After just a couple of plays in Sunday night’s AFC Championship game on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, the Kansas City Chiefs lost star cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to a concussion.
In that moment, fans who were aware of Sneed’s contribution to the team’s defense grew quite nervous. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had been left with three rookie corners — Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams — to line up against the NFL’s best trio of wide receivers: Ja’marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
What could go wrong?
While these three youngsters were surely aided by a great pass rush provided by Kansas City’s front seven, they more than held their own. Each one made critical, game-changing plays — as did rookie safety Bryan Cook.
Let’s take a look at how they did it.
Since he was the first player Kansas City selected in last April’s draft, it’s not surprising that McDuffie once again demonstrated that he is a great young player. After returning from injury at midseason, McDuffie was a standout as an outside cover corner. But in recent weeks — as Spagnuolo chose to let players like Sneed follow top receivers wherever they went — McDuffie has displayed his quick twitch and tackling ability as a slot corner.
Tone setter. 2⃣1⃣ pic.twitter.com/88JDE60XKF— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
McDuffie is a natural. He displays a rare feel for leverage throughout a wide receiver’s route. Knowing exactly where safety help might be available, he works to take away space on the opposite side. This reduces the number of vulnerable areas where offenses can attack.
In the first matchup, Burrow peppered these targets over the MOF. McDuffie and his instincts said nah, no more. pic.twitter.com/yHYiLcb0tT— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
Good example of McDuffie (slot) showing his spatial awareness— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
A lesser DB might bite inside or vertical with 16's stem. But 21 is incredibly patient. Knows he has help deep and to the inside from the safety
The patience is rewarded as he trails right underneath the corner route pic.twitter.com/nl4E8MUj0x
Even in their youth, this group of cornerbacks brings a high level of physicality — similar to other Kansas City corners of recent seasons — but they also seem to know when to take their hands off receivers and transition into playing for the football. That’s why interceptions and pass breakups have been becoming more common. On Sunday night alone, each of the four rookies registered at least one deflection. Together, they collected six — plus two interceptions.
It’s the most sustainable way to play the position. But that doesn’t make it any less remarkable to see these young players do it.
Who could have imagined last spring that the team’s seventh-round pick would start throughout the playoff run to a Super Bowl, getting interceptions in both the Divisional Round and the AFC Championship?
Joe just doing his part to continue the tradition of Jaylen Watson playoff INTs. pic.twitter.com/LC7JLiSx2B— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
J-Wat = J-Hop pic.twitter.com/nPp1vkkzd4— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
This play was set up greater by a back-shoulder ball earlier in the game.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
That's Burrow's WR2. pic.twitter.com/C5f4UM5YEU
Still, Cincinnati made a few plays. With tremendous targets like Chase and Higgins threatening down the sideline, the team will always get a few.
The fourth-round rookie was called off the bench following Sneed’s injury. He’s now leapt over the rookie wall. Since the preseason — when he was struggling with penalties and appeared unable to compete at this level — his patience at route breakpoints has improved immensely. While he is (understandably) still imperfect, he’s come a long way in a very short time.
Final play of half - lotta rookies would spaz out here and probably tackle Higgins. pic.twitter.com/Xu46Co4iX0— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
The way these rooks get their head around late in the rep. pic.twitter.com/AcBftPOpCr— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
Then there is the second-round pick — a safety out of the University of Cincinnati.
Traditionally, it’s been hard for safeties to quickly become comfortable in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Even veteran Tyrann Mathieu was well into his first season before it all clicked — and his play dramatically improved.
In 2022, that’s been true for all three of Kansas City’s primary safeties. Early in the year, Cook (and veteran starters Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill) weren’t having great seasons. But in the last six or so games, they’ve been on quite a hot streak — playing with visible confidence and decisiveness.
The traits that made Cook a top-64 draft selection are starting to pop. He’s now showing flashes that lead me to believe he can become a high-impact starter — perhaps quite soon.
Cook (#6) can flat out cover some yardage. pic.twitter.com/mnLkN4GoBa— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
I get why it's a penalty - but just watch the speed in which Bryan Cook (#6, bottom right of screen) moves in transition. pic.twitter.com/UTe7E3PWDp— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
This is an elite play by Cook— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 3, 2023
Knows the situation (3rd & 3; elite slant WR in the outside lane)
Positions for the slant but then recovers with serious speed and the finish on the football is as good as you will see anywhere pic.twitter.com/2w3S3mPzLM
In this one play, Cook does things that some professionals will never be able to string together. He shows pre-snap awareness, post-snap route recognition, smooth hips, excellent deep speed, patience downfield at the catch point and enough ball skills to cause a deflection — which ultimately becomes a game-changing interception.
The bottom line
General manager Brett Veach and his scouting staff deserve enormous credit for acquiring these reliable coverage defenders — and defensive backs coach Dave Merritt has done a terrific coaching job. But the work isn’t yet isn’t finished.
When Super Bowl LVII arrives next Sunday in Arizona, the Philadelphia Eagles will present another very stout set of offensive weapons — albeit not quite at Cincinnati’s level. So these rookies will once again need to challenge receivers with physicality and tenacity. That’s just some of what it will take for the Chiefs to secure their third Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Just as happened in the AFC title game, these young players will be beaten from time to time. But something tells me that down in the desert, they’ll be delivering some blows of their own.