The Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to blitz opposing quarterbacks from nearly every position on the field. But in order for this hair-on-fire, pin-your-ears-back approach to be effective, his secondary needs to be able to hold up in coverage at the line of scrimmage.
So that’s exactly what the Kansas City coaching staff asks cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to do. On Friday, Chiefs’ defensive backs coach Dave Merritt referred to this as giving Sneed a “Liam Neeson assignment.”
In other words, Merritt told reporters, coaches simply say, “You go and take care of this.”
Merritt was referring to the Hollywood action star who famously portrays a one-man wrecking crew in movies like “Taken,” where he fights his way around the globe, hell-bent on revenge, keeping the airliner from being blown up — or whatever it is in this month’s script.
Liam Neeson in Taken(2008)— Scummander and Movies (@ScumanderMovies) January 21, 2023
But rather than get on the phone with the bad guys, Merritt said that Sneed studies film on each team’s best wideout, learning his tendencies so that the cornerback can shut him down most effectively.
“He’s done pretty decent so far,” said Merritt. “I know there’s some plays that he wished he can have back on certain guys — but overall, LJ being able to go and match up with an elite receiver that’s outside or inside allows you to do a lot of different things... We’ve been blessed to be able to have a young man like LJ and his skill set.”
When he spoke to reporters on Friday, Spagnuolo agreed with Merritt — but also noted that in Monday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, there will be two dynamic wideouts to cover: A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
“We’ll be a little bit careful either way,” noted the coordinator. “I would give LJ a lot of credit for that — and the fact that the secondary has really functioned well chemistry-wise and as a unit. Anytime you play a pass attack, when you get your DBs to do that, it makes it a little bit better.”
For Sneed, however, there is a downside to being the action hero: he’s tied for the league’s lead in in defensive penalties. But Spagnuolo is unconcerned.
“There’s some ‘cost of doing business’ penalties when you’re a press team and you’re going against a really good wideout,” he said. “You’re trying to be aggressive [as you] try to take that guy out of the game.
“Now LJ will tell you that he knows that he can be a little bit better. Sometimes the hands get a little bit too high, right? And we get [a] hands-to-the-face [penalty]. So we get a little grabby. We can avoid those. But I really don’t want LJ to become less aggressive.”
Merritt believes that the cornerback could incur fewer penalties by trusting his own ability downfield.
“Once he’s in phase,” explained Merritt, “running down the field with the wide receiver, he has to know that at that point in time — as you’re reading your keys when that wide receiver sinks his hip — you have to make sure that you’re just pumping your arms.”
But instead, said Merritt, Sneed tends to grab.
“He’s reaching, trying to just hold on almost like a little kid would do to a mommy or daddy when they’re trying to run away from him... And so he’s just got to trust [himself]: ‘My ability is good enough to run the route with him.’”
While that may sound harsh, Merritt believes in Sneed’s ability. Right from the moment he joined the team, Chiefs’ coaches believed that the Louisiana Tech defensive back could be more than he was in college.
“He thought he was going to play safety in the NFL,” Merritt reminded his listeners. “We tricked him a little bit — hypnotized him — and said, ‘You can play corner. You’re going to play nickel this first year.’”
The Kansas City coaches also understood that like any action star worthy of the name, Sneed was fearless.
“When you can match him up,” said Merritt, “he doesn’t flinch.”