On Monday’s mailbag edition of Arrowhead Pride’s Out of Structure podcast, we answered all your Twitter questions about the Kansas City Chiefs’ 33-29 season-opening victory over the Cleveland Browns.
One question prompted us to discuss the performance of safety Juan Thornhill, who was starting in place of safety Tyrann Mathieu — a gameday inactive following a precautionary decision by head coach Andy Reid. Thornhill and safety Daniel Sorensen manned the back end of the defense, playing 95% of the defensive snaps together.
When Mathieu returns for Week 2 — as Reid said he would during Monday’s press conference — the starting safeties are likely to be Mathieu and Sorensen, as they were throughout training camp and the preseason. However, we’ve seen Thornhill play at a starting level before — and he made some big plays against the Browns.
This raises a question:
Did Juan Thornhill play well enough to start alongside Mathieu in Week 2?
Overall, Thornhill had an up-and-down game in Week 1.
Thornhill made multiple game-changing plays. In the third quarter — with Kansas City down by five points — he flew in to make a tackle on running back Nick Chubb. Perfectly placing his head on the ball, he forced Chubb to fumble — which teammate Ben Niemann recovered. The run would have put Cleveland into Chiefs’ territory — and in prime position to extend their lead.
On a third-and-7 late in the fourth quarter — with the Chiefs up 33-29 — Thornhill was in coverage against wide receiver Anthony Schwartz. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield gave Schwartz a good chance at catching a contested jump ball — but Thornhill used perfect technique to rip the ball out of Schwartz’s hands; he got his hand between the receiver’s arms and pulled the ball out as both were going to the ground.
In an early-game blitz, Thornhill pressured Mayfield into throwing off of his back foot to get the pass over him. Unfortunately, the intended receiver was wide open; the play was still successful.
In total, Thornhill made seven total tackles — five of them solo efforts. That tied for the team lead on Sunday.
Early in the game, Schwartz burned Thornhill on a deep route for 44 yards. Playing one half of the deep zone in a Cover 2 package, Thornhill crept up to the line of scrimmage before the snap — which allowed Schwartz to get behind him for an easy completion. Schwartz actually bobbled the pass before falling to the ground; if he had caught it cleanly, he might’ve been able to stay in bounds and score.
Later in the first half, the Browns were threatening to score inside the red zone. On a fourth down, they ran a jet sweep to wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who easily got the first down — but then turned it into a touchdown after both Thornhill and Sorensen missed tackles. According to PFF, Thornhill had two missed tackles against the Browns — one of three Chiefs defenders who had at least two on the day.
On a first-down play late in the second quarter — on the touchdown run that gave the Browns a 22-10 lead — Chubb went untouched from 18 yards out. From the broadcast view, it’s hard to see exactly where Thornhill was aligned. But he was the only deep safety — and wasn’t even close to cutting off the outside run. Especially in the red zone, you’d like to see the deep safety be more prepared to get downhill and make those tackles.
Both Sorensen and Thornhill had a healthy balance of positive and negative plays in the season opener. Sorensen made the game-winning play by wrapping up Mayfield’s ankles as he attempted to throw a pass away, allowing cornerback Mike Hughes to seal the game with an interception. But according to PFF, he missed five tackles — on 55.6% of his tackling opportunities.
For now, I think we’ll see the coaching staff stick with Sorensen as the starting safety next to Mathieu — but they’ll also play plenty of dime personnel packages that will incorporate Thornhill into the game. The Browns’ offense didn’t allow for many three-safety looks — but moving forward, that will be the case far less often.
How to listen to Arrowhead Pride podcasts
Arrowhead Pride podcasts are available on Amazon Alexa, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. Please rate and review, as this helps us grow AP Radio to reach more Chiefs fans all over the world!
Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.