Chiefs special teams film review, AFC Championship Game: Skyy Moore gets redemption
2022 hasn’t been a great year for the Chiefs’ special teams unit, which has been inconsistent and untrustworthy for most of the season.
So, naturally, the Chiefs’ special teams had what might have been its best performance of the entire season in the AFC Championship Game.
It’s the perfect time for the unit to peak and play its best ball. Kansas City’s special teams unit was absolutely crucial in the 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. All subunits put forth an incredible effort while not hindering the team at all, save for a couple of small errors.
This review will take a look at how each subunit contributed to the victory, and then will wrap up with a few extra notes. Additionally, make sure to view my special teams stats, snap counts and grades for individual players via Google Sheets for a closer look at the unit’s performance.
Punt returns: An unlikely hero (and subunit) saves the day
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Ask anyone which special teams subunit was the worst for the Chiefs in 2022, and they’ll probably tell you it was the punt return squad. It’d be fair for them to say that, too — the subunit ranked 24th in Football Outsider’s special teams DVOA during the regular season.
And if I told a Chiefs fan before the AFC Championship Game that the Chiefs would use three separate punt returners and one of them would be receiver Skyy Moore who had two returns, they’d probably shiver in fear. Moore was the team’s worst punt returner in 2022, fumbling three times and averaging just 6.1 yards per return.
It turned out, not only was the Chiefs’ punt return squad great in the AFC championship, but so was Moore, who had two of his best returns of the year.
Before Moore hit the field, WR Kadarius Toney had a good punt return for 12 yards. Toney got injured early in the game, so WR Mecole Hardman took over. His one punt return snap ended up as a downed punt by the Bengals. Then Hardman got hurt, and with WR Justin Watson inactive, Moore was the only option left.
Moore’s first punt return (the Chiefs’ third overall) of the day was actually, in my opinion, his most impressive this year. However, it was called back due to a hold by Chiefs safety Bryan Cook (No. 6), who was lined up as a vice jammer on the right side. You can see the replay of the hold at the :45-second mark in the clip below:
A similar return to the previous one, Moore tracked the ball well, bounced to the outside and moved up the sidelines for 29 yards. The blocking was exceptional for Moore, which hasn’t always been the case for any Chiefs punt returner this season. Cook (No. 6) and Williams (No. 23) bullied the gunner on the right side (you get a good angle of that at the :15-second mark) while WR Marcus Kemp (No. 85) threw a crucial last-second block right in front of Moore at the 30-yard line.
In fact, let’s talk about that block. A heap of fans (mostly Bengals fans) complained that Chiefs linebacker Darius Harris (No. 47) actually committed an illegal block in the back against Bengals LB Joe Bachie (No. 49). Bachie was the same defender who Kemp blocked at the 30-yard line right around the same time that Harris ran into him.
I’ve slowed the play down at the best angle I could find to try to understand whether this was truly an illegal block in the back:
From this angle, it looks like Bachie actually stepped back into Harris as he tried to cut off Moore’s angle on the return. Then Kemp went for the block and he and Harris sort of sandwiched Bachie for a moment.
So was this a true illegal block in the back? It’s unclear, but here’s what the NFL’s official rulebook says (rule 12, section 1, article 3, note b):
It is a foul if an offensive blocker blocks an opponent (from behind) in the back above the opponent’s waist, or uses his hands or arms to push an opponent from behind in a manner that affects his movement, except in close-line play.
Note: The prohibition also applies to a player of the kicking team while the ball is in flight during a free kick or scrimmage kick. The use of hands on the back is not a foul when:
1. a player is making a personal attempt to recover a loose ball;
2. the opponent turns away from the blocker when contact is imminent;
3. both of the blocker’s hands are on the opponent’s side. (If either hand is on the back, it is a foul.)
The emphasis in this rule is the player using their hands to block an opposing player in the back. I didn’t see Harris actually use his hands to block Bachie. Harris even threw his hands up to show that he didn’t use them — it was chest-to-back contact. What the refs are really looking for on an illegal block in the back call is an arm extension and an intent to block in the back — neither were present on Harris’ inadvertent hit to Bachie.
Punt coverage: Tommy Townsend, Marcus Kemp and Nazeeh Johnson also become unsung heroes
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Chiefs punter Tommy Townsend was named First-Team All-Pro in 2022 for good reason. He has a powerful leg and can pinpoint his punts, leading to the NFL’s best net punting average (45.6 yards) this season.
In the AFC championship, Townsend absolutely boomed his punts and pinned the Bengals down at the five-, 18- and six-yard lines. And the one punt of his that was returned only made it five yards before the punt returner was caught by rookie special teams ace Nazeeh Johnson.
Johnson was a beast as usual as a gunner, as was Kemp who earned the call-up due to the release of CB Chris Lammons. Kemp once again showed why he belongs on NFL rosters as a special teams ace himself.
On the Chiefs’ third punt of the game, Kemp lined up as a gunner on the left side while Johnson took the right. Johnson was even double-covered with two jammers by the Bengals:
Despite being doubled up, Johnson completely ran through Cincinnati’s vice jammer and ended up beating the main jammer in a foot race. Meanwhile, on the other side, Kemp outclassed his jammer with a receiver-like route, sprinted downfield and nailed Bengals WR Stanley Morgan (No. 17) with a big hit.
These types of plays go unnoticed because fair catches are not exciting, but strong gunners are why fair catches happen in the first place. Beating the jammers often leads to punt returners conceding the return, and can even lead to a fumble by a nervous or inexperienced returner who has trouble tracking the ball. This is why I’ll always vouch for those players who are Nos. 52 and 53 on the roster. Those guys may not see much time on offense or defense, but they still play a vital role in the team’s all-important field position battle.
Kickoff coverage: Aggressive play sets the tone and closes the game
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
The Chiefs’ kickoff coverage subunit has been among the league’s best in 2022, but they had an awful game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Thankfully, the kickoff squad redeemed itself against Cincinnati. I’m a big believer that a good kickoff coverage squad can set the tone for a game early in the opening kickoff, and the Chiefs did just that:
Sometimes these razzle-dazzle types of plays at the end of a game can linger, but the Chiefs were having none of it. Basically, no Chiefs player was blocked for long, and guys like LB Leo Chenal (No. 54) and Williams (No. 23) were ready to lay the wood. Williams snagged the tackle at the end and Cincinnati never even had a chance.
More special teams notes
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Just a few more notes from the AFC championship to round things out.
The Chiefs’ kick return squad wasn’t great in this game but wasn’t a hindrance either. The blocks weren’t all there which made it difficult for the returners, who couldn’t quite manage to reach the 25-yard line on all three returns.
Speaking of the returners, Moore earned a kick return snap during this game. It’s unclear whether the Chiefs plan to give Moore a kick return snap in the Super Bowl, but considering how well he played against Cincinnati, it’s probably in the cards if they need to give running back Isiah Pacheco a breather.
The only real bad play of the day for special teams was a 29-yard return to the 38-yard line allowed by the Chiefs’ kickoff coverage squad. It was good blocking by the Bengals, plus the kickoff was way too short — Bengals returner Trayveon Williams caught it at the nine-yard line.
Harrison Butker continued his resurgence as a reliable kicker, going 3-for-3 on field goals and 2-for-2 on extra points. His 45-yard field goal at the end of the game sealed the deal for the Chiefs, sending them to their third Super Bowl in four years.