The Kansas City Chiefs are headed to their fifth straight AFC Championship game after getting a 27-20 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday.
Kansas City came into the game with starting safety Justin Reid as the secondary’s only significant player (300 or more snaps) with more than four years of NFL experience. Of the team’s seven defensive backs with more than 300 snaps, four of them were rookies who were playing in their first postseason game.
So there was plenty of concern about how the Chiefs’ young secondary would fare in big moments on a big stage. But Saturday afternoon proved that these young players could get it done.
One challenge was Kansas City would handle Jacksonville wide receiver Christian Kirk, who had nine receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 10 — his biggest game of the year — with most of that coming as the slot receiver against cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. But over the previous three games, Kansas City had been using first-round draft pick Trent McDuffie in the slot, while using Sneed to cover the opponent’s top receiver.
This switch had been working very well — and on Saturday, the Chiefs stuck with it. Sneed stayed with Kirk, who had seven receptions for just 52 yards. His lone touchdown came on a play where Kirk was one-on-one in the red zone against rookie defensive end George Karlaftis. Sneed ended up with nine tackles — and was in on the tackle that led to the fumble by running back Jamal Agnew when the Jaguars were threatening to score with six minutes left in the game.
Fumble, Good effort by the #Jaguars, this might end it.pic.twitter.com/1eVB89Exnb— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 22, 2023
But how did Kansas City’s two rookie cornerbacks hold up in their first playoff game?
McDuffie continued his strong play, showcasing tight coverage throughout the game. he was targeted just three times out of 45 overage snaps, giving up only two catches for 21 yards.
Rookie seventh-rounder Jaylen Watson was the bigger concern. While he has turned in an up-and-down season, he has made big strides since being thrust into the starting lineup after McDuffie’s Week 1 injury. He had been splitting snaps with rookie fourth-rounder Joshua Williams — but in the season’s final three games, he played much more than Williams did.
Watson held his own on Saturday, allowing only two catches for 55 yards — one of them a 37-yard reception by wide receiver Zay Jones. Watson also came up with one of the biggest plays of the afternoon — a spectacular interception with less than four minutes left in the game.
OH MY GOODNESS @JAYLENWATSON12 pic.twitter.com/v4UrSL7CEK— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 22, 2023
But missed in the excitement of the interception was the pressure applied by blitzing safety Justin Reid, who timed the snap perfectly and was untouched on his way to quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Reid’s pressure forced an early throw that contributed to the interception. The veteran safety finished the game with five tackles and a quarterback hit — and allowed only 48 yards in coverage.
Rookie safety Bryan Cook saw 19 snaps in the Chiefs’ dime package. He didn't allow a catch on his single target. On his only tackle, he came downhill to make a beautiful open-field tackle on Jacksonville running back Jamycal Hasty, limiting what could have been a big gain to just four yards.
But Saturday’s biggest moments for the young secondary may have come from safety Juan Thornhill, who will be a free agent when the season ends. If he continues to play like he did against the Jaguars, he could force Kansas City into a difficult decision about retaining him. He was targeted four times, giving up just one reception for yards. Two of the incompletions he forced demonstrated amazing coverage with the ball in the air. He added four tackles to round out a great game.
The bottom line
The Chiefs' young secondary put together a solid game, limiting Lawrence to 217 yards and one touchdown. The unit played tight coverage, forced turnovers and tackled well. That’s more than you can usually expect from such a young group.
But these young players will face a bigger test in Sunday’s AFC Championship against the Cincinnati Bengals’ high-octane offense. How they perform will be a big factor in whether Kansas City returns to the Super Bowl.