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Steve Spagnuolo talks Juan Thornhill starting, Rashad Fenton emerging

Two third-year defensive backs are becoming key parts to the Chiefs’ defense

NFL: OCT 17 Chiefs at Washington Football Team Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It took five weeks, but Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo finally made the change in the starting lineup that most who watch or cover the team believed they should make: starting safety Juan Thornhill over Dan Sorensen.

In Week 6, Thornhill started as the free safety alongside strong safety Tyrann Mathieu; Sorensen came in for three-safety sets. Thornhill played every defensive snap against the Washington Football Team, making three tackles; all three came near the line of scrimmage or behind it. On top of that, he played sound coverage as the primary deep safety — not being the culprit for any big pass plays.

That was a world of difference from the performance of Sorensen in the free safety position a week earlier. Yes, one offense is much more explosive than the other — but even Spagnuolo admitted that the change was necessary.

“Juan deserved to be out there; he’s done some good things,” Spags admitted to reporters on Thursday. “Dan and I talked; he was in a little bit of a slump, so we made a switch — and I think it’s been pretty smooth. We’ll see where we’re at this week; I got full trust in Dan, Juan, and Tyrann back there for what we’re doing back there.”

Sorensen isn’t an unusable player; he fits what Spagnuolo has wanted from the third safety in dime personnel packages: an athlete that can play the run, blitz and cover situationally. He was out of position as a true free safety, where Thornhill proved his rookie year that he could excel.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The lineup change will likely continue moving forward, but we can’t be sure about how the team will implement cornerback Rashad Fenton. He has emerged as arguably the team’s best coverage cornerback over the last few weeks, filling in for the injured starter Charvarius Ward.

Against Washington, Fenton made seven tackles and broke up a pass; he allowed six completions, 37 yards and a 74.8 passer rating on nine passes thrown in his direction.

“I thought Rashad did a great job,” Spags pointed out. “He played aggressive, he made some key plays for us. One that won’t even stick out was a third-and-8, and he stopped a completed slant for four yards. They went for a field goal and missed it then. It was a key play; he did a nice job, he really competed out there.”

Fenton initially lost the preseason battle to be the team’s outside cornerback in nickel formations to offseason acquisition Mike Hughes. However, he’s slowly won that role back over the last few weeks — and got to the point of playing 100% of the defensive snaps in Week 6 as the left cornerback.

When Ward returns, it projects to be Ward and L’Jarius Sneed as the starting cornerbacks — with Fenton coming in for nickel packages. However, I don’t believe Ward’s starting spot is solidified; if the staff wants to ride Fenton’s current momentum, I think it would be at the expense of Ward (in base formations).

It’s a good issue to have: trusting three cornerbacks enough to be starters. We don’t know if that’s exactly where they’re at with Fenton — but he’s played well enough for consideration.