As the Kansas City Chiefs enter the season’s second half at the top of the AFC playoff picture, they will continue to depend on rookie contributions in the secondary.
Four rookie defensive backs saw action in Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars — headlined by cornerback Trent McDuffie, who was in on every defensive play. Cornerback Joshua Williams — a fourth-round selection from small-school Fayetteville State — also played more than half of the defensive snaps. Safety Bryan Cook and cornerback Jaylen Watson appeared in rotational roles, while seventh-round cornerback Nazeeh Johnson was inactive.
Speaking before Thursday’s practice, Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt explained that his young players are having success by living in the moment — and not overthinking the opponent.
“When you look at this group as a whole,” Merritt observed, “the five guys that we brought in here — all five of these guys have had opportunities to help the defense and help the team. I’m not surprised at all that they’re playing the way that they’re playing.
“[A] faceless opponent in front of us: that’s how we go about it; that’s how we attack it. Each guy goes out there and tries their best to play the technique that’s asked of them — and don’t make it bigger than what it is.”
Merritt also believes that the rookies have been able to adjust because they entered the league with strong fundamentals; it’s only been necessary to teach details.
“This young group that we have,” he remarked, “you just teach them a couple of techniques and get them better on angles — such as step into contact, such as creating a hard joint down [and] same-foot same-shoulder when you go to approach blockers and tacklers.”
In spite of their quick study, Merritt knows that NFL defensive backs are often put into no-win situations. So he stresses to his players that awareness of the game — along with physical ability — is a key to succeeding through adversity.
“When Michael Jordan was scoring 60 points,” he offered as a comparison, “it’s like, ‘OK, I’m covering him — but what else can I do?’
“You’re right there in his face, you’re right into his chest. It’s only great coverage if you can get the ball out. So my process for these young men to grasp is to not only be in position to make the plays — but then, once you’re in position, can you complete the assignment and own those throws? Although the ball may have been placed in a certain radius, I have to teach these young men to get in a position to make that play.
“The NFL [is] 90% mental. We all have a couple of friends back home who run a nice 40 [and] can jump — but do they have the mental capacity to understand what we’re trying to teach them and then go out and execute? Not many guys can — and that’s why they’re not where these young players are today: in the NFL.”
With half the season still ahead, the coach realizes that the real tests are yet to come — although he admits his young players are off to a great start.
“These young men came here with some techniques and some willingness to tackle,” noted Merritt, “which is great. Now, the flip side of that coin is, ‘Is he a dog or not? Is he a guy who is willing to go down and stick his shoulder pads in there?’
“The thing is that all of these guys are willing to stick their pads in there and be ready to wrap up. I commend all of them — [and] their coaches that coached them before they even got to this point.”
The early returns on McDuffie — for whom the Chiefs traded up to select with the 21st overall pick in April’s draft — are particularly promising. The former Washington Husky has been almost flawless in three games since returning from a hamstring injury suffered in Week 1’s victory against the Arizona Cardinals. His coaches are excited by what they are seeing.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said he first remembers getting interested in the team’s new starting corner after speaking with former University of Washington head coach Jimmy Lake.
“He’s really sharp,” Spagnuolo said of McDuffie on Thursday. “I remember talking to Coach Lake before the draft about a couple of players he had — and Trent was one of them. He mentioned that he didn’t skip a beat in terms of the mental part of it.”
Merritt agrees that McDuffie is meeting the hype.
“Everything that was spoken about him in the spring,” he recalled, “it’s all showing up again. The young man is going outside and challenging throws. He made some good plays.”
The first blemish of McDuffie’s short career came on Sunday, when he surrendered a sideline catch to Jaguars’ wide receiver Marvin Jones. His coaches expect that he will learn from the play.
“I think he’ll tell you that he probably looked for the ball too early,” remarked Spagnuolo. “But he was stride-for-stride with them — and he had a couple of other key pass breakups that were huge in the game. So I was really happy with how he played. I’m glad we got him.”
Merritt believes that the prize of the Chiefs’ draft is unlikely to be beaten the same way multiple times.
“He was in position to make the play,” noted the coach. “Just smooth and fluid in his movements — and very smart. He understands. We all have to just learn from our mistakes, but this kid is not a repeat offender. I’m not saying he’s perfect — but he does a great job.”