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Steve Spagnuolo wants Chiefs defense focused on stopping big pass plays

In training camp, Kansas City’s defensive coordinator has his mind on the secondary.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Chicago Bears Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

There weren’t many negatives to highlight from the Kansas City Chiefs’ first preseason game — Saturday’s 19-14 loss to the Chicago Bears — in which the starting offense built an early lead and the starting defense allowed no points.

The first-team defense did allow one big play: a 26-yard completion on a vertical route that featured the wide receiver leaping over cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to make the catch. The third-down completion was a buzzkill — and was the very type of play that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is now working hard to prevent.

“What I’m always looking at is big plays,” Spagnuolo explained to reporters after Tuesday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. “When the passes get deep like that, it puts everybody on their heels and it can lead to points allowed — which is our No. 1 goal [to prevent]. There were some things in this past game that we need to clean up from a standpoint of long pass plays.”

But that particular play was negated by the sack, run-stuff and batted pass at the line that followed it, resulting in zero additional yards — and a punt.

So the starting defense still eventually suffocated Chicago’s first team offense — but that one big play still got them into Kansas City territory and nearly into field-goal range, demonstrating how those long pass plays can ruin all the other work a defense might put in.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Chicago Bears Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

It also happened on the third defensive possession, when the second-string defense forced the Bears into a third-and-9 — which Chicago converted with a 19-yard pass to the sideline. Cornerback Joshua Williams had very tight coverage — but the pass still got through. Spagnuolo was honest about his reaction to the completion.

“We have to make that play,” he emphasized. “I think he did [do the right thing] for the most part; I don’t know, maybe he closed his eyes. He can make that play. You hope that as he gets more comfortable, the confidence comes there — and he goes and makes that play.”

The coordinator mentioned that rookie corner Jaylen Watson had a similar play completed against him during Tuesday’s practice. In today’s NFL — where the offensive player tends to have the advantage — these plays are going to happen. But Spagnuolo wants to see how his young corners respond when these disheartening plays occur.

“To me, it still comes back to how you respond in a game,” he said. “More than anything, how they respond when it doesn’t go well. That’s really what I have my eye on. Yesterday, we had some snaps where it didn’t go well for some guys. You can’t put your head in the sand — or else they’re coming right back at you.”

The good news is that the rookies may not need to be as relied upon quite as much as we originally believed. Veteran cornerback Rashad Fenton has now recovered from the offseason shoulder surgery that kept him out of the initial training camp sessions. Since his return, he has noticed the new faces in his position group.

“It’s amazing,” Fenton told reporters on Tuesday. “Everybody brings new flavor, new spice, new techniques and new aspects of football to the team, so it’s just great to see the new flavors in the mix as we bring it together as one team.”

Fenton’s return has come with multiple plays that he has made at camp — including an interception on Wednesday. This has been good news for Spagnuolo, because Fenton has been in the team’s defensive scheme longer than any other corner.

“Rashad’s feisty,” he observed. “It’s good to get him back. “When he had the surgery back in the offseason — and I did the math — I wasn’t so sure that we’d get him for now. So I’m excited that we got him when (I think) was a little bit early. He’s been out doing a good job. He’s a little rusty — he’s got to knock the rust off — but I [have] thought he’s done a pretty good job.”

Fenton is joining L’Jarius Sneed and rookie Trent McDuffie as the team’s starting cornerbacks. That trio will be on the field for the majority of the snaps — although their alignment on each snap could vary. While Fenton entered the league as a slot cornerback, Sneed currently starts there. And we shouldn’t count out McDuffie at the position, either. He worked into that spot during Tuesday’s practice.

“I remember talking to his college coach back before the draft, and Trent didn’t play much nickel there at Washington,” recalled Spagnuolo. “But his comment to me was that he could easily go inside and play. So when he got here, I told him he’s here to play corner — but we’ll work him back and forth.”

Considering all the youth in the unit, we can expect there will be a lot of strategy that goes into the Kansas City pass defense. Spagnuolo is preparing his unit the best way he can, but he (and we) should expect some growing pains as the secondary concentrates on his biggest focus: preventing big plays in the passing game.

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