KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It wasn’t a foggy Christmas Eve nor did Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo need someone to guide his sleigh but he did have a question for L’Jarius Sneed that made the cornerback want to shout out with glee.
As the Chiefs went to work Monday starting to prepare for the Seattle Seahawks, Spagnuolo asked Sneed if he would shadow wide receiver DK Metcalf on Christmas Eve at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine with it,’” Sneed said after his team’s 24-10 victory over Seattle Saturday afternoon. “I love challenges, I love to step up to challenges and that was a big challenge for me — and we came out victorious.”
The Seahawks didn’t shy away from their top pass-catching threat, targeting Metcalf nine times. While Metcalf hauled in seven catches for 81 yards, Sneed kept him out of the end zone and shut him down from big plays. Even on Metcalf’s sole big play, a 35-yard connection that setup Seattle for a field goal at the end of the first half, it took a perfect pass from Geno Smith to Metcalf with Sneed matching him stride-for-stride down the sideline.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the average separation between a receiver and a defender is 2.93 yards. Sneed blanketed Metcalf on Saturday with just 2.26 yards of separation for the star receiver.
Head coach Andy Reid said his “hat goes off to” Spagnuolo and his defensive staff for devising the scheme to place Sneed on Metcalf.
“I thought (Sneed) did a nice job, that’s a good football player right there,” Reid said. “And so, Sneed is a good football player too, so matching them up, I thought, that was a smart thing by Spags.”
Normally the Seahawks present a 1-2 punch at receiver with Metcalf, who now has 1,005 yards receiving on the season, alongside Tyler Lockett (964 yards). With Lockett out with a hand injury, however, the Chiefs saw the opportunity to attack Seattle’s primary passing target with their most experienced cornerback while allowing the rookie trio of Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson to find more favorable confrontations.
Safety Juan Thornhill said the game plan was contingent on Sneed taking Metcalf out of the game. Thornhill echoed his head coaching in saluting Sneed for a job well done.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Thornhill said of Metcalf. “He got a couple of good catches but that was the main thing. We just eliminated him and made someone else win, and the thing was our (defensive backs) played a heck of a game. That helped us out a lot.”
The team knew throughout the week that Sneed would be shadowing Metcalf. Safety Justin Reid said he had complete faith in Sneed, and the third-year defender more than justified that belief.
“He can edge out anybody,” Justin Reid said while flashing a big smile. “Bring Calvin Johnson back, we’re going to put LJ on him.”
At the end of the game, Metcalf told Sneed how much he respected him, and that tribute meant just as much to Sneed as the support of his teammates.
“That felt great,” Sneed said. “No doubt.”
Even with his focus on Metcalf, Sneed found himself helping out in other areas. On a third-and-3 in the third quarter, Metcalf and fellow Seahawks receiver Penny Hart were lined up outside to the left for a bubble screen intended for Hart. Sneed read the play immediately and bailed on sticking to Metcalf to join with McDuffie and stuffing Hart short of the first down.
“He’s balling for real,” McDuffie said. “His name is going to start ringing a lot of bells around here because he’s one of those guys that puts his head down, does the dirty work and does a great job at it.”
At no point during the week did Sneed feel any apprehension about tackling such a critical assignment as neutralizing one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers.
“I was very excited though because traveling with a top guy, it let me know they trust me,” Sneed said. “That’s pretty big to travel with someone with a big-guy name like that.”
Indeed, Sneed’s tenacious defense seemed to set the tone for Kansas City’s secondary on Saturday. The Chiefs’ defensive backs combined for 33 tackles, led by Justin Reid with eight stops and Sneed with seven.
“Everybody just had that mindset at the beginning of the week,” Sneed said. “We had a short week, we knew they were going to come in and play physical, and that’s how we came in and approached it during the week.”
No one needs to remind Sneed about tackling – heading into Week 16 he led all cornerbacks with 76 tackles and 3.5 sacks. “I love it, man,” Sneed says about tackling defenders. “I love it.”
Yet the team’s tackling has come under fire in recent weeks, however, as the Chiefs struggled to close out games against the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texans.
“It’s December, a lot of guys don’t want to tackle,” Sneed said. “But we’ve been pounding it in our head, and our coaches have been pounding us all week about tackling and getting the guys down on the ground. After the run, after catches make sure we get them down.”
Justin Reid agrees.
“I think it’s just that time of year that we want to be the team we want to be,” Justin Reid said. “We got to start playing like it.”
McDuffie says the leadership of veterans such as Reid and Sneed is helping the younger players in the defensive backfield prepare for the postseason.
“I think all of the rookies know, especially now and moving forward, this is the time where we got to lock in, we got to come together and we got to start playing great technique,” McDuffie said.