In August of 2019, as he spoke about then-rookie safety Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo admitted he wasn’t “privy” to starting rookies right away. If Thornhill were to start as the team’s safety next to veteran Tyrann Mathieu, he would have to earn it during training camp.
The task was tall, but Thornhill accomplished it, earning the Week 1 starting job and never relinquishing it, finishing with 16 starts as a rookie before he tore his ACL in the team’s final regular-season game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chiefs went on to win the Super Bowl; Thornhill had surgery and began rehabbing his injury. Not fully back to himself in 2020, Thornhill saw half the starts and 200 fewer regular-season plays.
When camp began as it always does — with quarterbacks and rookies arriving three days before veterans — Thornhill reported. The coaching staff wanted him to get as many reps as possible to get back to where he felt comfortable. Then in the preseason, he showed that. After perhaps the Chiefs’ best play of the preseason, a diving interception in the end zone against the Arizona Cardinals, Thornhill announced that he was “back.”
And for a week in the 2021 regular season, it felt like that. With Mathieu out of the lineup, Thornhill started next to Daniel Sorensen against the Cleveland Browns, playing 95% of the team’s defensive snaps — and recording seven tackles and two game-changing plays in the second half.
But it was not enough — at least not according to Spagnuolo, who ran Thornhill for 11 defensive plays in the Chiefs’ 36-35 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
“Juan’s done a good job,” said Spagnuolo when pressed about Thornhill’s role on Wednesday. “He’s had spurts of good football. But what you’re asking about is a position change — a position change has got to be merited when somebody’s not playing well, when we need improvement there.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Sorensen leads the league in missed tackles at nine. The next players league-wide are both Minnesota Vikings: old friend Bashaud Breeland and linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Those players have six apiece, three fewer misses than Sorensen.
“What I think that is with Dan is just a little bit coming under control,” said Spagnuolo. “The one thing we love about Dan is he’s not going to miss a tackle being soft — that’s not a bad thing... I’d have to go back, but I’m almost certain the same thing happened to Dan last year.
“No preseason games, come out for the first two games — I remember the missed tackles were there last year, too. And Dan became really one of our consistent, most aggressive tacklers. We’re not ready to panic on that right now, and I know he’s not.”
Sorensen only had three missed tackles through two weeks last season, but there were seven through the first five games. To confirm Spagnuolo’s note, he then ripped off three straight perfect games in that regard. With that in mind, it sounds like Sorensen will get another opportunity to right the ship against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
Thornhill will watch from the sidelines, aside from the Chiefs’ dime looks.
“Juan’s done some good things for us; he just needs to earn his way back,” added Spagnuolo. “Juan and I had a conversation on Tuesday. The first game, Tyrann didn’t play, so Juan was out there a lot. In this game (Week 2 against Baltimore), Tyrann’s coming back and Dan’s in there, so what did happen is in the packages that Juan is in there for, we weren’t in them very much.
“Baltimore kept us in our base package — and there’s just two safeties out there — so we’ll see where it goes. Before it’s all said and done, we’re going to need everybody — Juan, Dan, everybody.”