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Chiefs safety Lewis becomes QB of secondary

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)

Nobody gave Kendrick Lewis much thought when the Kansas City Chiefs made him their fifth-round draft pick last year.

He wasn't even the best player out of Ole Miss to be selected by the Chiefs - they also picked versatile running back Dexter McCluster in the early rounds. But Scott Pioli saw something in Lewis on video, so the Chiefs' general manager called in to make Lewis the 136th overall pick.

Now, plenty of teams are forced to give Lewis a whole lot of thought.

The second-year safety has assumed a much bigger role with the Chiefs, who lost Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry to a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season.

Lewis has picked off a pass each of the past two weeks, returning one of them 59 yards for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. He also recovered a fumble in Monday night's 23-20 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers that gave Kansas City a share of the AFC West lead.

''Kendrick last year, as a young guy, I know multiple times I talked about him, how he's pretty impressive, and became an important part of our team pretty quickly,'' coach Todd Haley said.

''A lot of that had to do with his ability to be a leader, and communicate, and help other teammates around him, and it's never been too big for Kendrick. This guy's been pretty impressive from a leadership standpoint right out of the gate.''

Displaced by Hurricane Katrina in high school, the native of New Orleans wound up heading to Mississippi for college, where the former wide receiver excelled as a defensive back.

Lewis was elected team captain by his teammates, and coach Houston Nutt has lavished praise on him for helping the Rebels to Cotton Bowls after the 2008 and '09 seasons. Lewis not only led the team in tackles those two years, he also led Ole Miss in interceptions.

During the NFL combine, though, he ran a 4.73-second 40-yard dash - and his stock plummeted.

Some analysts predicted he wouldn't go until the seventh round, if at all. But the Chiefs' scouts liked what they saw, and Pioli made the call to draft Lewis despite having already selected Berry - the much more highly touted safety - with their first-round pick.

It turned out to be a wise move right from the start.

Jarred Page was expected to be the starting safety alongside Berry last season, but he decided not to sign his tender and was traded to New England. Eventually, Lewis moved into the starting role after an injury to veteran safety Jon McGraw, and he hasn't given up the job since.

His excellence in pass defense has never been clearer than in the four games Lewis missed last season due to injury; the Chiefs lost three of them.

''First and foremost, defensively, somebody in that secondary has to be the quarterback of what's going on, and when you have someone you can trust like we trust Kendrick, understanding as the formations change, the tight ends flip, the technical jargon, a lot of adjustments that are going on at a high rate, you know, this guy is a comfort,'' Haley said. ''Kendrick is a comfort to have out there.''

His value has only grown with the loss of Berry, who started every game as a rookie and wound up representing the Chiefs in the Pro Bowl. It was Berry who emerged as one of the central figures on a rapidly improving defense before a torn ACL in his left knee abruptly ended his season.

''He's done a good job of stepping in there and being a consistent contributor for us back there,'' McGraw said after the Chiefs went through a light workout indoors Wednesday.

McGraw has been around the league long enough to know how important communication is in the defensive backfield. That's what has made Lewis' play even more incredible. Not only did the Chiefs lose Berry, but McGraw also went down against San Diego, and Lewis still held things together.

''It's difficult. You're used to certain ways of communication, certain expectations, where a guy is going to be, what he's thinking,'' McGraw said. ''So there's always a little difficulty in adjustment and he's done a great job of that.''

Lewis has three interceptions this season, one of which he nearly brought back for a touchdown against San Diego and another he did against Oakland, tightrope walking down the sideline the final few yards and contorting his body in just the right way to get across the goal line.

He's also stepped up to stop the run, a job that normally falls to Berry, helping a defense that was so maligned after allowing 89 points through two games get things under control.

Now, Kansas City is riding an improbable four-game winning streak into Sunday's game against the winless Miami Dolphins. They could win their fifth straight for the first time in eight years.

''Kendrick is a comfort to have out there on the field, I know, to all of us as coaches, because he does a very good job of getting it right,'' Haley said. ''And that's happening at a very high rate.''

Tagged: Chiefs, Jon McGraw, Eric Berry, Kendrick Lewis

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