Coach Andy Reid calls Kendrick Lewis a “stud.” Cornerback Marcus Cooper calls him a “general.”
But when asked what their starting free safety really brings to the league’s top-ranked defense, it seems most Chiefs agree with cornerback Sean Smith’s assessment:
“Kendrick is the quarterback back there,” Smith said. “He definitely takes control of the secondary and pretty much the whole defense, really.”
That means that whenever the offense runs a shift or motion, the 6-foot, 198-pound Lewis — who often lines up several yards off the ball and can pretty much see the whole field — is one of the first players to yell out a call or adjustment, and that’s just fine with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
“He’s a really sharp guy. He has a coach’s mind back there,” Sutton said. “I say that because he can anticipate things before they happen.”
So as you might imagine, Lewis does plenty of talking on the field, something that doesn’t just turn off, even though he’s recently been limited in practice with a nagging ankle injury.
“Twenty three is all-in, all the time,” Reid said of Lewis. “So even when he can’t practice on the ankle, he’s right there, backpedaling and making calls on the sideline, doing all this stuff. ... I love the kid. Tough, tough kid.”
Lewis, when told of Reid’s comment, couldn’t help but smile.
“I’m yelling out plays during practice because that’s my film study,” Lewis said. “If I see a motion, if I see anything, it just alerts (me) and I think I’m out there so I’m yelling it. That’s just me.”
Safety Quintin Demps, who plays in subpackages and leads the team with three interceptions, credited Lewis for helping him and safety Eric Berry (30 tackles, one interception) start the season strong.
“E.T. (secondary coach Emmitt Thomas), he says it all the time — God didn’t give you everything,” Demps said. “So I might have some speed, and he might not have the speed. But he’s got the brains.”
Lewis — who ran a 4.73 40-yard dash at the 2010 combine, by the way — is undeniably proud of his ability to process information on a football field, but it’s also a gift he’s cultivated with hard work.
“I’m watching two, three hours of film after practice, once I get off work,” Lewis said. “And even before, when I come to the facility, we’re watching film. My off-days, I’m watching film.
“I watch film every day, period. I just wanna be a student of the game. I love the game, and I wanna know how guys are gonna try to attack our defense.”
Lewis’ teammates say his smarts are reflected in the defense’s overall performance, even if his stats don’t. Lewis hasn’t recorded an interception this season (though those are fairly random), and he currently has 18 tackles, the ninth-most among the Chiefs’ defensive starters.
There’s a reason for the latter stat, however, as few safeties in the league spend as little time near the line of scrimmage as Lewis, who is often tasked with patrolling the deep third of the field in the Chiefs’ man-heavy scheme.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis has played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on only 12 percent of his snaps this year, an absurdly low number when compared with other safeties, like the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu (82 percent) or even Berry, his teammate (70 percent).
Lining up so far off the ball obviously limits Lewis’ ability to rack up tackles, though he admits that tackling, in general, was a problem for him last year. The stats back it up, too: according to Pro Football Focus, Lewis graded out at negative-4.1 in run defense last year, a mark that put him near the bottom of the league among eligible safeties.
Lewis, however, blamed the shoulder injury he dealt with for all of 2012 — he missed seven games — for most of his struggles in that area.
“I didn’t trust myself,” Lewis said. “I didn’t feel like it was strong enough. So it kind of affected how I played. People may say, ‘Oh, he don’t like (to tackle).’ But nah, I was hurt. I was banged up.”
Want proof? This year, Lewis’ grade in run defense sits at negative-0.3 — not great, but about average and commensurate with his grade in 2010 (negative-0.2), when he played in 13 games. What’s more, Lewis has certainly shown flashes of being an able tackler, with the most recent example coming in Sunday’s game against Houston, when he shot a gap on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line and took out Houston’s 250-pound fullback Greg Jones for a 2-yard loss (while leading with the same shoulder that had given him so many problems last season).
“Even though I feel it’s stronger, when I go out there and make plays and tackle on it, it gives me confidence to even go harder,” Lewis said.
An impressive feat, considering Lewis, who is in a contract year, hasn’t been 100 percent this season, either. Because of the aforementioned ankle injury, Lewis was limited in practice both Wednesday and Friday and didn’t practice at all Thursday. Officially, he’s listed as questionable for the Chiefs’ game on Sunday against Cleveland.
But considering this is a guy who, again, has been prone to shout defensive play calls from the sidelines during practice, his teammates have little doubt that he will continue to do all he can to get on the field.
“It speaks to how the guy prepares,” Smith said. “He’s definitely a professional, and he’s definitely the quarterback. So regardless of if he’s on the field or not (during practice), he’s going to make sure when he steps out there (during games), he has his things down pat for the rest of us.”