Following what could end up being the most important of the three losses they’ve had this season — Sunday night’s 38-20 home loss to the Buffalo Bills — Kansas City Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen has been a lightning rod for criticism.
Now in his eighth season with the team, the 31-year-old Sorensen was burned on two of the game’s biggest plays: a 61-yard pass to wide receiver Stefon Diggs that set up a Buffalo field goal, along with a 53-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dawson Knox.
Already on the hot seat for his play in 2021 — per Pro Football Reference, he has nine missed tackles and has also given up a perfect passer rating of 153.8 on 19 targets — he was the first topic of conversation when Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo spoke to reporters on Thursday.
“First of all, it’s not about one guy,” noted Spagnuolo. “You started the question with an overall, ‘We haven’t been good’ [statement]. And that’s a true statement. That’s reality. [But] to focus on one person I don’t think is fair. Did Dan struggle a little bit last week? Yeah.
“In answer to your question about [who gets] more snaps and all that? A guy has a starting position. We think he’s been doing a good job with that. Sometimes when you have plays — that to the eye of everybody in there looks worse than other ones — nobody sees the plays [where he’s] covering someone and they don’t throw it there. That’s always been the case.”
Spagnuolo was referring to a problem that faces all NFL defensive backs: everybody notices when you give up a touchdown pass, but few notice the plays you do make — or the plays that don’t come your way because you’re doing your job.
But even given that, Sorensen has seemed like more and more of a liability — especially for a player who is typically on the field for every defensive snap. On Thursday, Spagnuolo wouldn't go so far as saying that third-year safety Juan Thornhill would take Sorensen’s place in the starting lineup.
“So I’m not going to go too deep into it,” added Spagnuolo, “but I think Dan’s had a lot of good snaps for us. Juan will play for us as well. We’ll work through who’s playing where [and] what we’re doing package-wise — I’m not going to go deep into that because we’re getting ready to play a team; I’m not going to tell everybody what we’re doing — but I get your question. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but that’s about what I would say on that.”
Later — when pressed on whether defensive lineup changes were coming — Spagnuolo echoed head coach Andy Reid’s words from Wednesday.
“We’ll see how the week progresses,” he said “But we’re always looking at that. We’ve looked at that every week. We’re always trying to put people in [the] right spots — to get the right players out there. That’s no different than any other week.”
Taken in total, the defensive coordinator’s remarks and body language — as observed by those (like our own Pete Sweeney) who were there for the presser — likely add up to a lineup change that could be coming as soon as this Sunday against the Washington Football Team.
I’ll say this… based upon the limited quotes we’ve gathered this week, I'd expect the #Chiefs to make the change at safety. They’re not going to come out and outright tell us that or criticize a struggling player, which, in my opinion, is the right way to go about it. https://t.co/1zjTcdJ8eV— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) October 14, 2021
And Spagnuolo wasn’t the only one giving out clues. Defensive backs coach Dave Merritt was asked if he had a message for Thornhill.
“I tell all my guys: ‘You’re all the starters,’” replied Merritt. “Everybody’s a starter — whether you’re the backup or scout team player or whether you’re the starting free or strong safety. Juan plays — last week, I think he had over 25 snaps — so the message for Juan is, ‘Stay ready — because you never know when you’re going to be called.’ Whenever they call you, you’d better be sure you’re ready; don’t try and get ready after the fact.”
Merritt also spoke at length about what he called “eye leverage.”
“If I’m looking at you — and I’m supposed to be watching you — I’ve got to watch you,” he explained to reporters. “I can’t all of a sudden go watch someone else. So whether you’re coaching Pop Warner, little league [or] your kids in basketball: if that’s your man, you teach your kids to cover that guy; you don’t turn around and just start looking somewhere else — ‘Oh, there’s a bird’ or ‘There’s a butterfly.’ No. You cover your guy.”
Merrit sees it as a simple problem to be solved.
“If you chase two rabbits, you’re going to miss both of them,” he said. “But if you can focus in — I use the analogy all the time in golf because I love golf — if you can pick a small target to focus in on, your success rate goes way up.”
Merritt then gave a practical example.
“If I’m playing man-to-man, my eyes are not up towards the head level or the shoulders because they shake all the time; I’ve got to take my eyes down to the hips. The hips are going to allow me to find out where that guy’s breaking — and then, at that point, burst and accelerate.”
In Merritt’s view, this is one of the most important skills his players can demonstrate — and he said that if they can get back to it, they could shore up the back end of the Kansas City defense in short order.
“[When] the guys are playing with good eye leverage and good depth as a deep defender, we play good defense,” observed Merritt, who has been with the team for both of its recent Super Bowl runs. “Getting back to that is a matter of time — and I think it’s going to happen this week, for sure.”