It was just one nice play — one that came in a meaningless exhibition game, no less — but for Chiefs rookie KeiVarae Russell, it couldn’t have been more timely.
It happened Thursday, the second quarter of the Chiefs’ final preseason game, when Green Bay decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 at the Chiefs’ 43-yard line. Russell, a cornerback, noticed the receiver across from him stutter-step a few yards into his route — an indication of a slant pattern, considering the down and distance — and Russell took off, breaking inside and knocking the ball away to force a turnover on downs.
“I was like, ‘Let me go break this up,’ ” said Russell, who excitedly sprinted back to the Chiefs’ sideline to celebrate afterward. “It was my first actual big play, and just to be able to say (that), it feels good.”
Especially since Russell, a third-round pick and three-year starter out of Notre Dame, has not had the easiest transition to the NFL thus far.
Since training camp started, the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder has watched a player at the same position taken three rounds later than he was — Georgia Tech rookie D.J. White — actually start the second preseason game, while Russell himself has been relegated solely to second- and third-team duty.
He also watched the Chiefs deal for another young corner, San Francisco’s Kenneth Acker, who immediately earned reps ahead of him. Acker started the final preseason game while Russell came off the bench.
So what gives? Russell says he’s simply struggled with the Chiefs’ defensive terminology, most of which he heard and used at Notre Dame but directly conflicts with what it meant in college.
“I’m getting better, but I definitely struggled at first,” Russell said. “I still had a lot of what I learned in college in my mind ... when I’d go out to practice, the terminology I was supposed to say, I wouldn’t say it the right way or I’d put it into a different defense. It’s been tough, mentally.”
Yet Russell, a chatty, optimistic sort who can speak a mile a minute, said this with all the enthusiasm in the world.
“I know I can play with these guys, but that’s how the league is,” said Russell, who ran a 4.44 40-yard dash and posted a 38-inch vertical at his pro day. “Some guys grasp it the first day, and some guys take a little longer.”
But Russell, who does not lack confidence — he spoke openly about flanking star corner Marcus Peters after his selection —admits it did take him a while to embrace that reality.
“I’ve always been a bright kid, so I think I let that frustration get to me because I didn’t grasp it day one, and it was like a snowball effect — I kept messing up, messing up,” Russell said. “But now, I’m slowing down and understanding I’m young, so it’s been better for me the last couple weeks.”
Russell said he’s been diligently looking at tape to understand the defense and analyzing the playbook to master the terminology. And while he knows it may still take some time to click, he can’t wait for that day to come.
“Me, personally, I tell myself — there’s no way you shouldn’t be on this field,” Russell said. “And I’m holding myself back right now. I’ve got to study more, I’ve got to do more. And I know I will do that ... but it’s been tough, man. It’s not as easy as people think.”
That’s why Chiefs coach Andy Reid was happy to see Russell receive some positive reinforcement with his big pass breakup against the Packers on Thursday.
“He made a nice play on the one that he batted down, and I thought he did a decent job on the outside there,” Reid said. “He had a couple other breaks that he made. He was short on a couple catches there, but for him to make the play on the ball, I thought, was big for him.”