When the Kansas City Chiefs host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday, a Divisional Round playoff game, rookie defenders will shoulder a heavy responsibility.
Cornerback Trent McDuffie and EDGE-rusher George Karlaftis — the Chiefs’ pair of first-round selections last April — will start the contest and be counted on to deliver top performances. One or both of cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson — fourth and seventh-round selections, respectively — will see action in nickel packages.
After 17 games of action, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and his defensive staff believe the bigger unknown is the mental side of football as the most important game of their young careers looms.
“To us, it’s an important game [and] the speed gets faster,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said before Wednesday’s practice. “Coach Reid has been talking about that all week. Just play the game that you’ve been playing.
“I’ll talk with them a lot about the balance between the emotions and the mental part of it. Because when you get out of whack one way or the other, you don’t play good football. We’ll be educating them, and hopefully, they play their best football — just like we need all of them to down the stretch.”
Defensive backs coach Dave Merritt admitted there is no way for the rookies to understand the playoffs until they’ve taken actual postseason snaps.
“They just have to experience it — as we all know and hear,” he explained. “You have preseason mode, a regular season at the beginning mode, and then as the season grows long, there’s another mode we kick into. Once the playoffs hit, it’s something they have to experience.
“Trying to explain to someone how something tastes — versus tasting it themselves — is hard to do. That’s what you’re trying to do with the playoffs. It’s hard for me to explain to you what strawberries taste like if you’ve never tasted strawberries. So you just have to taste it — and they have to taste it.”
In addition to studying the Jaguars, Merritt hopes to see his unit study themselves — both on and off the field.
“Right now,” he emphasized, “the one thing that you try to do is you try to help these young guys understand that it’s all about making sure that you get your rest and making sure you study yourself first — before you study the opponent. If you can study yourself — and you know how you’ve played on film throughout the entire year — then you can hopefully fix some things that you may have seen on tape. They have to experience it.”
Though the Chiefs defeated the Jaguars 27-17 in Week 10, Jacksonville rallied to win six of the final seven games to clinch an improbable AFC South title. On top of a deep receiving group, Kansas City’s young secondary will need to be willing and able to help stop Jaguar’s speedy second-year running back Travis Etienne — who rushed for 109 hard-fought yards in last weekend’s Wild Card victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
“Etienne brings another element,” Merritt claimed. “He brings the homerun element because he’s a 4.3 kid — so if he gets out in space, he has a chance to take it to the house. Our guys, just like every week, we try to look at it as a faceless opponent but when it comes to tackling, it goes back to your fundamentals. Same foot, same shoulder – eyes, see what you hit [and] making sure that your shoulder pads are connecting [and] keeping your head out.
“All those fundamentals are going to have to come into play when it comes to tackling all of these guys because not only Etienne — but their receivers can run after catch. They do a great job — and they are probably one of the top in the league when doing that — but being able to tackle these guys with solid fundamentals and knee bend and knee flex. Etienne will be a challenge for sure.”
As his unit prepares for another playoff run with a younger-than-typical cast, Spagnuolo knows the areas he hopes to see improvement after a complete regular season.
“The red zone, certainly,” he identified. “I’m always a stickler for third down. Overall, we were OK — but I just think that’s such a critical down, especially in the playoffs. We’d like to be better at third down. And I don’t think we had as many turnovers this year as we did a year ago.
“I thought we would have had more of that with the way we played — but you can never put your finger on that one. I don’t remember a lot of dropped interceptions — I can remember a couple in my mind that stick out. The guys would probably be able to tell you which ones they did or didn’t get. So maybe those three critical areas.”