidence. Whether it’s being worried about another injury, their own athleticism, or just simply having to take a second to think about what is happening, they often lose a step due to some level of timidness.
Quarter-Quarter-Half and Thornhill is reading Allen and explodes through the Dig route.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 26, 2021
Good job getting his head across the receiver to avoid penalty but it's the quick trigger and explosion that make the play so impressive.
Getting a 100% Thornhill for the playoffs has been > pic.twitter.com/8nBz2jQoeF
Being fast is one thing, but playing fast is another — and Thornhill is finally meshing the two together again. He now trusts his body to physically get to where it needs to be, which is allowing him to trust his mind and trigger downhill immediately.
He’s playing in a deep half zone on this rep but is reading the quarterback work through his progressions. As soon as the final wide receiver to his side of the field distributes “underneath,” Thornhill knows he can attack downhill and no longer has to defend the deep zone.
He gets downhill in a hurry and has no hesitation to land the big hit on the wide receiver at the catch point, helping jar the ball loose. Whatever the final mental hurdle was for Thornhill, he seems to be cleared and can play at full tilt.
The Chiefs defense — in general -= doesn’t have the fastest, biggest or most explosive players, but they are smart. Thornhill is one of the better athletes on the team, but he does not lack in the IQ department, which is part of why he fits in so well with the team.
Thornhill and the entire secondary were driving downhill underneath pic.twitter.com/kZIejkjeZ6— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 27, 2021
Steve Spagnuolo loves disguising his coverages and making game-specific alerts, so against the Bills, the Chiefs made a “cut” call over and over. This means a safety — usually on the weak side — drives downhill on any crossing route, as we see Tyrann Mathieu do here. As the rest of the routes distribute, there is a second crossing route, as every other receiver breaks off their route. With no one available to replace Mathieu, Thornhill knows he has to carry the deeper Dig route in behind Mathieu.
Thornhill takes a good angle up over the top to maintain depth until he sees the quarterback work to that read. He breaks downhill, undercutting the route and making yet another play on the football. The athleticism and confidence are yet again on display, but it’s the intelligence that makes this happen.
It looks like the Chiefs are essentially cutting both crossing routes but Thornhill’s drive on the ball is entirely reactionary, as he understands the defensive call and how to play multiple different route distributions.
The one thing the Chiefs had been seriously missing without Thornhill was a rangy, centerfield safety who could cover numbers to numbers. It had forced the Chiefs into a lot more two-high safety looks all year, but a healthy Thornhill changes that.
What the Chiefs have really been missing this year is the super rangy, instinctive center fielder in their single high looks— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 26, 2021
Looks like we're getting that back during this run.
Man Free and Thornhill splits both deep threats staying over the top b4 breaking & getting the PBU pic.twitter.com/nIL2zJeYhW
The Chiefs are in Man Free coverage, which leaves Thornhill playing as the only deep zone player. The slot cornerbacks know they have help over the top and can play in trail technique because Thornhill has the range to work over the top of any vertical route. This forces the football to be thrown into a very tight window no matter what, but that kind of trust wasn’t there with only a single deep safety earlier in the season.
This is Thornhill’s most natural spot for the Chiefs despite all the added versatility he brings. The ability to read the entire field and cover so much ground is a valuable asset for a team that wants to disguise all of its coverages. Thornhill is able to work from the near hash, across the entire field and get to the far numbers while still maintaining his depth and tracking the football.
That kind of range and trust to cover the entire deep area of the field is something the Chiefs hadn’t been able to accomplish with one safety all year. Now Thornhill brings that to the table as the Chiefs gear up for a Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The bottom line
This is back-to-back years that the Chiefs secondary has been one of the best units in all of the playoffs. The unit had been playing incredibly well since L’Jarius Sneed’s return to the lineup, but it is turning it up to another level now with the return to health from Thornhill.
Thornhill’s ability to attack plays downhill, read the field and (most importantly) cover enough ground as a single deep safety opens up the entire playbook for Spagnuolo.
Thornhill is playing exceptionally well in these playoffs and his isolated play is helping tilt games in the Chiefs' favor. The speed, coverage ability and aggression have been huge for the Chiefs in big moments, but it’s the added versatility that may be the biggest boost.
What Thornhill allows Spagnuolo is to run any defensive play call he could ever want because he does something else no one on the team can, which is play a single-high safety. The defensive back trio of Mathieu, Sneed and Thornhill is simply one of the best in the NFL, and it showed up big time against the Bills in the second straight conference title win.