Chiefs look to turn corner at cornerback

Steven Nelson is in the mix to get some time at cornerback this season for the Chiefs.
Steven Nelson is in the mix to get some time at cornerback this season for the Chiefs.

The Seahawks’ offense took the field for the first time last week and quarterback Russell Wilson might as well have pointed to Chiefs’ cornerback Steven Nelson and yelled, “Head’s up, coming your way!”

The first two snaps, Nelson, a second-year pro, gave a little too much cushion, and Wilson completed quick slants, each for a first down.

A Chiefs’ issue was exposed. The cornerback who plays in the secondary with Marcus Peters figures to be a primary target until the position gets settled. The task continues Saturday when the Chiefs play the Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum. (8 p.m. on KCTV, Ch. 5 in Kansas City).

When injured players like outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston return, along with safety Eric Berry, the Chiefs will have most of the pieces of a salty defense that finished second in the AFC in points allowed and pitched a shutout in a playoff game last season.

But the Chiefs have a corner to fill, a position that became available when Sean Smith signed with Raiders after last season.

Smith didn’t put up Peters’ numbers — Peters’ eight interceptions matched the NFL’s best mark, and his 26 passes defended led the league. The production helped him become the defensive rookie of the year.

But Smith was an experienced hand, and his presence meant more opportunities for Peters, who was the game’s most targeted cornerback last season.

Pass defense was vastly improved over the previous season. In 2014, the Chiefs finished with six interceptions. Last season, they led the AFC with 22.

Peters is the one opponents look to avoid this season. That Seahawks possession, last Saturday, that opened with completions, ended with a Peters’ interception in the end zone.

The issue is about the second and third corners.

The Chiefs have suggested Phillip Gaines could be the other guy on the outside with Nelson on the inside. Marcus Cooper and rookies D.J. White and KeiVarae Russell are also in the mix. But Gaines is working his way back from a season-ending knee injury suffered in the third game last year.

The Chiefs don’t want to rush him back. After last week’s game, Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he wants Gaines to play with full confidence in his health, and apparently Gaines — who started the first two games last season while Smith was sitting out on suspension — and the Chiefs aren’t there yet.

“We hope he’s ready for the season opener,” Chiefs defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas said of Gaines. “He’s having limited practice right now. Mentally, he’s ready. Physically, they’ll let us know. We might have to play it by committee until he’s ready.”

The committee, at least in the preseason opener, started with Nelson. After the tough beginning, Nelson settled down, and coaches said they liked what they saw. They saw plenty of him. Nelson got 43 snaps, more than any Chiefs defensive player.

“I knew I was going to be in there for a while to get some work and some experience,” Nelson said. “It was real valuable.”

When asked how he played, Nelson said “great,” because confidence serves his position well. But he also offered an honest assessment.

“I definitely could have done better,” he said. “But that’s what practice is for. It’s the small things. Playing defensive back is a game of inches, so working on the small things is important. Having a short-term memory is important too.”

Thomas roughly agreed with Nelson’s self-evaluation.

“He started a little slow,” Thomas said. “He played a little cautious, didn’t want to get beat deep. But as the game went along he got better at it.”

Asked to single out a training-camp surprise from the group, Thomas identified White, the sixth-round pick from Georgia Tech. White was credited with four tackles against the Seahawks.

“One thing that is sticking out is (White),” Thomas said. “He’s doing a fantastic job playing inside and outside. He’s coming along.”

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

Related stories from Kansas City Star