Ron Parker crept up toward the line of scrimmage. He saw the personnel — two receivers, two tight ends — and noticed Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas lined up in the slot, toward the boundary.
Based on his film study, Parker — a cornerback who was playing safety on Sunday for injured starter Eric Berry — knew this was not normal.
“They don’t use him in the slot very often, but when they do, it’s for a reason,” Parker said.
So Parker assumed an out route was coming. From there, he used his aggressiveness and physical gifts — he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash before the 2011 NFL Draft — to avoid a pick, sprint to Thomas and haul him down for only a 1-yard gain on a crucial third down.
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“I kind of had an idea it was coming,” Parker said with a grin.
Parker, who entered the game for Berry early in the second quarter of the Chiefs’ 24-17 loss, finished the game with a team-high seven tackles. That isn’t bad for a guy who hasn’t played safety full-time since his final season at Newberry College in 2010, when he racked up 59 tackles and led the South Atlantic Conference with five interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
But with Berry listed as out because of a sprained ankle for the Chiefs’ game at Miami on Sunday, it would appear the 6-foot, 206-pound Parker is the next man up at the position, even though this is the first week he’s spent all week practicing at safety.
“He’s kind of done a little bit (of safety work), even back in OTAs,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s been in a dime-type package the whole time, so he’s had the experience back there from that.
“But actually in there, this would be the first week he’s done that, the whole thing.”
But while Parker got a few a reps at safety when the Chiefs practiced with six defensive backs on the field, Reid said turning to Parker wasn’t a difficult decision when Berry got hurt Sunday.
“I mean, he’s a gifted guy,” Reid said. “When this happened, that was an easy move.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said the 27-year-old Parker, who the Chiefs claimed off waivers from the Seahawks shortly before last season, caught his eye last season in limited playing time. Parker racked up 17 tackles, three pass deflections, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a sack in only 95 defensive snaps.
“Ever since we’ve had him, he’s kind of had a natural ability to make plays, whether we use him as a blitzer or whatever,” Sutton said. “He’s just always had that knack.”
Even at cornerback, a position Parker didn’t start playing until the pre-draft process. But on Thursday, even Sutton said that Parker has “natural skill-set” at safety.
“You’re more like a center fielder in baseball — when it comes off the bat you can go get it,” Sutton said. “He’s showing those skills.”
On Parker’s lone interception of the preseason, he was lined up at cornerback in off coverage, which allowed him to essentially function as a safety. He ran under a deep heave by Minnesota’s Matt Cassel.
“I like to be the one in the deep middle just roaming the field,” Parker said. “I do a good job of playing the ball in there, so with me being back there, I think I can help the defense a little more.”
Parker did plenty of that on Sunday, when the Chiefs seemed equally comfortable with him playing single-high coverage, as they did with their other starter at safety, Husain Abdullah.
But while Parker has shown an early aptitude at a once-familiar position, he knows he still has plenty of work to do. Just like they did with Berry, teams are going to try to tempt Parker to bite on a square-in route while having another receiver run a post route behind him.
Really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the things Parker is going to have to snuff out in the name of eliminating big offensive plays. But Sutton is optimistic Parker will become more comfortable and familiar with more work at safety.
“The things that are going to help him is the more comfortable he gets back there, the more familiar his break time — that’s what’s going to increase,” Sutton said. “There’s no substitute for being back there to do that.”
For his part, Parker wants to improve his knowledge of the system — “I want to know what every man is doing on the field next to me, assignment-wise,” he said — and added that his tackling also needs to improve.
“I’ve got to get back in my mind that I can come back and have a safety mentality where you can come downhill and just hit,” Parker said.
That’s not to say Parker was bad at that on Sunday. According to Pro Football Focus, he missed only one tackle, and Sutton made it clear that as a whole, Parker has a chance to help his team at once-familiar position.
“He’s got an opportunity,” Sutton said. “If he keeps working, he’d be a pretty good safety.”