Chiefs special teams review at the bye and rest of season outlook

The Chiefs have had some mishaps on special teams through the first eight weeks of the season, but overall the unit has been successful in 2022.

Pro Football Focus has the Chiefs graded as the 10th-best special teams unit in the league, while Football Outsiders‘ DVOA ratings rank Kansas City at No. 2 in punt coverage and No. 12 in kickoff coverage.

Of course, while the unit has been solid as a whole, each subunit has performed a bit differently. I’ve been reviewing the Chiefs’ special teams unit every week in 2022 and have found some good and some bad, with plenty of room for improvement. I have also tracked special teams stats and snap counts and have assigned grades for individual players each week.

Since the Chiefs were on a bye in Week 8, I’ve decided to do an overview of each special teams subunit to see how they’ve performed thus far, and to see which areas can be improved throughout the remainder of the season.

Kickoff coverage

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TEAM STATS

Opponent returns: 14 (tied 14th most)
Opponent return average: 23.2 yards (9th most)
Opponent touchdowns: 0 (tied with 30 others)
Kickoffs: 42 (tied 5th most)
Touchback percentage: 66.7 percent (14th highest)
Onside kicks: 0
Kicks out of bounds: 0
Penalties: 2
Opponent penalties: 1

PLAYER STATS

Matt Ammendola: 1 tackle
Dicaprio Bootle: 1 tackle
Michael Burton: 3 tackles (1 solo)
Deon Bush: 2 tackles
Jack Cochrane: 3 tackles
Bryan Cook: 1 tackle (solo), 1 penalty (unnecessary roughness)
Jody Fortson: 1 tackle (solo)
Marcus Kemp: 2 tackles (1 solo)
Chris Lammons: 1 forced fumble, 1 tackle
Elijah Lee: 1 recovered fumble, 2 tackles (1 solo)
Isiah Pacheco: 2 tackles (1 solo)
Justin Reid: 2 tackles
Jaylen Watson: 1 tackle

OVERVIEW

The Chiefs’ kickoff coverage unit is on an upturn and can be much better moving forward. The first four weeks of the season were rough for K.C. in kickoff coverage — when Chiefs opponents returned the kickoffs, their average field position was roughly the 31-yard line. Since a touchback puts the ball at the 25-yard line, the Chiefs would have been better off kicking the ball out of the end zone on those plays (save for one kickoff when Chiefs cornerback Chris Lammons forced a fumble against the Buccaneers).

Fortunately, Weeks 5-7 were much better for the Chiefs. The average field position for opponents plummeted to roughly the 16-yard line during those weeks. So what changed? Really, just better tackling and block-shedding, especially from safety Bryan Cook who had a great game Week 7 compared to his previous performances on this subunit. The addition of receiver Marcus Kemp in Week 7 helped as well — Kemp earned two tackles on four kickoffs returned.

Overall, the Chiefs’ opponent average field position when returning kickoffs is the 24.39-yard line. Shorter than the 25, which is ultimately the goal. This subunit can be better and more cohesive moving forward as long as players remain healthy. But even so, expect to see a lot of touchbacks — Chiefs kickoffs have ended up as touchbacks 28 out of 42 times this season, or two-thirds (67 percent) of the time.

Kick returns

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PLAYER STATS

Isiah Pacheco: 17 returns, 376 yards, 22.1 yards/return, 48 long, 1 fumble
Skyy Moore: 2 returns, 42 yards, 21 y/rt, 23 long
Michael Burton: 1 return, 9 yards
Mecole Hardman: 1 return, 4 yards
Jody Fortson: 1 penalty (holding)
Darius Harris: 1 penalty (holding)

OVERVIEW

Rookie running back Isiah Pacheco has shown some growing pains as a kick returner, but so far he has shown to be up for the challenge. He holds the NFL’s most kick returns and kick return yards, and is tied for the fifth-longest return at 48 yards. He also has a fumble (which he picked up) and a lower yards-per-return average compared to where the Chiefs were at last season (former Chiefs returner Byron Pringle averaged 24.5 yards per return in 2021).

Thankfully, Pacheco seems to be on an upward trend with kick returns. He had a handful of good returns in Week 7 including a 48-yard return. Pacheco’s speed has allowed him to separate quickly from defenders, and he’s gaining much more confidence in his decision-making. It seems like his best kick returns lie ahead of him.

The blocking for Pacheco hasn’t always been great, but it has been good enough most of the time. My best-graded blockers on this subunit are fullback Michael Burton (95 winning percentage), running back Jerick McKinnon (83 percent) and tight end Jody Fortson (80 percent). Blockers who need to improve moving forward include tight end Noah Gray (41 percent), linebacker Jack Cochrane (56 percent) and safety Deon Bush (60 percent).

Punt coverage

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TEAM STATS

Punts: 19 (2nd fewest)
Net yards: 930 (4th fewest)
Net average: 49 yards (best)
Punts out of bounds: 0 (least)
Opponent returns: 7 (tied 2nd least)
Opponent return yards: 35 (2nd least)
Opponent return average: 5 yards per return (3rd least)
Opponent return touchdowns: 0 (tied with rest of NFL)
Opponent punt blocks: 0 (tied 29 others)

PLAYER STATS

Tommy Townsend: 19 punts, 48.9 net average, 8 downed inside 20-yard line, 5 downed inside the 10, 2 downed inside the 5, 2 touchbacks, 74 long
Dicaprio Bootle: 1 tackle, 1 downed punt
Michael Burton: 1 tackle
Deon Bush: 1 penalty (illegal formation)
Cole Christiansen: 1 tackle (solo)
Jack Cochrane: 1 tackle (solo)
Chris Lammons: 1 tackle (solo), 1 downed punt
Elijah Lee: 4 tackles (1 solo)
Jaylen Watson: 1 tackle
Justin Watson: 1 downed punt

OVERVIEW

Like last season, punt coverage remains the Chiefs’ best special teams subunit. Townsend has been a force as a punter, with the No. 1 net average in the league. He’s getting better at kicking punts deep yet controlling them to make sure they don’t fall in the end zone. It helps that the Chiefs have good gunners as well.

