KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Two years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were coming off an AFC championship heartbreak against the New England Patriots that rested largely on the shoulders of their defense, which couldn't stop Tom Brady and Co. in overtime.
Not enough talent? Maybe. Not enough playmakers? Absolutely.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and coach Andy Reid knew they needed to rectify the problem or risk squandering the best years of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. So they hired Steve Spagnuolo to coordinate the defense, traded for elite pass rusher Frank Clark, drafted wisely and — perhaps most importantly — outbid the Texans for safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The Honey Badger has made that $42 million, three-year deal look like a bargain.
After helping the Chiefs win their first Super Bowl in five decades last season, Mathieu has followed up with what can only be described as the best season of his career. He has seven interceptions, including one in last week's divisional-round win over Cleveland, and has become the biggest playmaker on a defense that suddenly seems underappreciated.
“He's a great player,” said Bills coach Sean McDermott, whose team offense gets the next crack at the Honey Badger in the AFC championship game Sunday. “Watched his career unfold at LSU and the different places he's been — he brings a lot of energy and juice to their team, and their defense in this case.”
The numbers alone are impressive. Mathieu has picked off five passes in the past seven games, and he returned one for a touchdown against New England earlier this season. Quarterback ratings plummet when they throw in his direction, and his versatility is evident in the fact that he has tackles-for-loss in three of his past five games.
No wonder he was voted an All-Pro for the second straight year and the third time in his career.
“Just the energy he brings, what he's saying to guys on the sideline or in the huddle — they trust him,” Spagnuolo said. “They believe in him. The guy is a winner. He's made plays for us, and when you get enough guys like that you have a unit.”
It's hard to find another guy like Mathieu, though, with his unique ability to wreak havoc from his “robber” position. He bounces around the field like a pinball, both before the snap and after, putting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks to make sure they know where he is on any given play.
On a quarter of snaps this season, he's lined up in the deep safety spot. In about a third, he's lined up in the box to provide run support. On almost 40% of snaps, he has lined up in the slot, essentially becoming an extra cornerback.
In other words, Spagnuolo is using Mathieu in ways he's never used another player in 40 years in coaching.
“I hadn’t thought about it until you just said that,” Spagnuolo said, "but I’d probably say yes, that we have gone a little more beyond, because there are some things that we do with him now that I don’t recall us doing in prior places.
“First and foremost, him from the chin to the hairline, you’re talking about an intelligent football player that loves it. You know that if you feed something to Tyrann, he’s going to get it and he’s going to know why,” Spagnuolo said. “We lay out all of these plans and you go from Monday to Saturday and into Sunday, but things change so quick on game day. The one thing about Tyrann is you can go over to him and say, ‘Let’s tweak this or do that.’ He knows exactly why and he does it.”
He gets everybody else to do it, too. The middle linebacker may call the defensive plays — for the Chiefs, that's Anthony Hitchens — but Mathieu is often the one making sure everybody everybody knows what is going on.
Then he takes care of his own business.
“I think any position on the field allows you the chance to make plays,” Mathieu said. “It's all about staying committed.
“Early in the season I wasn't making those plays,” he continued, "and as a high competitor you can get out of it thinking none of those plays is ever going to come to you. For me, it's just about staying involved, staying committed to what my coaches want me doing.”
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