The initial month as an NFL player felt like a whirlwind to Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill, spliced into a game that was faster than any he’d played before.
Gradually, though, the game slowed down for him. He played more freely with his speed and athleticism. And until he sustained a knee injury in the Chiefs’ 2019 regular-season finale, he’d blossomed into a key piece of Kansas City’s defensive turnaround.
Part II, now?
The aftermath of that ACL injury wrecked Thornhill’s sophomore NFL season, but he’s finally regained his starting job in the Chiefs’ secondary. The team’s results could not have been better — the Chiefs had their best defensive showing (or, rather, their only good one) — with Thornhill replacing Dan Sorensen in the starting lineup last weekend at Washington.
Individually, though, he identifies some areas in which he can improve — things like eye placement in man coverage, tackling and communication.
He’s confident that stuff will come. After all, it did before.
“See, the thing is, I remember my rookie season,” he said Friday. “I started off playing pretty good, but then I felt like each week I started to become more confident, started to make more plays (and) the game started to slow down.
“I just feel like that’s what’s going to happen (again). I just have to take my time and let the game come to me.”
The Chiefs opened the season with Sorensen at the back end of their secondary. The formula did not work, and as their defensive struggles continued, the spotlight on Sorensen further brightened on a couple of plays against the Bills. In that loss, he gave up two deep touchdowns, one on a play in which he inexplicably stopped tracking the tight end he was assigned to defend.
The Chiefs finally made the swap last week, with Thornhill not only starting but not once leaving the field. He had played a maximum of 44% of the team’s defensive snaps over the previous month.
“Being the season’s all said and done, all of those guys are going to have to play back there, Juan deserved to be out there — he’d done some good things,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “Dan and I talked. He was in a little bit of a slump, so we made a switch. I think it’s been pretty smooth.”
Late in training camp, it became evident Thornhill would occupy a role only in dime package defenses. He began rotating with the second- and even third-string unit while the team practiced its base defenses in St. Joseph.
He said Friday he did not receive a specific explanation for why he lost the starting job, though he also said he didn’t need one. He actually went a step further — he agreed with the coach’s decision, he says.
“Dan was playing some great football. Last year, you saw him making a lot of plays. I personally think Dan deserved it,” Thornhill said. “He was working really hard, made a lot of plays and came in with the right attitude. He deserved that spot.”
After a month, though, it became clear the Chiefs were in need of some sort of shakeup. Their miscues plagued much more than one position, but a replacement at safety was the easiest move — mostly because of the potential replacement. Thornhill showed promise as a rookie. He looked like a stable piece of the defense for years to come before the knee injury. He took some lumps early, as he acknowledged, but from a team perspective, it was worth the payoff.
Ultimately, that’s the objective here — a short-term fix lengthens to a permanent solution.
“If you go with the result, and that’s most important, and 13 points was the result, I’ll take that,” Spagnuolo said. “If just making that kind of combination ensures that every week, it’d be an easy decision.”