Among the many keys to victory for the Kansas City Chiefs in their 27-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings, one was obvious before, during, and after the game: slowing down Vikings’ wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
The NFL’s receiving yards leader was averaging 135 yards per game heading into Week 5. Against Kansas City, Jefferson totaled 28 yards, only garnering three catches on the six targets thrown his way. Jefferson did draw multiple penalties, but that was all a part of neutralizing one of football’s top weapons.
It was a purposeful game plan from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who primarily trusted cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to cover the elite wideout. Spags reflected on the key matchup Monday morning in a Zoom press conference.
“That was certainly a huge focus,” Spags said of defending Jefferson. “You saw as the game went on, we tried as much as we could to get L’Jarius on him, it wasn’t every snap, and it wasn’t every call we have. He did a really good job being aggressive.”
PFF tracks CB v WR matchups. This is L'Jarius Sneed v WR1s past 4 weeks:— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 9, 2023
v Ridley: 5 tgts, 2 recs, 32 yds, 4 YAC
v Moore: 4 tgts, 1 rec, 3 yds, 4 YAC
v Wilson: 6 tgts, 3 rec, 24 yds, 3 YAC
v Jefferson: 3 tgts, 2 rec, 14 yds, 6 YAC
44% catch rate, & only 17 YAC allowed on 8 recs
It was just the latest game where Sneed was given the opportunity to offset the opponent’s top wide receiver. It’s something that Spagnuolo began to do towards the end of the 2022 season, and carrying it into this year has paid off so far. Sneed’s physicality clearly has an effect on opponents, but it’s more about his confidence in the individual matchup.
“He loves a challenge,” Spagnuolo emphasized of Sneed. “He wants to go against their very best; that’s why we do it. When you have a guy like that, that you have confidence you can put him on their best guy. I think the other 10 guys rally around it; they see it.”
Sneed’s size allows him to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage, with length that can swallow up receivers trying to release into their route.
“That has been our M.O. here since we’ve been here,” Spagnuolo reminded reporters. “Charvarius Ward would do it for us, Bashaud Breeland, when we had him; L’Jarius just fit right in that same mold. We believe in that philosophically, to be a press-coverage team — and L’Jarius does it as good as anybody.”
Safety Justin Reid notices the fight at the line of scrimmage Sneed gets into time to time. He talked about it to reporters in the locker room post-game.
“He’s an old school corner that you don’t see anymore; he puts his hands on people and that throws guys off of their game, and I think he did hell of a job today. Some of those penalties were ticky tacky and that’s going to happen when you’re a physical corner and I’ll take that any day of the week, with the type of player he is and the type of plays he makes and what he does for us as a defense, I’ll take that day in and day out.”
Sneed’s athleticism is unique for a cornerback with his frame, and that allows him to more likely recover if an elite receiver wins off the line. It’s why you see him attack the receiver so hard at the snap; Sneed is confident in himself if his jam isn’t perfectly placed.
It did earn a penalty on one snap, illegal hands to the face, but it’s natural with that play style, as Reid put it. Spagnuolo agreed when asked about it.
“He’ll probably admit that he got a little overzealous on the one play, but all that might help us going forward; I’m okay with that.”
Sneed was just the leader of a group containing Jefferson. Cornerback Trent McDuffie got his share of opportunities to blanket the receiver, including on a fade from the slot later in the game. McDuffie’s tight coverage ended up not mattering because safety Mike Edwards flew in over the top and nearly intercepted the pass.
The team effort could’ve ended in an even bigger play, and Spags knows his veteran safety was replaying that snap back in his head.
“He would tell you he would have liked to have made that catch over there on the sideline,” Spagnuolo mentioned. “Because he is a ballhawk; he goes after the football, he had interceptions when he was down there in Tampa Bay playing.”
If you feel like you’ve seen more of the first-year Chief, it’s because he has been given more playing time — and more could be on the way.
“He did some really nice things for us in the red zone,” Spagnuolo remembered. “He deserves to be out there, we have him in certain packages, maybe we’ll get him in a couple others.”
The highlight of the Week 5 win truly was the Chiefs’ defensive backfield and how physically overwhelming they were against one of the NFL’s most productive passing attacks.
Credit is due to Sneed, McDuffie, and the rest of the group playing excellent football right now, but credit to Spagnuolo for riding the confidence of Sneed. It’s a requirement for these big-time individual matchups, and the unit is feeding off of it.