Ron Parker settled into his cornerback’s stance, eyeing his target. Unbeknownst to Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, one of the Chiefs’ most versatile defenders was about to pounce.
This was Sunday, the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 23-17 win over Oakland, and Parker was lined up across from receivers Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts on a third-down play. There was no other corner within 8 yards, and Parker took a step back before the snap, an indication he might be dropping into zone coverage.
Instead, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sent Parker on a blitz. He looped around the left tackle, the long way, and Carr fled the pocket by sprinting toward the right sideline. Parker — who ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at his 2011 pro day — quickly closed the distance, dived and tripped Carr for a 1-yard loss.
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It was a sack for Parker, his fifth of the season, and a record-breaking one. It was the seventh of his career, setting a Chiefs record for a defensive back — not that he had any idea.
When told of the accomplishment, Parker — a five-year veteran who signed a five-year, $30 million contract extension this offseason — nodded with a surprised-but-satisfied look.
“It means a lot to me, man,” Parker said. “Earlier in the season, I would never think that I would accomplish that goal. I’d be thinking picks.
“But I’ll take them — sacks count just like interceptions.”
When he re-signed with the Chiefs, coach Andy Reid said Parker, listed at 6 feet and 206 pounds, would be playing his more natural position of safety. He started four games at corner and 11 at safety in 2014 and played safety exclusively through the first three games this season.
But once nickel corner Phillip Gaines suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Green Bay in week three, the desperate Chiefs called on the versatile Parker.
“I never saw it coming,” Parker said. “But I think I did a good job of just adjusting in the defense and making us a better defense, overall, and just doing what I’ve got to do to make everybody else jell around us.”
Since Parker has made the move to nickel corner, the Chiefs — who finished 11-5 and will travel to Houston to face the AFC South champion Texans in the wild-card round at 3:35 p.m. Saturday — have won 10 of 13 games.
The Chiefs also possess the league’s ninth-best pass defense, rank second with 22 interceptions and fourth with 47 sacks.
Along the way, Parker — who has recorded 78 tackles and three interceptions to go along with his five sacks — has done his share.
“He’s something,” Reid said. “He plays corner, he plays nickel — which is tough — and he plays the safety position, which is kind of his home. You have confidence that you can put him on their best inside receiver.”
The biggest issue for nickel corners is recognition. They have to be smart and understand route concepts, because slot receivers essentially can run any route — both left and right — unlike outside receivers, who are restricted by the sideline.
But while Parker has fared well in coverage at nickel corner, putting him closer to the line of scrimmage has allowed Sutton to unlock the rest of his skillset. Though he finished with just one sack in 2013, his first year with the team, Parker showed promise as a blitzer.
“We used him a lot as a pressure guy (then) and moved him around — he played two or three different positions,” Sutton said.
This season, Sutton has felt comfortable enough with his personnel to send pressure from different places and levels, which explains the Chiefs’ overall sack total and how six different players had sacks against the Raiders.
“We do a good job of disguising our blitz,” Parker said. “We try to make them all look the same, so whatever look we give the quarterback the time before, we try to switch it up and give him a different look the second time, just play with his mind a little bit to make him hold the ball.”
But while some of it has to do with scheme, some of it also has to do with personnel. Parker’s five sacks this season rank fourth on the team.
“He’s got a good feel,” Reid said of Parker’s blitzing. “Not everyone can do that.”
That much is true. But the beauty of the way Parker is used is that he gets a chance to do a little bit of everything. His second-quarter interception of Carr is an example. Parker was aligned several yards off the ball in zone coverage when he saw an opportunity to bait Carr into a throw by allowing Cooper to spring free for a split second before dropping back and high-pointing the throw for a pick.
“He saw (Cooper) kind of late,” Parker said of Carr. “But he gave me time to get there, and I don’t need that much time with my speed. So I was like ‘I’ll be able to cover a little ground and make a play.’”
The recollection of the play brought a smile to Parker’s face, just like the sack. Prior to joining the Chiefs, Parker had been a bit of a football nomad, cut eight times and unsure whether he’d ever get a chance to do the things he’s doing now.
Needless to say, the way he’s been used this season by Sutton has been fulfilling.
“It’s given him different options to do different stuff, put me in the position to send me back out in coverages,” Parker said. “He’s got a lot of stuff he can play with.”