Jamell Fleming was living the dream again.
Over the course of three years, he had gone from a starter with the Cardinals to a practice-squad player with the Ravens and back to a starter again with the Chiefs, who signed him away from Baltimore in September.
On Oct. 26 against the Rams, Fleming, a 25-year-old cornerback, was making his second consecutive start with his new team. Everything was going well, until the 8:04 mark of the second quarter.
Fleming was serving as a corner on punt return when he turned to run with the gunner and heard a pop in his hamstring.
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“It was nothing crazy dramatic,” Fleming said. “I wasn’t trying to overextend or something like that. I was just running, pushed a guy, then ‘bam.’ ”
He would miss the Chiefs’ next six games.
Fleming, a third-year pro, had hurt his hamstring before — he missed a week or two — but never like this.
“It was frustrating,” Fleming said. “It’s a big problem, because as a DB, you need your legs. You guys have seen DBs play with casts on, but I’ve never seen a DB, especially at corner, play with a leg injury. It limits you.”
Fleming says his hamstring is good to go now, and it showed last Sunday in the Chiefs’ 31-13 win over the Oakland Raiders.
In his first start in nearly two months, he recorded eight tackles and two pass deflections. What’s more, he allowed only five completions while being targeted 13 times, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I thought he did good,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I thought he played strong. He attacked the ball. He was aggressive with the ball in the air. Looked like he was transitioning out of his breaks pretty good.”
Fleming felt fast, and most important, he felt good enough to play physically — which Reid noted.
“He had a couple of nice tackles, had a physical one right there in the end where he picked the guy up and put him down and disallowed a couple of first downs on third-down tackles, which was good,” Reid said.
Reid was referring to a first-down screen pass to Oakland receiver James Jones late in the fourth quarter, in which Fleming — who was playing off coverage — closed hard and forklifted Jones to the ground.
“There was a lot of frustration that I had to just release,” Fleming said with a laugh.
Reid, however, noted that it was not a perfect performance, by any means.
“Probably a few he’d like to have back,” Reid said. “Towards the end of the game, he had a couple that they got him.”
Fleming agreed, though his confidence certainly didn’t take a hit, just like it didn’t after the Cardinals and later, the Jaguars, released the former third-round pick over the last two years.
“They just kept running the same routes, and they finally got lucky on a couple of them,” Fleming said with a laugh.
Fleming will have a chance to prove himself again Sunday, provided he gets the start. Rookie cornerback Phillip Gaines, who stepped in for Fleming after his hamstring injury, will play against the Steelers after sitting out last week while he recovered from a concussion.
“We both want to see our team do well, so whoever can do the job better, that’s all that matters,” Gaines said. “Jamell and I are cool. All the DBs are real cool.”
Truthfully, they’re likely facing an all-hands-on-deck type of situation, anyway. Pittsburgh, 9-5, is averaging 27.8 points per game and is leading the league in yards with 424.9 yards per game.
The Chiefs will also have to contend with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and two dynamic targets in receiver Antonio Brown, who has 115 catches for 1,498 yards and 11 touchdowns, and imposing rookie Martavis Bryant, who’s 6-feet-4 and 211 pounds, and has caught 24 passes for 484 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Martavis, he’s so long,” Gaines said. “He can use his speed really well. If he gets up on you, Ben can launch it out there, and it’s pretty much impossible to catch a 6-4 dude with that kind of speed.
“Antonio, it’s obvious. He’s leading the league in receptions and yards. He can do it all. He can take you over the top, he can beat you down underneath. With a guy like that, you just have to switch up a lot of things on him.”
So again, with the Chiefs’ playoff hopes on the line this weekend, it’s all hands on deck in the secondary.
Fleming, for his part, is happy his legs are cooperating.
“We’ve got a chance to go to the playoffs,” Fleming said, “so I’m just happy to be back.”