Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith was in man-to-man coverage, as he often is these days, matching Eagles receiver Riley Cooper step for step over the middle when, all of a sudden, the football was headed his way — and a bit off target, to boot.
“When I say my eyes got so big ...” Smith said with a laugh. “I was like ‘OK, you’ve got to catch this. Family and friends are watching.’ ”
Smith’s family and friends had to like what happened next as he snatched Michael Vick’s pass out of the air — it was thrown a little behind Cooper — and recorded his first interception as a Chief in a 26-16 victory over Philadelphia on Sept. 19.
It was the highlight of another strong performance for Smith, a free-agent acquisition who harassed Cooper into a two-catch, 29-yard performance despite being targeted seven times, all the while playing the man-to-man coverage the Chiefs have come to rely upon heavily under new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
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“We mixed in a little zone throughout the game,” said cornerback Brandon Flowers, “but we just did what we do. We’re a man-to-man cover team.”
Smith, a 6-foot-3, 218-pounder who is Flowers’ new partner in crime in the secondary, is quickly emerging a cornerstone.
The Chiefs signed Smith to a three-year contract reportedly worth $18 million this offseason in hopes of solidifying the outside spot opposite Flowers, and through three games, the move has paid off. According to Pro Football Focus, opponents have only completed 41.2 percent of passes when targeting Smith, a fifth-year pro who has allowed seven catches on 17 targets, giving him the sixth-best mark in the league amongst corners who have logged at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
That’s a sizable improvement from last year, when Smith allowed opponents to complete 54.9 percent of passes at him, good for 31st in the league. While some of this has to do with small sample size — hey, there are still 13 games left — some of it may also have to do with matchups.
In Miami, where Smith spent the previous four years, he says he was occasionally asked to cover the other team’s No. 1 receiver.
“It was a situation where if a guy was short and shifty and they had a big receiver on the other side, then obviously I would go to the bigger receiver and our other short, quick defenders would cover the other guys,” said Smith, a former second-round pick from Utah. “So it wasn’t always about the No. 1, but whatever suited our scheme the best.”
But in Kansas City, Smith has spent the last two weeks primarily lined up against the defense’s second-best receiver. While the 5-foot-9, 187-pound Flowers drew the task of facing Dallas’ 6-foot-2, 222-pound star receiver Dez Bryant in week two (and allowed nine catches for 141 yards and a touchdown), Smith largely drew 6-foot-2, 216-pound Miles Austin and held him to three catches and 31 yards.
Smith also got to face the 6-foot-3, 222-pound Cooper against Philadelphia instead of lightning-fast DeSean Jackson, who was held to three catches and 62 yards with Flowers on him most of the day.
Smith, to his credit, says he doesn’t care who the Chiefs ask him to match up against.
“I don’t get caught up in who’s No. 1, who’s No. 2,” Smith said. “This is the NFL — those (other) guys are getting paid, too.”
Plus, Smith added, the way the Chiefs ask their corners to play (with little help over-the-top, aside from the single-high safety who roams the middle of the field) adds an additional degree of difficulty to an already-tough job.
“You could shut a receiver down for three quarters, and all it takes it one quarter and or one touchdown catch to ruin your whole day,” Smith said. “You have to go out there and fight and you have to love to compete. You better keep your spirits up because out there at corner, there’s no room for error. One mistake and everybody’s looking at you.”
Smith said he and Flowers definitely have that in common, which — in addition to all the time the defense spent together in the offseason — allowed them to become fast buddies.
“Our personalities kind of clicked, we get along,” Smith said. “We definitely hung out in the offseason, and that definitely brought us together.”
“Our swag out there is definitely at a high level,” he added. “We always feed off each other’s energy, because no one knows what we’re going through except me and him.”