Chiefs’ defensive secondary emerges with quality depth

Nov. 2, 2014; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines (23) and free safety Husain Abdullah (39) combine to hit New York Jets wide receiver Percy Harvin (16)  at Arrowhead Stadium. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Nov. 2, 2014; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines (23) and free safety Husain Abdullah (39) combine to hit New York Jets wide receiver Percy Harvin (16) at Arrowhead Stadium. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Chiefs’ secondary took a good turnaround from the first to second year under the current coaching staff.

The group ranked 25th against the pass in 2013, allowing 247.6 yards a game with 17 interceptions and surrendering 63 explosive plays of 20 yards or more.

In 2014, the secondary jumped to No. 2 against the pass (203.2 yards allowed per game), but fell short in the turnover margin with only six interceptions.

The secondary was able to drop to 41 explosive plays of 20 yards or more last year, but arguably had to change philosophies in its aggressive press-man attack to limit the risk of big plays and stay competitive in games.

The third season will be the opportunity for the coaching staff to find a good blend between the two styles.

Kansas City currently has 16 defensive backs — nine cornerbacks, seven safeties — on the roster:

PRESSING THE OPPONENT

1. Cornerback Sean Smith: The seven-year veteran will serve a three-game suspension to start the season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, but the season can set him up for his final big payday before age begins to erode his athletic ability.

The 28-year old Smith enters a contract season in the prime of his career and performed very well in 2014 with a career-high 18 pass deflections. He was in good position, rarely got burned by a defender and was aggressive in coverage. The Utah alumnus also shut down pick routes that were run at him in two big games against Denver and Seattle.

Smith picked up where he left off during the 2014 season during spring practices. He was consistently in great position on deep routes against wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Chris Conley.

2. Cornerback Phillip Gaines: The former third-round pick has an opportunity to build upon a solid rookie season. Gaines made his initial impact on special teams with some impressive hits at the gunner position. He saw 154 snaps on special teams and an additional 371 snaps at corner. The former Rice Owl began to gain confidence after Week Three and made a gradual climb after that.

Gaines looked good in spring practices. He was given the opportunity to match-up against Maclin and made some impressive deflections with tight coverage on the speedy receiver. The game looks to be slowing down for Gaines and that could equal serious playing time in 2015.

3. Cornerback Jamell Fleming: The fourth-year veteran seemed to find a comfortable level in the system during the second half of 2014. Fleming saw his defensive snaps increase from 15 with the Arizona Cardinals in 2012 to 253 last season. He made the most of his opportunities and became a solid contributor throughout the season. Fleming kept good position, but remained physical.

The former Oklahoma Sooner had a solid spring and did not get beat on a consistent basis. Fleming could potentially see more time at the corner position with the suspension of Sean Smith.

4. Cornerback Marcus Peters: The team’s 2015 first-round pick lost a lot of quality reps when he was only able to participate in six of the sixteen practices due to his graduation date.

Peters looked in good condition when he returned in late June. He looked very comfortable when he was able to read the play and drive on the route. Peters had a few break-ups when he could read and use his athletic ability to make the play.

The former Washington Husky will need to work on the fluidity of his turn and run with the defender. He also will need to improve on his timing when looking for the football when his back in turned transitioning with the wide receiver, and continue working on the timing of his press. Zone coverage looks to be a strength the team can lean on until he gets more comfortable with the nuances of press coverage in the NFL.

5. Cornerback Steven Nelson: The team’s 2015 third-round pick dealt with the same NCAA quarter system as Peters and missed OTAs. Nelson used that free time working out at the Fisher Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., spending five days a week weight lifting, doing cornerback drills and studying his playbook.

The former Oregon State Beaver had a consistent spring practice. He is a very physical corner and is very quick in both his backpedals and quarter turns. Nelson will bring an attitude to the secondary and is similar to Brandon Flowers on tape.

6. Cornerback Marcus Cooper: The third-year veteran has serious competition in front of him. Cooper had an impressive first half of his rookie season before Peyton Manning tested his ability in both 2013 games and he has been working to since recover. Manning seemed to attack Cooper once his back was turned and shoulders even with the receiver. The Broncos quarterback would then place the ball on the far outside shoulder.

Cooper seemed to struggle in ability to find the football and maintain good positioning to deflect the pass. Once that was put on tape, additional quarterbacks seemed to attack the same area. Cooper had a handful of break-ups during spring practices, but will need to improve on his deep ball coverage to maintain a roster position.

7-8. Cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Deji Olatoye: Both had a couple of deflections in spring practices, but there wasn’t enough to evaluate ahead of training camp.

9. Cornerback Kevin Short: The Chiefs signed the rookie after he went unselected during the 2015 NFL Supplemental Draft.

BACK END OF COVERAGE

1. Safety Husain Abdullah: Abdullah shined in the Chiefs 2014 playoff loss to Indianapolis Colts with two interceptions. He had the most total snaps at 1,159 of any player in the secondary during the 2014 season. The seven-year veteran is comfortable in two deep and near the line of scrimmage helping in run support or zone coverage over the middle. The former Washington State Cougar is rarely out of position.

2. Safety Ron Parker: The fifth-year veteran has found a home at safety. Parker was moved to corner once he began his career in the NFL, but his skill set translated well to safety and has very impressive ball tracking skills. He is able to use his athletic ability to adjust based on the football rather than the receivers route. Parker keeps good position on deep routes and excels when he is able to read the routes in front of him.

The former Newberry Wolf has the athletic ability to remain disciplined in single-high coverage and has the range to reach either side in a timely manner. Parker’s skill set is a huge asset to the safety requirements in a Chiefs defense.

3. Safety Tyvon Branch: The eighth-year veteran will provide the Chiefs with a quality run supporting box safety. Branch is a physical presence in run support and delivers big hits when doing so. He is comfortable in zone coverage over the middle and helps detour crossing routes over the middle. The former Oakland Raider matches up well against physical tight ends from both a technique and athletic standpoint. Branch struggled in two-deep and single- high coverage for the Raiders.

His athletic ability shines when he is able to pursue a defender at a straight line angle but struggles when he must change directions. Branch provides the Chiefs run defense with the presence they missed with the loss of Eric Berry last season.

4. Safety Sanders Commings: The third-year veteran returns from injured reserve for the second time in the past two seasons. Commings sustained a fractured left clavicle the first day of training camp in 2013, then aggravated the injury on Week 11 and missed the remainder of the season. Then he broke his fibula during the first training camp practice in 2014.

The former Georgia Bulldog showed promise last spring as he looked like a potential answer at the free safety position. Commings showed great range and a good ability of track the ball in the air for a couple of interceptions. In the 2015 spring practices, Commings did not look like the same player from the prior season, as some of his range appeared to have not come back yet.

5. Safety Kelcie McCray: The fourth-year veteran played a significant role on special teams with 301 of his 357 snaps coming from that area. McCray has solid athletic ability, but there just isn’t enough tape to evaluate his skill set on defense.

6. Safety Daniel Sorensen: The second-year pro looked more comfortable as the 2014 season progressed. He showed flashes during training camp and preseason last year with some deflections and interceptions, but still needs time to develop. He saw 141 snaps on special teams last year.

7. Safety Eric Berry: His status as he battles lymphoma has not been updated at this time. The last official word from the Chiefs came on the final day of mandatory minicamp and reinforced what the team announced on the first day of OTAs. Berry, who finished treatment, and his family were expected to meet with doctors. Results of that meeting are pending.

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Nick Jacobs is a contributing writer for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @Jacobs71.

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