During the bye week, we reviewed the Chiefs’ special teams unit and came to the conclusion that punt coverage has been great, punt returns have been awful, and the kickoff game on both sides has been somewhere in between.
The Chiefs seemed to have recognized that the punt return game has not been working because they made a big change on that subunit in their 20-17 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 9. We’ll review that, but first, we’ll take a look at safety Deon Bush’s dominating performance on kickoff coverage.
Also, don’t forget: My special teams stats, snap counts and grades for individual players are available as a Google Sheet. Check those out to see how each Chiefs’ special teamer has performed so far this year.
Kickoff coverage: Don't leave Deon Bush unblocked
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
In my bye week review, I noted that the Chiefs’ kickoff coverage subunit started off shaky in the first few weeks but has turned around since Week 5. That turnaround continued in Week 9 when the Chiefs allowed a 19.25-yard line field position average when the Titans returned kickoffs.
Out of the four Titans kickoffs that were returned, Bush went unblocked on three of them. And each time Bush went unblocked, he made the tackle. Take a look:
Not sure why the Titans thought it was a good idea to leave #Chiefs safety Deon Bush unblocked on kick returns all day but dude was a straight up dog.
Bush had 3 tackles on KRs Sunday night. His 3rd tackle helped set the tone for a big 4th quarter stop. pic.twitter.com/3KnebTgoe8
— Wes Roesch (@WesleyRoesch) November 9, 2022
It may seem easy for a player to make a tackle when unblocked, but that’s not always the case, especially on special teams. Kickoffs move exceptionally fast. If a player takes the wrong angle, they can get stuck behind a crowd of defenders and their own teammates.
The key to being a good kickoff defender isn’t just about shedding blocks or making tackles — it’s also about anticipating where the runner will go and understanding the geometry of the field, knowing when to stop and cut across or even back upfield to track down the ball-carrier.
Of course, tackling is part of a good kickoff defender’s game as well. My favorite tackle that Bush made Sunday night against Tennessee was his final tackle that came in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs had just tied the game at 17 and needed a big stop with less than three minutes to go:
Bush cut across the field at the perfect angle, knowing exactly where Titans returner Hassan Haskins would go. Bush hit Haskins with tremendous velocity and brought him down with ease.
As mentioned in my tweet above, Bush’s tackle set the tone for the defensive stand ahead. A long kick return by the Titans could have deflated the Chiefs’ confidence and set up a field goal by Tennessee, but a big special teams play made all the difference in keeping the energy level high for Kansas City. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s important to have ballers like Bush on special teams.
Punt returns: Mecole Hardman takes back over?
George Walker IV / Tennessean.com
At the bye, the Chiefs had one of the league’s worst punt return subunits.
Much of that was due to the inexperience of rookie receiver/returner Skyy Moore who had trouble tracking the ball, fumbling twice. He also averaged just seven yards per return.
It looked like the Chiefs were trying to mold their punt returner of the future in Moore, but that plan didn’t seem to work out. In Week 9, the Chiefs called an audible and put experienced receiver/returner, Mecole Hardman, back in the punt returner spot.
That proved to be a good idea, as Hardman averaged 10.5 yards per return on four punt returns. He had two returns that went 20 or more yards. His fourth return was his best of the day:
This is a classic technique that Toub ran with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox back in 2011 when he was the coordinator for the Bears. It’s a tough play to run successfully, but Watson did a good job of tracking the ball, fielding it at the end of his run and taking it upfield for 17 yards.
Unfortunately, Titans linebacker Joe Jones (No. 42) identified the direction of the punt before Watson fielded it. Jones pointed it out to his teammates mid-coverage, so the decoy aspect didn’t work. Still, it was an interesting concept that raises a few questions: first, will Toub ever run this again? Maybe, but it might be years before he does.
The second question is whether Toub will allow Watson or anyone else to return punts this season. Watson did a great job on that return, so why not let him try more? And what other options do the Chiefs have at punt returner? Plenty, actually: they have Moore, obviously, but also newly-acquired receiver Kadarius Toney, rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie, or maybe even running back Isiah Pacheco. It’s clear that Hardman will be the team’s returner in important situations moving forward, but don’t be surprised when Toub experiments with other options this season.
More special teams notes
George Walker IV / Tennessean.com
Just a few more special teams notes and we’ll leave. Promise.
Kicker Harrison Butker was 2-for-3 on field goals and 0-for-1 on extra points. It’s unclear why he has been less reliable since his return from injury, but one has to wonder if he’s truly fully healthy.
Safety Bryan Cook had a great Week 9. He earned a solo tackle on kickoff coverage and an assisted tackle on punt coverage. He had a rough start on special teams this season but has turned a corner for the better the last few weeks.
Receiver Marcus Kemp also had a nice game with two tackles (one solo, one assisted) on punt coverage. He’s the Chiefs’ OG special teams ace.
Penalties were a huge problem for this crew in Week 9. The Chiefs’ special teams unit was penalized four times, the most in a single game this season. Two of those penalties were on cornerback Chris Lammons. Special teams penalties can really kill a team’s field position battle, so Toub will need to make sure those are cleaned up moving forward.