A curious offseason saw Kansas City Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill first working with the second and third teams during training camp at Missouri Western State University to later proclaiming he “was back” after making a diving interception in a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals. After missing the team’s organized team activities (OTAs), the coaching staff designed his training camp program so that he could maximize reps and regain the confidence he displayed before the ACL injury he suffered in the final regular-season game of his rookie year.
What would the regular season have in store for the Kansas City Chiefs’ third-year safety? As it turned out, an emergency start in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns.
With Kansas City’s defensive leader, Tyrann Mathieu, held out as a game-time decision, Thornhill began the game next to Daniel Sorensen. His performance out of the gate left much to be desired, as he allowed a first-quarter 44-yarder to Browns receiver Anthony Schwartz. He also had two missed tackles, according to PFF. But Thornhill looked like a different player in the second half.
“I think he just got more confidence as the game went on,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said on Monday. “Again, Juan’s a real smart kid, so him seeing it and putting himself in position normally gives him a pretty good opportunity to make plays, and that’s what he did. He’s long and tall. He did good with it. Really, he’s a good tackler, a secure tackler. It worked out well for him.”
Mathieu, who has served as a mentor to Thornhill throughout his young career, praised him on his ability to bounce back from early adversity.
“We try to hold ourselves to a high standard — the DB room,” explained Mathieu on Thursday. “I probably thought [Thornhill] didn’t start the game how he wanted, how we wanted him to, but he put his head down, man. He came to the sideline, and that’s all you can really ask from a young player — to take the coaching, try to learn from it, and then go back out there and make a play or two. He made some big plays in that game. I’m pretty sure it’s helping his confidence as he goes forward, too.”
Thornhill identified the origins of some of that rust.
“It’s been a while since I actually was out there with the ones,” he said, as he reflected on the game. “I was getting reps in practice, but it wasn’t with the game, so I just have to get the feel for the game, because playing in preseason is always a little bit slower than playing in the regular season. Everyone knows that, and with me, I just had a slow start, and I just took my time, didn’t get too worked up and then just stayed really calm and played as hard as I could.
“Coach (Dave) Merrit and coach Sam (Madison) was just telling me, ‘Keep playing [your] game. Be the player and person that [we know you are].’ That’s pretty much all they said, and I just stayed confident — and wasn’t trying to force too many plays, and the plays just started coming to me.”
With that in mind, Thornhill recorded six of his seven Sunday tackles in the second half — and he made two of the game’s most significant plays. The Chiefs offense had no problem scoring — but the defense could simply not stop the Browns, so it hardly mattered.
That was until Thornhill forced a fumble of Browns running back Nick Chubb in the third quarter.
Watch Juan Thornhill (No. 22) come in from the left of the screen and get his helmet on the ball and force the Nick Chubb fumble, recovered by Ben Niemann. pic.twitter.com/SNXnLZBHJl— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) September 17, 2021
“Most of the time, with guys, they see there’s a bunch of teammates around the ballcarrier,” explained Thornhill. “They don’t typically get in on a tackle, but with me, I didn’t want to stand around and just watch. I wanted to get in on the tackle as well, so I just saw an opportunity for me to shoot it.
“I just saw the ball, and I literally put my hat right on the ball. I guess I got kinda lucky on that one and popped that one out.”
Linebacker Ben Niemann recovered, and the Chiefs kicked a field goal to get within two points at 22-20. About 16 game minutes later, Thornhill came up big again.
Now with the Browns trailing 33-29 in the fourth quarter, they needed to find a way to score. On third-and-7, quarterback Baker Mayfield dialed up Schwartz vs. Thornhill again — but this time, it didn’t work. Arrowhead erupted.
“It’s a huge play, just ‘cause it’s like third down — once you make the play, the crowd goes crazy,” said Thornhill. “That just showed that you can do it. That’s pretty much it. With me, I didn’t feel like it was like anything different. I just went out there and played the football. And me making a play, it makes you feel better. It shows that you can do everything that you want to do.”
And the Chiefs believe it. The morning after the game, Reid made a point of it in his opening statement to call out Thornhill’s name. Without his effort, said Reid, Kansas City might not have come all the way back.
“I thought that him and Dan [Sorensen], and all the guys quite honestly back there, did a good job. I told them Tuesday that I was proud of the whole group and the way they stepped up in the second half and I was really proud of the back-end guys when we decided to play a little bit more man in the second half, how well they did.”
The Chiefs sealed the win and now look forward to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Mathieu’s return for that game likely means that Thornhill will have fewer than the 95% of defensive snaps he got against the Browns.
But who knows? Perhaps last Sunday’s second-half effort showed the Chiefs what they have been waiting to see since giving Thornhill more reps in training camp.
That old Thornhill — the one from 2019 — needs to be on the field.