L’Jarius Sneed’s game-changing play began with some chicanery; he figured he needed it against one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
Sneed — the Kansas City Chiefs’ third-year cornerback — says he likes to study pre-game film of the opposing team’s signal-caller each week to develop a game plan for his coverage and blitzes.
The scouting report this time against Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady was simple: His throws would be coming out quickly.
“So I tried to show that I’m not coming,” Sneed said following the Chiefs’ 41-31 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday night. “And that’s when I hit him.”
The beauty, in this instance, was in the details.
If NFL fans saw the abbreviated replays of Sneed’s strip-sack in the second quarter, they missed the best part. A few seconds before the snap, Sneed goes Hollywood in an effort to outmaneuver Brady.
And in that time, Sneed goes from playing it cool to sprinting off the edge, leading to a Chris Jones fumble recovery and the Chiefs extending their lead from 21-10 to 28-10 late in the second quarter.
“It’s just what I do,” Sneed said of the acting job, “to not let him know I’m coming.”
Here’s how Sneed handled things right before the snap: He put both his hands on his helmet like it didn’t fit right. He then readjusted his gloves for a second, backpedaling two steps as if he was getting ready for a coverage assignment.
All of it was for show.
As Brady was about to call for the snap, Sneed burst in the opposite direction. He sprung ahead a few steps, crouching so he couldn’t be seen as well by Brady before curling around the right tackle.
While rewatching the play on a cellphone in the KC locker room, Chiefs safety Justin Reid described what he saw this way: “That’s smooth. … That was money.”
“You can’t talk about how valuable that’s been for us, to make explosive plays like that. We feed off that — the entire team does,” Reid said. “And you just stack those up, and good things tend to happen.”
It was the second straight week that Sneed had made that type of play, as he also produced a sack and forced fumble against Indianapolis’ Matt Ryan in the Chiefs’ Week 3 loss.
Sneed, through four games, leads KC with three sacks. And as he’s earning a reputation as an occasional pass-rusher, he’s also had to consider the best ways to hide his true intentions when his role is to go after the quarterback.
“The guys on the back end disguise it well. I try to wait,” Sneed said. “I know Tom Brady will pick it up really fast, so I tried to wait and disguise it.”
It’s only part of why that play came together Sunday.
Talk to Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo about Sneed, and he’ll often rave about his work ethic. Sneed wants to get better, and because of that, Spagnuolo has enjoyed seeing minor progressions each week result in more considerable changes over time.
Adding pass-rush skills is a part of that. Sneed says he’s sought advice from Chiefs defensive linemen on how to improve, and they’ve taught him most about working on getting low when going against any offensive linemen that try to reach him.
Developing physical gifts has helped, too. Once Sneed has received the blitz-call code from the Chiefs’ coaches, he’s been able to get around the edge quickly with his speed — something that coaches value in a league where split seconds often make the difference.
It’s been a promising start to 2022. Before Sunday, Sneed graded as the Chiefs’ fourth-best defender, according to Pro Football Focus’ measures, while also posting the second-best “pass rush” grade of any qualifying cornerback in the NFL.
And while getting to this point has required both development and guile, Sneed believes he’s not close to reaching his ultimate upside.
“There’s much more to go,” Sneed said. “It’s just the beginning of what’s my goal.”