Last summer back at training camp, Kansas City Chiefs veteran cornerback Sean Smith found himself rotating with the first-team defense alongside Ron Parker and Marcus Cooper.
Smith had signed a three-year contract with the Chiefs prior to last season after spending the first four years of his career with the Miami Dolphins, and he was a starter for the Chiefs in 2013.
But at training camp, Smith spent time with the second-team defense as they rotated through different guys.
It was never considered a demotion, simply a rotation.
"I think he's embraced that," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "His first challenge was alternating when we went out to training camp. You can take that any way you want to take it. You can react any you want to. I thought [Smith] did it in a very professional manner and he did by really zeroing in to what he needed to do—the technique."
Whatever Smith did has worked because according to Pro Football Focus, Smith ranks as the No. 5 cornerback in the NFL this season compared to No. 48 a season ago.
"I think he started to realize to be a good football player you have to develop a level of consistency," Sutton said. "That's to me, ultimately how you choose a guy to be a starter. You say, 'I can count on this guy to do this.' I might still want more from him but I know 90 percent of the time, I'm going to get this from it.
"If a guy fluctuates up and down all the time, it's hard for you as a coach to plan what you think you can get done. I think that's where he's really improved."
Smith agrees with the idea that this season has been pretty special for him.
"It's gone pretty well," Smith said. "Last year, coming into it, new scenery, different coaching staff, everything that goes along with it. I was trying to feel my way and to fit in with the guys. Now I'm pretty much the old guy back there in the sense that it's a very young group.
"I've been trying to step up and be more of a leader in the secondary. Not so much vocally but through my actions and things of that nature."
According to PFF, Smith has been targeted 78 times this season and has allowed just 43 catches for 502 yards.
Smith talked about what's been the difference for him this season.
"To compare this year with previous years, I just think I'm paying attention to detail a little more," Smith said. "I think by me being in this leadership role that I'm in right now, it kind of helps me do so because I'm not a real vocal guy out there and like I said, I do like to lead with my actions."
"I think he's really done a good job of studying," Sutton said of Smith this season. "He knows formations, he knows splits and those things—I think it happens to everybody that you realize 'Look. A lot of this pre-snap information can make me a better player. I don't have to play every play, every route. I can learn this right now and have a really good idea of what's going to happen out here.'"
Chiefs rookie cornerback Phillip Gaines, who has taken on a larger role in the defense as the season has gone along, credits Smith for helping him develop as a player.
"He's taught me a lot," Gaines said. "He knows the game well. That's what enables him to play so well and he uses his length really well when he presses and he has really good technique, so when you match all of those up together, you get a really good player and that's what he is."
The way Smith has carried himself this season has lent a hand in helping him be viewed as a leader by his teammates.
"I think ultimately, that's where you build your credibility because every one of our players watches the same film," Sutton explained. "You can't be someone that talks or says something but then it's not supported by the way you play.
"If they know this guy comes to work every day, is improving and ascending as a player here, then I think whether it's a comment standing over on the sideline, in practice or whatever, I think that credibility level increases."
The Chiefs have seen a lot of changes this season in the defensive backfield.
The loss of safety Eric Berry, the injuries that caused veteran Chris Owens, Jamell Fleming and Gaines to miss time, along with Parker switching back and forth from cornerback to safety, all have combined to put the spotlight on a defensive back group that continues to thrive through it all.
The Chiefs still haven't allowed a 300-yard passer and rank second in the NFL by only allowing 199 yards per game through the air.
Photos from the Chiefs Week 15 matchup against the Raiders
"It's crazy," Smith explained. "[With] all these injuries, we have corners switching to safety and there's so much shuffling going on out there. We always try to watch extra film and communicate and try to get guys to talk.
"That's one thing that's hard right now in the NFL is you never want to ask too many questions because it'll seem like you don't know what you're doing. But in our case, you have so many young guys in different positions that I try and get them to talk to each other as much as possible."
That communication has been one of the keys to their success this season, and Smith points to his positional coaches as helping them improve from a season ago.
"We're definitely not giving up the big play like we did last year," Smith said. "Part of that goes into coaching. Coach Al (Harris) and Coach E (Emmitt Thomas) have done a great job of staying on us about technique and staying on top of the routes.
"On our side, it's just discipline, understanding that you can't gamble all the time. You have to kind of pick your moments and definitely understand situational football and when you can't make those kinds of mistakes."
Heading into a key matchup on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who boast the NFL's top passing attack led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 304 yards per game, not to mention the NFL's top receiver in Antonio Brown with 1,498 yards, Smith understands the situation the Chiefs find themselves in on Sunday.
"We're going to bring pressure up front and the spotlight is always on us," Smith said. "We're ready for it."