Kansas City Chiefs third-year safety Juan Thornhill reclaimed his starting free safety position last week against the Washington Football Team, playing 100% of the snaps. It was the 26th regular-season start of his career.
Meeting with the media on Friday, Thornhill said it took him some time to get his wind back under him — but once he did, he got in a groove. Thornhill finished the game with three tackles and three stops, according to Pro Football Focus.
Sunday marked Thornhill’s first start since Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, when Tyrann Mathieu was out of the lineup on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Once the Chiefs activated Mathieu, Thornhill was relegated to the bench in favor of veteran Daniel Sorensen, despite being a primary reason the Chiefs came out with a win.
“Dan was playing some great football,” said Thornhill. “Last year, you saw him making a lot of plays. I personally think Dan deserved it. He was working really hard, made a lot of plays, and he came in with the right attitude.”
In the meantime, Thornhill did not fret.
“It wasn’t that hard,” said Thornhill. “Just coming out each and every day, giving it my all, going 100%. Whenever my time was up, it was time for me to get out there, step up and make a play. I just stayed positive, man. Just kind of working each and every day. I was just waiting for my opportunity.”
Rather than focus on the big picture and lineup, Thornhill locked in on a single purpose each day.
“Every single day we come in, we’re willing to work on one thing,” he said. “One thing that I was working on was just the tackling. That’s just something that everyone has to work on. Man coverages. Having your eyes in the right place and things like that. Being able to work each and every day.
“You can’t go in with the mentality like, ‘Oh, I’m not starting right now, so I’m not going to work. You have to go in with one thing each and every day to improve on, and that’s what I did.”
Finally, against Washington, the Chiefs put him back on the field as a starter.
“Juan deserved to be out there; he’s done some good things,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo 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.”
Geauxing back to our old ways. 3 headed monster alert pic.twitter.com/CnlHUC7aMJ— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) October 22, 2021
According to the snap research from our John Dixon, Thornhill and Sorensen simply switched roles, meaning the elder Sorensen still saw action in some three-safety looks.
We learned on Sunday morning that the Chiefs intended to start third-year safety Juan Thornhill in place of Daniel Sorensen — which led some to wonder if Sorensen was really going to be fully replaced as the starting safety. The numbers suggest that’s exactly what happened. Thornhill was on the field for 100% of the defensive snaps, while Sorensen was used in roughly the same percentage of snaps as Thornhill had recently been used — and like Thornhill, was used more often on passing plays. Also, note that Thornhill’s special-teams use fell to zero, while Sorensen’s rose to above 30%.
Now that he will garner the majority of reps moving forward, Thornhill believes a return to prominence may just be a matter of time.
“The thing is — I remember my rookie season — I started off playing pretty good, but then I felt like each week, I started to become more confident, started to make more plays,” he said. “The game started to slow down, and I just feel like that’s what’s going to happen again. I just got to take my time and just let the game come to me.”