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Film review: Chiefs’ defense is missing playmaking from its safeties

Steve Spagnuolo’s unit had grown accustomed to its safeties contributing big plays more often,

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Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Following the Kansas City Chiefs’ 34-28 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 14, Chiefs fans must have felt like they just rode a roller coaster.

On defense, the highs were exciting — but the lows were glaring. Kansas City’s defense allowed touchdowns on three consecutive drives by surrendering chunk gains through the air. The defensive backfield gave up more plays than it made.

In this particular game, neither the Chiefs’ cornerbacks or safeties did well. But all season, the lack of playmaking from the unit’s safeties has been an issue. Starters Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill have combined for one forced turnover and nine passes defended. Over the last three years, the team’s two starting safeties have combined for an average of six interceptions and 15 passes defended — not to mention forcing three fumbles over that stretch.

This is not to say that these players aren’t playing in the way that is expected of them. It’s to say that in recent years, the defense has been able to benefit from playmaking safeties — and without them, the unit is struggling. The Chiefs currently rank 29th in turnover differential at minus 5.

The Denver game provided a few examples of this season-long trend.

Instincts in coverage

When an opponent is passing, Kansas City will mostly play two-high safety shell coverages. When they rotate to one-high looks, Thornhill is the primary free safety — but both he and Reid have to play back (and up towards the line of scrimmage) interchangeably.

Reid has experience as a free safety, playing it for the majority of his last year with the Houston Texans — and earning two interceptions that season.

Here — on the first snap of the Denver game — Reid is the one-high safety as the Chiefs anticipate a first-down run. Once the play is known to be a pass, the Cover 3 shell requires Reid to stay above the middle third of the field. The tight end runs a waggle route, faking the deep over and pivoting back against the flow of the play.

It fools Reid, who has to gather his feet to recover — but with pressure on quarterback Russell Wilson forcing him to hold it longer than he wants, the safety has a great chance at a pick. But Reid appears to anticipate an underthrow, so he jogs to undercut the pass. When the ball arrives, Reid is too short on the ball’s path. He leaps and stretches for it — to no avail.

If he had sprinted to recover after the initial coverage turn, he would have had more space to run under the ball and intercept it. He just misjudged the pass.

Thornhill has looked more comfortable in those deep roles than Reid — much more comfortable than he is in man coverage.

On a play like this one — even with his cornerback experience from college — Thornhill just lacks the instinct to recognize some plays. Here on this third-and-medium, he should be defending the sticks as the blitz forces a quick throw.

The initial cushion is to disguise coverage pre-snap — but once the play is going, Thornhill should be putting himself in position to defend the sticks. He gives wide receiver Kendall Hinton — a former practice-squad quarterback — too much cushion, allowing him to make a cut at the first-down marker and easily move the chains.

A little anticipation could have made this a huge defensive play.

Finishing plays

If the safeties aren’t going to have high-upside plays like turnovers, neither can they afford low-downside plays like missed tackles and blown coverages. They haven’t done much of the latter — but according to PFF, Reid is missing tackles at a rate of 17.6%. Thornhill is right behind at 16.4%. Reid’s mark is the eighth-worst among starting NFL safeties. In comparison, safety Tyrann Mathieu had a 10.2% rate in 2021.

I could just clip together Reid’s straight-up missed tackles from recent weeks, but this play is an example where he plays too much by the book; he just doesn’t demonstrate a playmaking mindset.

It’s third-and-4. Reid is in man coverage on the tight end. He is (rightfully) locked into that player — but so much so that he doesn’t react to the run until very late.

As a safety playing in the box with only four yards to convert, he should be giving the run more respect. If he does, he can perfectly fill the open gap.

Even when he finally does recognize the run, his effort is lacking. He eventually gets run over — and the Broncos move the chains.

On the 66-yard screen pass for a touchdown, Reid is a blitzer on the same side as the screen. Once he’s coming full speed at the quarterback, It’s impossible for him to know the screen is coming — but he has the best angle of any player to get in the throwing lane and knock down the pass. Wilson turns and looks for a count before throwing — and as he closes in, Reid doesn’t get his hands up.

Once the play is in motion and into the third level of the defense, Thornhill over-pursues — allowing the cutback lane to score. If Thornhill keeps good inside leverage with his pursuit angle, he could use cornerback Trent McDuffie’s outside leverage to squeeze the play to a stop around the 30-yard line.

Even rookie safety Bryan Cook missed a chance to make a big play.

Here — on the Broncos’ last touchdown drive — Denver needs 34 yards to convert on second down. Cook has middle-field coverage responsibility — and seems to cover up a deep sit route by the tight end. After mirroring the break well, however, he fails to complete the play because he doesn’t turn his head; he can’t attack the pass and intercept it. He does tip the ball, but the receiver still catches it.

The bottom line

Every safety made plays against Denver. This playmaking issue is more of a season-long trend than it was a big issue in this particular game.

Again: this is not to say Reid and Thornhill are failing in their roles — that they unable to fulfill their responsibilities. It’s to point out that over the last three seasons, the Kansas City defense has relied on safeties making big plays. In a game where it matters most, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.

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