The recent defensive surge for the Kansas City Chiefs has featured impressive performances from the cornerback position. Charvarius Ward has excelled since returning from his quad injury, and Rashad Fenton has emerged as a reliable option. Yet, it’s second-year cornerback L’Jarius Sneed who seemingly makes the most significant impact from snap to snap.
A week after earning an interception against the Green Bay Packers, Sneed flew all over the field and made significant tackles against the Las Vegas Raiders. On Vegas’ first two possessions, Sneed made a third-down tackle short of the sticks to force a punt each time. In total, he racked up five solo tackles and a tackle for loss; he also registered a quarterback hit.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sees Sneed as the player he hoped he could become before the Chiefs selected him in the 2020 NFL Draft. On Thursday, he responded to reporters curious about his recollection of his thoughts on Sneed as a college prospect.
“It doesn’t surprise me, not the tape I remember watching of him in college,” Spagnuolo described his reaction to Sneed’s recent play. “I thought he did everything really well in college; he played safety, he played cornerback, he tackled, he blitzed, he was physical... I was hopeful when we got him that he would be like he is right now.”
Sneed’s attacking mindset fits the slot cornerback position in the team’s nickel defensive formations. It allows him to be closer to the line of scrimmage, where he can use his aggressive tackling to help defend the run.
Defensive backs/cornerbacks coach Sam Madison appreciates that physicality in Sneed’s game.
“It’s a warrior-type game — and he’s definitely one of those guys,” Madison told reporters on Thursday. “From day one, he’s always been a physical corner for us, he’s always displayed the mentality to go in there and tackle, not really thinking about his body. That’s what you’re looking for: somebody that is relentless, wants to go in there and give up his body for his teammates, and that’s what he does. He does it every single play, every single down. He thinks about some things, but that’s not one of the things he thinks about.”
He wasn’t always destined to play that position, however. The team drafted him to play outside cornerback, and that’s where he started his career during the 2020 season. Then, veteran Bashaud Breeland returned from suspension — and Sneed was given a new opportunity.
Madison remembered when the coaching staff realized that Sneed fit the mold for their nickel cornerback spot.
“Last year, we brought him in to play cornerback,” Madison began. “Then Breeland came back, and we saw he was a really good tackler so we moved him into nickel... In his senior year, he did play a little bit of safety; coach Spagnuolo saw that he’s able to play from the inside.”
Since Sneed became the team’s primary slot defender, he has been one of the unit’s biggest playmakers. He’s racked up five sacks as a blitzer since the middle of 2019 while notching a handful of interceptions and passes defended.
This season, he didn’t start out filling up the box score. He only had one pass defended with no interceptions entering the Week 9 game against the Packers — but has stepped up the playmaking in his last two games. It’s all a part of the progression for a young player.
“It’s still a learning curve for him,” Madison explained. “He played a lot last year for us, but when you play different guys, you see different things. He still hasn’t had a lot of repetitions at that, so it’s on-the-job learning for him. His confidence has definitely skyrocketed a bit; he’s being where he’s supposed to be — and doing it at a high level... he’s still learning.”
Part of the learning process — especially as a cornerback — is understanding that the ball won’t always come their way. It’s a game of patience, and Madison has been preaching that to Sneed and the rest of the secondary.
“We always talk about as a defensive back that they come in bunches: big plays, opportunities,” Madison shared. “You just have to be able to make that play, and know that you’ve had it throughout the course of the week or training camp, knowing when that play comes up, you have to go out there and be able to do it. He shows the capability to do it every single play.”
Sneed’s ability to make a play on any snap will be even more vital as they face the explosive offense of the Dallas Cowboys. Their receiving corps is stocked with weapons — and they’ll use Amari Cooper or CeeDee Lamb in the slot at any time.
Along with a strong running game, the Cowboys’ offense is structured so that Sneed’s role will be significant in stopping them. His “warrior-type” physicality will be necessary for the defense to continue its success in this game and for the rest of the season.