The most consistent gunner for the Chiefs has been Lammons, who has lined up as gunner on 18 of 19 punts. He has mostly played on the left side (12 plays) but occasionally lines up on the right (six plays). He has one tackle on punt coverage, but his quality play doesn’t really show up on the stat sheet. I have Lammons winning as a gunner on 16 of 18 (about 89 percent) possible plays. Winning as a gunner causes opposing punt returners to call fair catches or allow the punts to bounce, which is a positive for the punt coverage subunit.

In addition to Lammons, linebacker Elijah Lee has by far been the Chiefs’ best punt coverage player despite missing Weeks 6 and 7. He has four tackles on punt coverage alone, and six total special teams tackles.

The constant winning of Chiefs defenders plus Townsend’s accuracy and strength as a punter has allowed the team to boast the third-best opponent return average at just five yards per return. The Chiefs’ opponent average field position for punt returns is the 20-yard line, too, meaning the subunit generally doesn’t allow anything better than a touchback regardless of whether it’s returned.

Punt returns

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PLAYER STATS

Skyy Moore: 12 returns, 84 yards, 7 yards/return, 15 long, 4 fair catches, 2 fumbles
Mecole Hardman: 2 returns, 13 yards, 6.5 y/rt, 10 long, 1 fumble
Deon Bush: 1 penalty (illegal block above waist)
Bryan Cook: 1 penalty (unnecessary roughness)

OVERVIEW

Unfortunately punt returning has been the Chiefs’ worst special teams subunit this season. Rookie receiver/returner Skyy Moore has had trouble tracking punts which has led to two fumbles, and even veteran receiver/returner Mecole Hardman has a muffed punt under his belt (though he picked his back up). Moore’s average of seven yards per return ranks 20th among qualified returners (those with one return per total games played).

The blocking hasn’t been great, either, outside of Lammons as a jammer (72 winning percentage) and cornerback Joshua Williams as a vice jammer (85 percent). Guys like Gray (18 percent), Bush (39 percent) and Cook (40 percent) have much room for improvement with their blocking.

Moving forward, it’s questionable whether Moore will even continue returning punts. The Chiefs could try out newly-acquired receivers Kadarius Toney or Dazz Newsome as punt returners. Toney only has one punt return for zero yards as a pro, but returned 11 punts in his senior year at Florida for 139 yards and a touchdown. Newsome, meanwhile, has six returns for 75 yards as a pro, and returned 48 punts in college at North Carolina for 535 yards and a touchdown.

Field goals (FG)/extra points (XP)

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PLAYER STATS

Harrison Butker:
3-for-5 field goals, 60 FG percentage
0-for-1 at 30-39 yards
1-for-1 at 40-49 yards
2-for-3 at 50-59 yards
12-for-12 extra points, 100 XP percentage
Longest: 62 yards
0 blocks

Matt Ammendola:
3-for-4 field goals, 75 FG percentage
1-for-1 at 1-19 yards
1-for-1 at 20-29 yards
1-for-2 at 30-39 yards
3-for-4 extra points, 75 XP percentage
Longest: 31 yards
0 blocks

Matthew Wright:
3-for-4 field goals, 75 FG percentage
1-for-1 at 30-39 yards
1-for-2 at 40-49 yards
1-for-1 at 50-59 yards
8-for-8 extra points, 100 XP percentage
Longest: 59 yards
0 blocks

Justin Reid:
1-for-2 extra points, 50 XP percentage
0 blocks

OVERVIEW

The Chiefs’ kicking situation has been chaotic this season. Harrison Butker got injured in Week 1, making way for safety Justin Reid to try a couple extra points. Then Matt Ammendola came in, had a great Week 2 and a terrible Week 3. The Chiefs then released Ammendola and picked up Matthew Wright, who had a great Week 4 and an okay Week 5 (he missed two, but one was called back). Butker finally returned in Week 6 and has missed two kicks so far.

Butker probably gets a pass for those missed kicks since he’s usually reliable, plus he nailed a 62-yard field goal in Week 6 which is a franchise record. The Chiefs shouldn’t have many issues in this phase as long as Butker remains healthy.

As far as blocking goes, the Chiefs’ field goal/extra point blocking has been a brick wall. Almost nobody has gotten through all season and the Chiefs’ offensive line has not allowed any blocked kicks.

FG/XP blocking

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TEAM STATS

Field goal blocks: 0
Penalties: 0
Opponent penalties: 1 (false start)

OVERVIEW

This is probably the most uneventful subunit in special teams since it’s so difficult to block a field goal/extra point. The Chiefs only had one blocked field goal all year last season (by defensive end Alex Okafor, who’s no longer with the team).

Defenders almost never win on this type of play because the ball is kicked so quickly. However, I’ve seen defensive end George Karlaftis break through and come close to a block 14 percent of the time, which is actually a super-high number for an interior defensive lineman. Guys like Lammons, Bush, Williams and safety Justin Reid have seen success with almost getting contact from the outside, but none have yet been successful.

Story originally appeared on Chiefs Wire