A significant storyline from the Kansas City Chiefs’ season has been the youth of the cornerback position — one of the NFL’s most important units, being counted on to slow down modern high-powered passing attacks. The rookies have fared well, but the veteran of the group has remained its headliner.
Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has ascended from the flashy playmaker he was as a rookie to a legitimate starting cornerback that can do a little of everything. There is no better evidence of that being the case than the Chiefs’ 24-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Throughout the game, Sneed was assigned to follow and cover wide receiver DK Metcalf.
It’s something defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo planned to do as they prepared for the game, and he came away satisfied with the results. He shared his thoughts with reporters during a press conference on Thursday afternoon.
“He did a good job, I really thought,” Spagnuolo noted. “[L’Jarius] is a competitor, and so is [Metcalf]; we felt like we needed to do that to get us going, I thought he did a really good job all game.”
Metcalf ended the game with 81 yards, catching seven of his nine targets. Those counting statistics will suggest Metcalf still had a consistent presence in the game — but not as much as you’d think. He created enough separation to complete a 35-yard play on the team’s only scoring drive through the first three quarters, but that was one of only three catches that resulted in a first down on Saturday afternoon.
“He had the one on the sideline, where the safety probably should’ve been over there a little bit sooner, probably shouldn’t have even had that one,” Spagnuolo said of the one big play Sneed allowed. “[L’Jarius] had a contested one on him on a shorter curl, but I thought the guys did a really good job as a group making [Metcalf] for them a focus, and making sure he didn’t wreck the game.”
It was a unique game plan for Sneed, who was stapled to the perimeter because that is where Metcalf primarily aligns. Sneed aligned in the slot on only two snaps; he averaged over 38 snaps in the slot per regular-season game coming into Week 16. It was also the first game Sneed was not used to blitz on at least one pass play.
It speaks to his evolution as a player, transforming into a hybrid — mixing the playmaking versatility with the traditional skills Spagnuolo asks of his cornerbacks. Sneed’s length and physicality fit what Spagnuolo has had at outside cornerback in prior years, but he was left to focus in the slot — leaving older, more experienced players to handle the perimeter.
“In years’ past, we’ve had Charvarius [Ward] and [Bashaud] Breeland outside,” Spagnuolo recalled, referencing being flexible with cornerback alignment. “It goes into who we have and what matchups we have on the outside, but I’ve never resisted it; we’ve done it.”
The matchup was key in the decision. After not going to it all season, Spagnuolo’s instinct told him to go to it once secondary wide receiver Tyler Lockett was announced to not play in Kansas City. It left Metcalf alone as Seattle’s only main pass-catching threat, giving way to Sneed’s test run as a true, number-one cornerback.
The test run came out with positive results, giving Spagnuolo something to think about when the team plays stronger, bigger-bodied wide receivers like the Cincinnati Bengals’ Tee Higgins or the Buffalo Bills’ Gabriel Davis. Each of those teams has a more dynamic receiver that headlines their unit, but maybe that’s where the elite coverage traits of first-round pick Trent McDuffie can fit as well or even better in some respects than Sneed.
It’s something Spagnuolo will have to ponder as the team finishes out the last two games of the regular season.
“We’ll see. Even Denver this week has two really good ones, so you have to make a decision there,” Spagnuolo noted. “It’s just all about the team your facing and what they have, what are the other matchups when you do that, what problems the offense presents, do they move that guy around. Last week, [Metcalf] didn’t move around very much; if you have a player that is the same caliber and they are always moving them, you kind of lose that a little bit.”
There is a good chance that Sneed’s debut as a shadowing cover cornerback was very game-plan-specific to a team with shallow depth at wide receiver. The strategy may not be pulled out in the playoffs — but either way, showing it here against one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers should be a confidence booster for Sneed, who strengthened his case for a contract extension this offseason by adding to the list of talents he has.