KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Chiefs cornerback Jamell Fleming returned to practice the past two days for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury in Week 8.
While Fleming practiced fully Tuesday, coach Andy Reid doesn’t appear optimistic of the third-year pro’s availability for Thursday night’s game against the Oakland Raiders.
“I would tell you it’s probably going to be a bit of a struggle for him to get back right now,” Reid told reporters Tuesday. “But he’s able to move around and do some things. It’s kind of a little bit of a short schedule here, so we’ll see how he really works today (Tuesday).”
Cornerback Sean Smith remains a mainstay on the right side. But Fleming’s pending return offers a dilemma considering he became the starting left cornerback in Week 7 after the Chiefs made the move from Marcus Cooper.
With Fleming down, defensive back Ron Parker started at left cornerback the previous two games and rookie cornerback Phillip Gaines drew a start at the position in Week 9.
Whether Fleming takes over his previous starting role when he’s 100 percent healthy remains to be seen.
“It’s just like anybody else who’s come back,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said Monday. “We start to work them in gradually. We just try to see where they’re at, and then obviously this week we don’t have many days to evaluate that, so really it’ll come down until tomorrow (Tuesday) to see where he’s at.”
The Chiefs, of course, aren’t exactly hurting against the pass through 10 regular-season games, the last three games without Fleming.
Kansas City enters Week 12 ranked first against the pass, allowing 201.6 yards per game. The defense on the season has allowed only 25 big passing plays, defined as plays of 20 or more yards, which ranks as the fourth-least amount in the league.
Even more impressive surrounds the Chiefs not allowing a 300-yard passer on the season. And that comes after facing Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
Versatility among the cornerbacks has afforded the Chiefs an opportunity to compensate for injuries to Fleming and nickel cornerback Chris Owens, who has been dealing with a knee injury.
Cooper at this point provides depth, as his role on defense has diminished since losing the starting job. He failed to log a defensive snap in Week 7, Week 10 and Week 11, while mostly contributing on special teams.
Gaines and Parker, however, play key roles in Sutton’s numerous personnel packages.
Gaines has played outside or inside, and Parker has appeared in all regular-season games with nine starts, six coming at strong safety and three at left cornerback.
Parker currently ranks second on the team with 59 tackles (52 solo), and the Chiefs aren’t likely to move his versatility out of the lineup even without a specific playing position.
“I don’t ever want to get into saying, ‘Hey that’s just your position,’” Sutton said of Parker. “For one, he plays a lot of positions for us, so we’re thankful that he’s flexible enough to do whatever we need, whether he needs to move inside or stay outside.”
Ultimately, the production from Parker and Gaines makes any decision on what to do with Fleming a hard one.
But it is a good problem to have given the stout play of the pass defense in a league where a team can never have enough cornerbacks.
“We’ll have to make some decisions and like all decisions it’s usually more complicated than one-for-one or whatever it is,” Sutton said. “Those guys as you’ve mentioned have all played great and we’ll just have to kind of wait and see, no different than we’ve done with (inside linebacker) Joe Mays and anybody else that’s been in that same position.”