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How 2 Chiefs cornerbacks are helping transform Steve Spagnuolo’s defense

The versatility and skill of Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed are not to be taken for granted.

Super Bowl LVII - Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves having versatile players who can play different roles throughout his unit. In the latter half of the 2022 season — for the first time in his four years in Kansas City — he had two cornerbacks who could do about anything asked of them: veteran L’Jarius Sneed and second-year player Trent McDuffie. While both are effective as outside cornerbacks, they can also perform at a high level in the slot.

“I think that we would never give up on always having Trent and L.J. ready to play in there,” Spagnuolo told reporters two weeks ago. “I don’t think that’ll change.”

The coordinator recognized a little-understood reality of NFL football: covering slot receivers is hard as anything a defense does — particularly when those receivers are consistently great players. A defense can struggle to find a steady groove without an adequate slot cornerback on the field.

Let’s look at how Sneed and McDuffie are helping improve Kansas City’s defense:

Matchup flexibility

Week to week, some opposing offenses have one, two — or maybe even three really good wide receivers to combat. From there, perhaps the best receiver on that team spends most of their snaps aligned in one specific spot. Others often move around from play to play. At times, the best wide receiver primarily resides in the slot position, nearer to the middle of the field. No matter what, it pays for the defense to have several adequate options for combatting whatever is presented to them. Enter Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed.

In 2022, Trent McDuffie started 14 games (including three playoff matchups), aligning in the slot for 38% of his defensive snaps and 57% along the perimeter. Third-year veteran L’Jarius Sneed aligned out wide for 51% of his snaps, while 41% came from the slot. McDuffie took more and more of the slot reps as the season went on, including 46% during Kansas City’s playoff run.

Percentages aside, the point is this: the Chiefs have two guys capable of excelling as all-around skillful defensive backs regardless of where they align — while most teams struggle to find one player who can bring this inside-out skill set to the table — the Chiefs had a hard time finding such a coveted type of player like this for several years, since the departure of Brandon Flowers back in 2014. This creates a rather unique element of unpredictability for their defense.

Fearless and athletic as necessary, Sneed and McDuffie are quintessential ball players on the back end of the unit. Not only are both guys athletic and fleet-footed enough to compete with the best route runners the NFL has to present them, but they also are both fearless participants as tacklers — they’re physical enough to play the safety position if they wanted. From snap to snap, they can mirror some of the best route runners the NFL has to offer, blitz quarterbacks in a savvy well-timed manner, or stick their faces in the fire of a congested run play.

From week to week, one can imagine Spagnuolo working with defensive backs coach Dave Merritt to devise a specific game plan for whoever they may face during the upcoming game. If it’s a team with a shifty, laterally quick slot receiver — it might be favorable for McDuffie to spend the majority of his reps aligned in the slot.

If the opponent is an offense that likes to use heavier formations with multiple tight ends that make blitzing the slot cornerback more of an advantageous option, perhaps Sneed would get the nod as the primary nickel corner while McDuffie continues to shadow receivers out wide at a very high level.

Maybe it’s a common foe like the AFC’s Cincinnati Bengals — where they have more good receivers than they know what to do with, and it’s a matter of Spagnuolo and company determining which player(s) are best suited to cover each specific receiver one-on-one, largely dependent on size, speed, quickness, and Spagnuolo’s play call — he has adequate chess pieces to maneuver and shouldn’t feel insurmountably disadvantaged against any offense.

The bottom line

Regardless of the determinations, Spagnuolo currently enters the Chiefs 2023 training camp limitless as ever. Kansas City’s younger secondary now has far more live experience than a year ago, which should carry them forward to new heights. Barring injury issues, McDuffie and Sneed are both ascending players.

As regular season games eventually begin — assuming the presence of both Sneed and McDuffie — pay attention to the commonalities in these players’ usage from week to week and even snap-to-snap.

While quarterbacks study extensively to gain an edge prior to games and understand where primary threats can often be found, that will be as hard as ever when preparing to face the Chiefs in 2023. McDuffie and Sneed make it so. There is little to no weakness to be found in Kansas City’s back end, and another offseason of experience added later; it could just be fact that the best is yet to come for this defense’s group of Swiss army knives.

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