The Chiefs had a couple of blunders on special teams during their 26-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12.
Thankfully, those blunders didn’t affect the team in the grand scheme of the game, and they were both errors that can be fixed moving forward. The special teams unit also had some positives to take away, which will be highlighted in the notes section.
The main focus of this week’s review will be on the punt return game, which was the culprit of those aforementioned blunders. In addition to this review, be sure to check out my special teams stats, snap counts and grades for individual players via Google Sheets to see how and where Chiefs’ special teamers have performed this season.
Punt returns, part I: Another fumble and a big question mark
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
When it comes to covering punts and kickoffs, the Chiefs are among the league’s best.
Kansas City’s punt coverage is ranked second in Football Outsider’s DVOA ratings, while kickoff coverage is ranked fifth. Shedding blocks and making tackles are strengths with K.C.’s special teams unit.
The other side — the return game — has been the polar opposite. The punt return game is ranked 17th while the kick return squad is ranked 30th. Despite the rankings, I’d argue that the punt return game has been the Chiefs’ worst special teams subunit of the season due to the number of mistakes it has made.
11 games into the season, the Chiefs have a punt return problem. Receiver Skyy Moore — the team’s designated punt returner at the beginning of the season — has muffed and lost three punts, and has averaged just 6.1 yards per punt return.
It’s safe to say Moore won’t be returning many more punts in 2022. The Chiefs pulled Moore from punt-returning duties once already this year, and did it again when he fumbled against the Rams on Sunday:
It’s a strange case because Moore has exceptional hands-on offense as a receiver, which he displayed during this same game by earning five catches for 36 yards. It could be that Moore just isn’t natural at tracking the ball and judging the opposing punt coverage team to see if he should return or call a fair catch.
The thing is, that’s okay — returning punts isn’t what Moore was drafted to do. Continually forcing a rookie to do things he isn’t good at is setting him up to fail. The Chiefs made the right decision by moving him off returns after this play.
In his place was WR Justin Watson who has only had one return this season. Everything else has either been fair caught or gone out of bounds. It’ll be interesting to see whether Watson will continue to earn looks at punt returner while WRs Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman are injured, or whether other guys like cornerback Trent McDuffie will get return looks.
The “next year” question also looms, though it’s not something the Chiefs need to figure out today. It’s clear the team wanted to groom Moore as the returner of the future, but it doesn’t look like that’ll happen. And Watson and Hardman aren’t yet signed through next season, so it’s questionable whether they will even be Chiefs in 2023.
It could be Toney, but what if he takes a step up and establishes himself as a WR1/WR2 in the offense next year? Do you really want a guy like that returning punts? It has gotten to the point that if the Chiefs can’t answer the punt returner question by the end of this season that it may be smart to draft a designated returner in 2023, much like the Denver Broncos did with WR Montrell Washington in 2022.
Punt returns, part II: Rams catch the Chiefs sleeping
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Sometimes teams get hit with a fake punt and the first thing that comes to mind is, “Why didn’t we see that coming?”
The Rams’ fake punt against the Chiefs in the second quarter was one of those punts. In hindsight it’s clear the Rams would try this — after all, in a game with your third-string quarterback going up against Patrick Mahomes, you need all the offensive possessions you can get.
It turns out that fourth-and-5 was the perfect distance for L.A. to try a fake punt because it was all Rams WR Jacob Harris needed to run a quick curl route and pick up a first down:
McDuffie was the jammer for this play. The job of the jammer is to block the gunner and keep him from reaching the punt returner while the ball is in the air. Holding a gunner during the entire length of a punt is a difficult task that requires a combination of strength, speed and endurance.
Sometimes players will play off man against the gunner because, nine times out of 10, the gunner will explode off the line at the snap and sprint toward the punt returner. Of course, playing off man comes with a risk if the punting team decides to fake. That’s exactly what happened with this play, causing McDuffie to allow the first down.
It’s tough to come down hard on McDuffie for this play because it was only his sixth snap as a jammer in the pros. Plus, he actually recovered and did a great job of making the tackle, but he just wasn’t able to get there before Harris crossed the first-down marker. It’s one of those learning experiences that many jammers have gone through.
Luckily, the Chiefs ended up forcing a punt later on this drive anyways and still won the game. It’s the perfect kind of error to make — one to learn from, but one that ultimately didn’t have any effect on the outcome of the game.
More special teams notes
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Here are a few more special teams notes to round out Week 12:
Kicker Harrison Butker was 4-for-4 on field goals and 2-for-2 on extra points. That’s two straight weeks without a miss. Not to jinx it, but it’s looking like whatever issues he was battling have gotten cleaned up.
That’s also three straight weeks without a special teams penalty committed by the Chiefs. That’s wonderful progress after the unit had a very rough Week 9 penalty-wise.
The kickoff coverage subunit played quite well in Week 12. It allowed an average field position of the 22-yard line and four players notched tackles: safety Deon Bush and linebacker Jack Cochrane each had a solo tackle while LB Leo Chenal and tight end Jody Fortson earned assisted tackles.
On that note, Cochrane has continually stood out on kickoff coverage film. The undrafted rookie out of South Dakota has earned a kickoff coverage tackle in six of the team’s last eight games. He has also earned the highest kickoff coverage grade among players with 11 or more graded plays based on my charting and grading system.
Safety Zayne Anderson and WR Cornell Powell earned special teams snaps this week thanks to their practice squad call-ups. Both actually had solid outings, too. I charted positive plays on four of seven graded plays for Anderson and on four of four plays for Powell.
Another positive is that CB Chris Lammons was back on special teams after missing Week 11 due to a concussion. Lammons is the team’s best and most consistent special teamer.
With offensive tackle Geron Christian out for the day, OT Lucas Niang took his spot as right guard on field goals and extra points. He did a nice job with protection on his six snaps.