Since joining the Kansas City Chiefs via the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, safety Juan Thornhill has long seen a superstar-laden offense overshadow his side of the ball.
Through three games of this season, however, the Chiefs’ defense has been the most dependable unit. Thornhill — now one of the two longest tenured Chiefs’ defensive backs — is happy with what he is seeing.
“It feels great,” Thornhill said before practice on Wednesday. “When the defense is making a lot of stops — making big plays in the game — it feels amazing.”
One way the defense is affecting games is by pressuring the quarterback. Through three games, the Chiefs have 10 sacks from 49 quarterback pressures. The 2021 Chiefs had only 31 sacks for the entire season. Thornhill has noticed the difference.
“I love seeing pressure,” he explained. “The ball’s coming out quick, quarterbacks get a little antsy in the pocket and they start throwing the ball up. That allows us to make more plays. So I love seeing pressure.”
Some of that pressure is coming from Thornhill’s fellow defensive backs. The Kansas City secondary has recorded six quarterback pressures — resulting in a pair of sacks for cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Thornhill confirmed that significant portions of his unit’s practices have focused on rushing the passer.
“Some guys don’t pressure a lot from the defensive back room, but we also work on that as well,” he said. “We have drills out there that we work on: dip-and-lean and maybe bull rushing sometimes — because if you were to bull rush an offensive lineman, they wouldn’t be expecting that. So, we definitely practice that, for sure.”
Sneed — who ran a 4.37 40-yard dash time at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine — now has five career sacks. Thornhill expects his teammate to continue bringing down opposing passers.
“[Sneed’s] explosive,” he observed. “If you see him, he’s getting to the quarterback so fast. Before the quarterback can get his feet there, he’s there. The guy — he’s fast, he knows how to dip-and-lean, [and he has] good bend — and that’s why he’s getting to the quarterback so fast.”
The Chiefs’ defense was widely expected to face early-season growing pains after saying goodbye to vocal leaders from previous seasons, forcing important roles on several rookies and second-year players. But Thornhill is enthusiastic about how the defense is coming together after just three weeks, crediting the role fellow safety Justin Reid — who joined the Chiefs in March — has played in the transition.
“I love it,” Thornhill boasted. “Justin has been doing a heck of a job. I feel like at first, we were going to have some hiccups along the road — but he’s been doing a great job with learning the playbook, he’s communicating well. [and] playing very physical. I love it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Not every moment has been fun. The Indianapolis Colts were able to engineer a game-winning drive to defeat the Chiefs 20-17 on Sunday. Thornhill was beaten by rookie tight end Jelani Woods for the go-ahead touchdown. But the safety is not deterred — and even stands by the lofty goal he set for himself in June.
“See, I’m pretty happy with how I played,” he declared. “The last play of the game against Indy — I wouldn’t take that back for anything. I played what the coaches wanted me to play. I played pretty physical. It was just a big tight end that made a great play — and the quarterback made a great throw. I’m definitely proud of how I’m playing, but I’m always looking for a way to increase my play and play a lot better.”
He expects the entire defense to join him in the growth mindset.
“The only thing we can do,” he offered, “is look forward to keep climbing each and every week — making those big plays.” For example, I just said something about my play. That’s a play I have to make to help us win. When it comes time to make a play, [we] just have to make it.”