The Kansas City Chiefs’ defense has started the season very impressively — specifically in the passing game. Through four games, the Chiefs have yet to allow a team more than 250 receiving yards — and in each game, they have held the opponent’s primary receiver to less than 75 yards.
But the unit will have to be on its A-game to continue that performance through Week 5, when Kansas City goes on the road to face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoon. Now ranked third in total passing yards, the Vikings are also a 1-3 team that is desperate to get back to winning.
Wide receiver Justin Jefferson provides the primary fuel for that passing offense. Heading into this game, he leads the NFL in receiving yards (543) — and he has the Chiefs’ attention.
“[Jefferson]’s a heck of a player,” head coach Andy Reid assured reporters on Wednesday. “You’re aware of him, obviously, for his skill. You have to be creative — but most of all, you have to cover the guy. That’s the best thing you can do.”
The former first-round pick spends most of his time aligned outside, which sets him up for a showdown with Kansas City cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. So far this season, the Chiefs have trusted the fourth-year corner to match up with primary receivers. In Week 2, he slowed down the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Calvin Ridley — and the week after that, held down the Chicago Bears’ D.J. Moore.
My favorite #Chiefs play from Sunday you may have missed on the broadcast— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 3, 2023
3rd & 11. L'Jarius Sneed aligns in press on Garrett Wilson, and completely erases him. Doesn't allow him to get out on a route
Makes Mike Edwards' reads simpler, leading him to nearly intercept the pass pic.twitter.com/9ZXKoLG4mV
On this play, Sneed uses his length and physicality to jam Wilson hard at the line of scrimmage — hard enough to prevent Wilson from releasing into his route. This close to the line, it’s a legal play — and here on third-and-long, it makes safety Mike Edwards’ job that much easier.
Covering his deep half of the field, Edwards recognizes that Wilson is not out on a route, so he turns his focus to the routes coming across the field toward him. He jumps Zach Wilson’s throw, nearly intercepting it.
It was just one of a number of plays Edwards made for the Chiefs in Week 4. As the season continues, he’s earning more and more playing time — and recognizes the challenge that Jefferson will present.
“He’s one of the best receivers in the game right now,” Edwards said of the Minnesota wideout. “We have to take away his explosive plays; we have to stop [his] yards after catch.”
Jefferson makes use of his unique combination of size and athleticism to evade tackles — and this year, only one receiver has more yards after catch.
“You just have to hone in on tackling,” explained Edwards, “[and] swarm him with all 11 guys running to the football.
“A guy like that is hard to bring down — hard to stop — but we have been practicing on it and harping on it.”
While Jefferson is listed at 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, the Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes has noticed that when the ball is in the air, Jefferson looks even longer and taller.
“What people don’t understand is how physical he is catching the football,” said Mahomes on Wednesday. “If you watch the games, he can go up and get it; he’ll put his body on the line because he loves competing and loves winning.”
While Jefferson is the focal point, Edwards mentioned two other receivers who are producing for the Minnesota offense. The first was T.J. Hockensen.
“A great tight end,” said Edwards. “They like to give him the ball; [he’s a] good playmaker.”
Then there is first-round rookie wide receiver Jordan Addison.
“He’s real explosive and real fast,” Edwards noted. “There are guys like that all over the field — so we have to take them away and limit their explosive plays.”
So far, Addison has registered 185 yards and two touchdowns — and both of his scores have come on deep balls.
“He is definitely a speed receiver,” said Edwards. “He’s kind of light — not very big — but he gets out of his routes pretty well. He’s a good deep threat; I’ve seen him go over the top a few times over the last four weeks. We definitely have to stop him on that — and not let him get over our heads.”
Minnesota’s passing attack runs at a high volume and at a high level of efficiency, attacking defenses at multiple levels with multiple playmakers. It will challenge all three levels of Kansas City’s defense.
But this game will still likely come down to how well the Chiefs can contain Jefferson. Much of that responsibility will fall on Sneed, who is well-motivated to prove he’s a No. 1 cornerback before he hits free agency in 2024.
Sunday’s game may very well be the biggest opportunity Sneed will get this year.