While it may sound like an insult to say an NFL cornerback’s strength as a player comes when he blitzes, it might also speak to that player’s unique talent.
That’s the case with Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.
With three sacks this season, Sneed leads all NFL defensive backs. He is also one of only three defensive backs to force multiple fumbles — both of them coming on plays where he earned a sack.
In Sunday night’s 41-31 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sneed earned the most significant of these sacks. After the Chiefs’ offense had failed to convert a fourth down, the Kansas City defense took the field to defend a 21-10 lead. On the first play of the Buccaneers’ drive, Sneed blitzed off the right edge, surprising quarterback Tom Brady and creating a turnover as he tackled him.
As smart as Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo appeared to be for making the call in that moment, he was honest with reporters before Friday’s practice.
“We’ve blitzed on first downs before,” Spagnuolo pointed out. “Nothing special. There’s no secret there... I just happened to have the right call made at that particular time.”
Last season, the Chiefs blitzed defensive backs on 18% of their snaps — the NFL’s second-highest rate, per Football Outsiders. So it wasn’t surprising when Spagnuolo drew laughter by saying “every down” was the time to call these blitzes.
“There’s no preference there,” he said, “and I’m being honest with you. We call them as run blitzes, there are pass blitzes — they are all in there. I feed them to the guys that way: telling a corner or safety that this is a run blitz — [or] if they happen to throw it, do this. These happen to be third-down pass pressures; if they run it, just make sure to rally to the ball.”
But the blitz call is only one part of the equation; the players have to execute the strategy to its finest detail. That was the most impressive part about Sneed’s sack: not giving away his intentions before the snap. In this case, his acting skills passed the test.
“I just tried to show Tom [Brady] that I wasn’t coming — [I] tried to disguise it,” Sneed told Arrowhead Pride’s Pete Sweeney in the locker room on Thursday. “The guys in the back end also did a good job — [and] then the defensive linemen opened it up for me so I could come free.”
How exactly did Sneed fool Brady? It was pretty simple.
“[I was] messing with my helmet,” Sneed recalled. “Because I know [in] my rookie year, I used to show and move around before I blitzed. Now, I try to make sure I’m just like messing with my helmet.”
Sneed’s self-awareness — to improve such a small detail over his three NFL seasons — is one of the reasons Spagnuolo relies on him as a pass rusher. He has blitzed 20 times this year, earning six pressures on those plays; the rest of the Chiefs’ secondary has combined for 26 blitzes. It’s all because Spanuolo’s play-calling tendencies unlock Sneed’s playmaking ability.
While Sneed isn’t a bad player in coverage, he’s simply not as impactful as he is as a tackler around the line of scrimmage. A blitz takes advantage of these physical tools.
“He’s really explosive from standstill to wherever,” asserted Spagnuolo. “If you watch him, he’s really explosive from Point A to Point B. That’s not easy to do — some guys take a little while to get going — but he’s gotten good at timing it up. We work all the time at when he’s not coming, when he is coming — making sure to do the same thing, the whole thing. He’s been really good at it.”
As much as Spagnuolo loves to send his defensive backs toward the passer, Sneed might enjoy the play-call even more.
“I’ll run around like a chicken with his head cut off,” Sneed admitted. “I get very excited.”
The Chiefs will continue to use Sneed as their primary blitzer from the secondary; as the team’s slot cornerback, he’s usually the defensive back with the easiest path to the quarterback. It’s become an integral part of the defense — especially when the defensive line is struggling to get pressure.