NFL players can be an unforgiving lot, so whenever somebody messes up on the field — a fumble, a dropped interception, whatever — you can bet they take their share of razzing.
Chiefs cornerback Ron Parker knows this all too well. He’d made the mistake of dropping a late interception a week ago, and ever since his teammates didn’t mind dropping the occasional reminder.
“All week, bro,” Parker said. “From my coaches, from my teammates … it’s something that’s not expected from me. I’m known for catching the ball. Good hands.”
Parker badly wanted to record an interception Sunday against the Bills to shut them up. He fell short of that goal.
But if getting a pick was the equivalent of winning the battle, then his overall performance Sunday — against one of the league’s most dynamic receivers, no less — was the equivalent of winning the war.
Fearing the speed and playmaking ability that Buffalo rookie Sammy Watkins brings to the table, the Chiefs — who typically keep their outside corners on the same side of the field — did something a little out of the ordinary Sunday and occasionally let Parker match up with him all over the field.
The result? Watkins finished with four catches for 27 yards despite being targeted 10 times. Parker finished with a team-high eight tackles, three pass deflections, a forced fumble and a boatload of big plays.
“He’s a gamer, he’s a gamer, he’s a straight gamer,” safety Eric Berry said after the game. “Regardless of what position, what situation you put him in … he’s thrived. He’s been a nickel, he’s been a corner, he’s been a safety and he’s made plays at all different positions.”
Parker, a 27-year-old undrafted free agent out of Newberry, is in the midst of a career season after the Chiefs picked him up off waivers shortly before the 2013 season opener. He opened this season as a corner, but moved to safety when Berry injured his ankle in week two and hasn’t looked back. Parker has 48 tackles this season, the second most on the team, and an interception.
And when Berry finally returned to the starting lineup this week, they Chiefs simply moved Parker back to cornerback and gave him the task of stopping Watkins, the Bills’ 6-foot-1, 211-pound playmaker with better-than-timed 4.43 speed and the kind of ball-tracking ability on deep passes that keep defensive coordinators up at night.
“We practiced like that all this week,” Parker said. “I was following No. 14 in practice. It wasn’t a surprise. It was something we had in the game plan … it just goes to show how much confidence and faith the coaches have in me. That just gives me more confidence.”
Not that Parker, who runs a 4.36 40 himself, needed it.
“I wasn’t afraid of them, either,” Parker said. “I kinda knew they were gonna try to come after me a little bit. It was my first week back at corner, they probably were going to try to go away from 21 (cornerback Sean Smith).”
Smith, who spent most of the day matched up against Chris Hogan, Marquise Goodwin, and Robert Woods, said putting Parker on Watkins made sense.
“We just felt like with Park’s size and speed it matched up, because Watkins is a great playmaker,” Smith said. “He runs like a 4.3 — his speed is definitely an issue. With Park running as fast as he does, we felt that was a great opportunity for him to go over there and put in some work.”
Parker certainly did that. In the third quarter, the Bills tried to test Parker’s deep speed by going up top to Watkins down the left sideline, and Parker ran with him the whole way and forced the incompletion.
Later in the drive, Parker made perhaps the play of the day when he saw Buffalo running back Bryce Brown break off a big run, decided to peel off his coverage of Watkins and tomahawked the ball out of Brown’s hands. The ball went out of the back of the end zone for a touchback, and just like that, Parker saved the Chiefs from a 17-3 deficit.
“Popped it right on out,” Parker said.
But Parker had more big moments left in him, and they all came at the perfect time — during the Bills’ final drive. With Buffalo trailing 17-13 and a little under 3 minutes left, the Bills had first and 10 at the Chiefs’ 15-yard line and started attacking Parker.
Parker was ready for the challenge. On first down, quarterback Kyle Orton tried to hit Watkins down the right sideline, but the pass was underthrown, and Parker nearly made a play on the ball. On the next play, Orton overthrew a pass to receiver Chris Hogan, and Parker again had the coverage.
Finally, on fourth down, Orton went back to the right side and Watkins, who was again swallowed up by Parker’s coverage. The pass was again nearly intercepted, and Parker — who was thrilled — quickly realized that he’d still given his teammates some fodder.
As soon as he got off the field, he heard about his butterfingers from secondary coach Emmitt Thomas and cornerback Marcus Cooper.
“I kinda looked at them and shook my head,” Parker said. “I knew.”
But he also knew something else — that his teammates had just watched him kill it against one of the league’s up-and-coming receivers, a reality that hit home when typically stoic coach Andy Reid became slightly animated when asked about Parker’s performance.
“He is relentless, relentless, relentless,” Reid said. “He’s the one out at practice, diving to bat balls down. That’s just how he goes. It’s great to see him rewarded with a game like this. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Sean Smith was proud of Parker, too.
“That was a heck of a game he had, man,” Smith said. “We all look out for each other … we put so much work in, it’s just good to see people who may not have that big name go out there and show out.”
But for all his rave reviews, Parker, who will be a free agent at year’s end, knows his perceptive teammates are still going to needle him about those missed interceptions.
“I’m gonna hear it, man,” Parker said with a laugh. “That’s just my teammates. We expect big things out of the secondary when it comes to catching the ball.”