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Steve Spagnuolo hopes the Chiefs have ‘tough sucker’ L’Jarius Sneed against Raiders

Any absence from the budding star forces a trio of rookies into the starting lineup.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs have listed cornerback L’Jarius Sneed as questionable for Saturday’s road contest against the Las Vegas Raiders. Sneed briefly left in the fourth quarter of Week 17’s 27-24 victory over the Denver Broncos after a 25-yard interception return.

Sneed returned for the Chiefs’ final defensive series of the game, and the issue was later revealed to be a hip pointer. The third-year pro was held out of Tuesday’s practice, before turning in limited sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.

Speaking after Thursday’s practice, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged Sneed is playing at an All-Pro caliber level after shadowing top opposing receivers in recent games — and the cornerback is crucial to the defense’s success.

“Listen, I can’t say enough about LJ,” the coach declared. “I could talk the whole press conference on LJ Sneed. I’m a believer in LJ Sneed. I think you just said All Pro — and I think he’s already there even before all that. And we as a unit feel that way about him and know that he’s a key guy for us to be really good.”

The fast turnaround from facing the Broncos to seeing the Raiders may complicate Sneed’s availability.

“He didn’t get full [practice],” Spagnuolo confirmed, “because he was still feeling pain and it’s a little bit uncomfortable — but he’s a tough sucker. We need him to tough it out for this game. [The] short week made it a little bit tougher.”

The Chiefs chose three cornerbacks in April’s draft.

After missing most of the season’s first half injured, first-round selection Trent McDuffie has played every defensive snap in the last three games. Fourth-rounder Joshua Williams and seventh-round pick Jaylen Watson have rotated third-cornerback duties much of the season.

NFL: DEC 11 Chiefs at Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Spagnuolo claims the rotation is by design based on work with defensive backs coaches Dave Merritt and Donald D’Alesio

“We’ve tried to play them both throughout the season,” he explained, “because we knew when we get to this point, we might need them both. The minute there’s an injury — and [L’Jarius] had the injury — you’ve got to put them both in there. Dave [Merrit] and Donald [D’Alesio] — and the players themselves — are working all the time on getting better.

“One thing about working with both Josh and Jaylen is they want to be coached. They want to get better; they want to do good. They don’t want to let the team down. The position they play is a challenging one. When they make a mistake, everybody knows about it. Not always true in the interior line when they make a mistake. We’re just going to keep riding away with those guys — and we’re going to need them.”

Throughout his career, Spagnuolo has had a reputation for hesitancy to play rookies. During Sneed’s short absence Sunday, all three cornerback positions were manned by first-year players. Spagnuolo was satisfied with how the situation played out — but was relieved to see his trusted weapon return.

“I’d be willing to bet that I haven’t been a part of that,” he said of having three rookies in the secondary simultaneously. “But those guys went out there and did a nice job. And it was great to see LJ come back. Talk about a tough guy. I don’t know if anyone has ever had a hip pointer — but that’s painful. And he went right back out there.”

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

With 104 tackles through 16 games, the versatile Sneed actually has a chance to set a record for tackles by a cornerback. While the importance of such numbers can be debated, there is no doubt the Louisiana Tech product is a special talent.

“LJ has been inside, and he’s been outside,” Spagnuolo observed. “We’re talking about a corner — I don’t know if that’s good or bad when a corner is making [tackles]. You’d rather have your linebackers and [defensive] linemen make them. He’s an all-around player, LJ. It’s not just cover ability — he’s everything. He can blitz, he can tackle, [and] he’s tough. He’s all that.”

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