The Kansas City Chiefs’ 24-10 Christmas Eve victory over the Seattle Seahawks gave Kansas City fans plenty to be cheerful and joyful about — especially in the defensive secondary.
The Seahawks scored just 10 points — the lowest number since Week 2 — and it took them nearly 58 minutes of game time to reach even that. On their first 10 possessions, they only managed a field goal. Seattle quarterback Geno Smith turned in the worst passer rating and second-lowest completion rate of his otherwise sparkling season.
In his opening postgame statement, Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid was ready with a shout-out for his defensive unit — specifically the rookie defensive backs Trent McDuffie, Bryan Cook and Jaylen Watson.
“I thought overall our defense just had a great day,” Reid declared to reporters. “Some of those young guys — 21, 6, 35 — those guys played their tails off. [Linebacker Nick] Bolton had another big day with 17 tackles. The defensive line was extraordinary. I know it was an emotional game for Frank Clark, having played there… he did a nice job.”
Among all the position groups he could have mentioned, Reid chose the defensive secondary for a reason: it was noticeable how fast the linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks were flying around to make tackles and pass breakups. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. earned a tackle for loss and two passes defended — while safety Juan Thornhill sealed the game with an end-zone interception.
But the group’s most important defender was cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. On most passing plays, Sneed covered Seattle’s No. 1 receiver: DK Metcalf. Wherever the Seahawks’ wideout went, Sneed was there. By the end of the game, Metcalf had racked up 81 yards and seven catches on nine targets.
But the most important part of that stat line? No touchdowns. In the eyes of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his staff, that’s what made Sneed’s performance a success.
“That was the scheme that Spags had set up going in,” revealed Reid. “I thought he did a nice job; [Metcalf is] a good football player there. Sneed is a good football player too, so matching them up was a smart thing by Spags. I thought our coaches did have a good game plan together. My hat goes off to them.”
With Seattle’s second-leading receiver Tyler Lockett sidelined due to injury, the Chiefs’ scheme focused on limiting Metcalf — who entered the game with the league’s 10th-most targets. Veteran leaders like defensive end Frank Clark knew just how important it was to keep him from having a big day.
“We knew the task coming in,” Clark told reporters after the game. “To be able to put that flame out: [the] great receiver in 14, of course, on the other side. I feel like our young defensive backs — [we’ve] got the youngest defensive backs in the NFL… they did a hell of a job holding DK and holding that side of the ball down. So hats off to those guys.”
Sneed allowed one big pass play, in which Metcalf created enough separation down the sideline for a pass that Smith squeezed between Sneed and Cook. Outside of this 35-yard gain — which occurred on a drive that the defense limited to a field goal with a goal-line stand — Metcalf accounted for 46 yards.
Safety Juan Thornhill also recognized the impact of removing Metcalf as a threat.
“What worked for us was taking away 14,” the safety told FOX4 in the locker room. “The dude is a heck of a player; he made a couple good catches — but I was amazed that we eliminated him and made someone else win. Our defensive backs played a heck of a game, so that helped us out a lot.”
Just three weeks ago, Metcalf racked up 127 yards and a touchdown against cornerback Jalen Ramsey and the Los Angeles Rams’ defense. He made far less of an impact against Kansas City — and McDuffie made sure Sneed got the credit he deserved.
“I’ve been saying that’s the dude,” he said of Sneed in the locker room. “[He’s the guy] that’s going to be one of those dudes in this league that hangs around for a long time. He’s tough, he’s physical and he does the dirty work at a high level. That’s someone that the rookies look up to.”
Sneed’s performance did not go unnoticed by Metcalf himself, who also gave him credit.
L’Jarius Sneed told me Steve Spagnuolo asked him on Monday if he was up for the challenge of traveling with DK Metcalf today and Sneed said he was ready for the challenge.
Metcalf after the game told Sneed he had a lot of respect for him.
— Matt Derrick (@mattderrick) December 24, 2022
It was a duel between players who each possess a unique blend of power and speed, leading to an intriguing individual battle in the midst of a competitive game.
There’s an argument to be made that the battle did, in fact, make a significant difference in the matchup’s outcome. In a game of inches, Metcalf nearly scored before halftime, barely missing getting his second foot down to stay in bounds. But Sneed (and the rest of the Chiefs’ secondary) did enough to keep him from taking over the game.
It’s not only an encouraging sign for the secondary’s future, but also an option the team could explore in order to defend against elite wide receivers during the postseason.