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Chiefs Film Review: How rookie defensive backs helped reclaim AFC

When their best was needed on Sunday, Kansas City’s draft class delivered.

Kansas City Chiefs vs Cincinnati Bengals, 2023 AFC Championship Set Number: X164296 TK1

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.

Trent McDuffie

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.

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.

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.

Jaylen Watson

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?

Still, Cincinnati made a few plays. With tremendous targets like Chase and Higgins threatening down the sideline, the team will always get a few.

Joshua Williams

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.

Bryan Cook

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.

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.

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