A year ago, Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah was feeling his way around the secondary, fighting off a season’s worth of rust.
He was playing with a new team and learning a new scheme after spending a year out of football.
Abdullah, a practicing Muslim, had taken his family on a spiritual journey to Saudi Arabia instead of playing for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012, and after a year away, it wasn’t easy running stride for stride with fast receivers or latching onto hot spirals thrown by quarterbacks.
Abdullah won a spot on the roster as an extra defensive back on passing downs and finished second on the team with 10 special teams tackles.
And now, with the departure of Kendrick Lewis in free agency, Abdullah has taken over the starting free safety spot.
“Last year, it was kind of crazy coming in, coming off a year off, just trying to prove I belong, just trying to get back in,” said Abdullah, who had started all 24 games he had played in with the Vikings in 2010-11.
“A year later, being in the plan, being in the mix, getting more reps from day one … what a difference a year makes. There’s still a lot of work to do. I’ve been there before in my career. I’m excited. I want to win the battle to be that guy again. But nothing is settled yet.”
Abdullah, too, was a free agent at the end of last season, but even if Lewis had not left for the Houston Texans, he wanted to stay with the Chiefs.
“I’m not a fortune teller,” said Abdullah, who signed a two-year contract. “(General manager John) Dorsey and Coach (Andy) Reid were the first ones to give me a call … they’re being aware of who I am and of me as a person and not just another guy. … It was a place where they wanted to give me a shot and I wanted a shot.”
Though Abdullah, 28, is listed as a free safety, he can be found almost anywhere in the secondary, lining up in the box as a linebacker in the nickel defense, or in the slot as an extra cornerback, or playing deep in the base defense.
“Everybody is physically talented at this level, especially those guys in the back end at safety, because they’re in so many different roles,” said Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. “They get put in so many situations, and (Abdullah) sniffs out what they’re trying to do him and is able to get a bead on it.
“He does such a good job of diagnosing and recognizing what (offenses) are doing.”
Pro Bowl strong safety Eric Berry, who lamented the loss of Lewis when the offseason program began, has come to value Abdullah’s abilities during the first two weeks of Organized Team Activities.
“We’re working every day, and not just on the field, but we meet outside of football …” Berry said. “It’s a part of building that chemistry, talking about things, knowing where he’s going to be at, knowing where we’re going to be at.
“He’s extremely smart. One thing I take from him is his work ethic and his attention to detail. He’s very particular about things, especially in his technique, so I pay close attention to him and try to take notice as much as I can.”
Abdullah’s work ethic won the respect of his teammates, who voted him as one of six team captains for the 2013 postseason.
He responded in the wild-card game at Indianapolis by intercepting two Andrew Luck passes in the second half of what turned out to be a bitter 45-44 loss.
Abdullah intercepted Luck on the first play of the second half, setting up a touchdown that gave the Chiefs a 38-10 lead, and he intercepted Luck again with less than 6 minutes to go, setting up a field goal for what looked like an insurmountable 41-24 advantage.
“Everybody made a bunch of individual plays, but collectively, we didn’t get the job done,” Abdullah said. “We’re out here working and doing all the extra work and thinking about that game.
“It’s something to build off of. It’s not something to run away from or hide from. We’re going to look at that and say, ‘We had it, we just didn’t finish it.’ This year is all about finishing.”