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Against Buccaneers, Chiefs need big plays from young defensive backs

Rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and second-year safety Juan Thornhill will likely play key roles in Super Bowl LV.

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Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

To put it simply, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has turned out to be one of the steals of the 2020 NFL Draft — and could end up being a key contributor when the Chiefs play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV this Sunday.

He collected 41 tackles (31 solo), three interceptions, seven passes defensed and a pair of sacks during the regular season — all in just nine games after he suffered a broken collarbone in the Week 3 game against the Baltimore Ravens. Per Pro Football Focus, he allowed a passer rating of just 53.4 in coverage.

“I fell in love with LJ just watching his college tape,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo told reporters on Tuesday — but then admitted he wasn’t sure he was right. “I was a little bit shocked. When [went out] out and asked around — scouting other people that didn’t have him — I thought I was missing something. But I always liked him.”

The things that others missed worked in Kansas City’s favor, allowing them to select Sneed out of Louisiana Tech in the fourth round (138th overall).

“When he came here first in training camp — of course, the offseason was a little different — even in meetings, we could tell he was a cerebral guy,” recalled Spagnuolo. “[He] played a lot of positions in college, which led us to believe he could handle things mentally.

“Our goal was to get him playing at corner. He surfaced as the guy to take over for Bashaud Breeland. He played those first two or three games — I think he got hurt in the Baltimore game — and then when he was injured, and Rashad Fenton and Charvarius Ward were playing pretty good at corner. We were sitting there [asking], ‘How do we get our best 11 on the field?’ — and we thought LJ was one of them.”

Upon his return from injury, Sneed settled in as the team’s nickel cornerback — and lately, he’s emerged as a pass rusher, collecting a sack in each of the last four games.

Divisional Round - Cleveland Browns v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

“He’s open to it all,” said cornerbacks coach Sam Madison. “I mean, when you go back and watch his film for last season, he played safety. So he was kind of already familiar with being inside.”

Madison said that experience helped him become the chess piece the team needed — even though he’d had no work at nickel before the season began.

“Being able to put him in different roles, he’s absorbed it all. But [we’re] just really happy with his progress and the things that he’s doing — and looking forward to continuing those things.”

The Chiefs are also hoping to see continued contributions from another young player on Sunday: second-year safety Juan Thornhill, who has been coming on during the postseason. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the final regular-season game of 2019 — and while he was ready for the opening game of the 2020 season, he didn’t seem to be playing at the same level as he did during his excellent rookie year.

Ultimately, the Chiefs decided to use Thornhill on a more limited basis, hoping that this would allow him to come all the way back from last season’s injury. In the AFC championship against the Buffalo Bills, it seemed as though that strategy had paid off. Thornhill looked like he did a year ago, making plays all over the field.

“These last few games, he’s finally getting himself back into a rhythm,” said Madison. “At the beginning, [he was] still having some concern about the injury — and [he is] not one to put himself in a bad situation.

“But there’s been a few guys on this team that’s gone through those type of injuries. Tyrann Mathieu is the main one; he’s had multiple [similar injuries]. So just being able to have somebody to talk to — that’s been through it all — and just understanding the hurdles he had to go through and get over to overcome and get to where he is — is one of the things that’s really helped him at the end of this season. Early on, [there were] still things on his mind that he had to get through, but those players were able to get him through.”

Against a certain Hall of Fame quarterback with a talented group of receivers, the Chiefs will need both of these young defensive backs to be playing their best.