Chiefs special teams review: Where did the unit rank during the 2022 NFL season?
2022 was a success for the Super Bowl LVII-winning Kansas City Chiefs, and special teams played partial role in that success despite some growing pains during the regular season.
When looking at the Chiefs’ special teams unit as a whole throughout the entirety of 2022, it took a step down compared to 2021. The team’s special teams ranked 16th in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA (playoffs included) in 2022, falling far below its second-place ranking in 2021.
So what changed to make the Chiefs go from a top-two squad to the middle of the pack? Several factors contributed to the drop, including:
Rookies: 11 made the team, with 10 playing significant special teams snaps. Many rookies played well, but there were still growing pains.
Fumbling issues: The Chiefs fumbled the ball seven times on returns, losing five of them.
Field goal inconsistency: Injuries at the kicker position plus alleged holding issues led to inconsistency with field goals for most of the season.
Uncertainty at punt returner: The Chiefs used four different punt returners before settling on one as the team’s go-to guy.
Despite the initial challenges, the Chiefs’ special teams unit pulled it together and performed well down the stretch, especially during the postseason. It even had a few plays that were difference-makers in the Chiefs winning the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl.
With the 2022 season at a close, this final review will detail the performance of each Chiefs special teams subunit. All stats listed below cover the regular season and postseason (20 games total) unless noted. For snap counts, full player grades and more detailed stats, visit my Google Sheet and browse each of the tabs.
AP Photo/Ed Zurga
Opponent returns (not including onside or safety kicks): 39
Opponent average field position when returning: 26.28-yard line
Opponent touchdowns: 0
Touchback percentage: 66.3 percent (12th highest in NFL)
Onside kicks: 0
Kicks out of bounds: 0
Opponent penalties: 4
S Ugo Amadi: 1 tackle
K Matt Ammendola: 1 tackle
CB Dicaprio Bootle: 1 tackle
FB Michael Burton: 6 tackles (4 solo)
S Deon Bush: 8 tackles (3 solo)
K Harrison Butker: 1 tackle (solo)
LB Leo Chenal: 3 tackles (1 solo)
LB Jack Cochrane: 7 tackles (2 solo)
S Bryan Cook: 3 tackles (2 solo), 1 penalty (unnecessary roughness)
TE Jody Fortson: 2 tackles (1 solo)
LB Darius Harris: 2 tackles (2 solo)
S Nazeeh Johnson: 4 tackles (3 solo)
WR Marcus Kemp: 2 tackles (1 solo)
CB Chris Lammons: 1 forced fumble, 2 tackles
LB Elijah Lee: 1 recovered fumble, 2 tackles (1 solo)
RB Isiah Pacheco: 2 tackles (1 solo)
S Justin Reid: 2 tackles
CB Jaylen Watson: 3 tackles (1 solo)
WR Justin Watson: 1 tackle (solo)
CB Joshua Williams: 2 tackles (1 solo)
Best defenders: S Deon Bush, LB Jack Cochrane, FB Michael Burton
Kickoff coverage was a strong subunit for the Chiefs in 2022, especially during the regular season. The average field position for Chiefs opponents when returning kickoffs (not including onside or safety kicks) during the regular season was the 24.44-yard line, just a bit shorter than the 25-yard line that a touchback automatically gifts.
That average field position number went up a bit during the postseason thanks to a few big (and uncharacteristic) returns allowed. Still, overall, this subunit provided an advantage rather than a hindrance.
The players who performed the best based on the stats and film review were safety Deon Bush, undrafted rookie linebacker Jack Cochrane and fullback Michael Burton. They finished top three on the team in kickoff coverage tackles and were my top-three graded players with at least 20 graded plays on kickoff coverage (Cochrane 53%, Burton 50%, Bush 49%). Kickoff coverage is a difficult subunit to win consistently due to double teams and the speed of play, so winning nearly or more than half the time is impressive.
One player who was rather disappointing on kickoff coverage was rookie safety Bryan Cook, who finished with my lowest grade (33%) among players with 20+ graded plays. Cook had a tendency to overpursue and take the wrong angles, and had difficulty shedding blocks consistently. However, Cook did make some plays and finished with three tackles (including two solo). If he plays kickoff coverage next season I’d expect his play to improve with experience.
One player who I wish we would have seen more of was receiver Marcus Kemp. He only had 14 graded plays across five games but made his presence known by earning two tackles and a 71% grade. It’s unfortunate that the Chiefs couldn’t find room for Kemp on the 53-man roster during most of the season because his limited presence often provided a boost for special teams.
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RB Isiah Pacheco: 31 returns, 642 yards, 20.71 yards/return, 24-yard line average field position, 48 long, 1 fumble
WR Skyy Moore: 4 returns, 68 yards, 17 y/rt, 23 long
FB Michael Burton: 2 returns, 29 yards, 14.5 y/rt, 20 long
TE Jody Fortson: 1 return, 12 yards, 1 fumble lost, 1 penalty (holding)
WR Mecole Hardman: 1 return, 4 yards
TE Noah Gray: 1 penalty (holding)
LB Darius Harris: 1 penalty (holding)
Best returner: RB Isiah Pacheco
Best blockers: FB Michael Burton, RB Jerick McKinnon
The Chiefs’ kick return squad was not very productive in 2022. Running back Isiah Pacheco’s regular season average of 20.6 yards per return ranked 16th in the NFL among those with 17+ kick returns. Also, his average field position fell short of the 25-yard line in both the regular season and postseason, meaning the Chiefs would have been better off letting the ball bounce through the back of the end zone most of the time. That’s actually exactly what they did in the playoffs — out of 14 possible kick returns in the postseason (not including onside kicks), 11 were touchbacks.
Part of the Chiefs’ kick return squad’s lack of success was due to inconsistent blocking and Pacheco’s growing pains as a returner. Pacheco improved as the season progressed, but most times the blocking just wasn’t there for him. Even when it was, Pacheco proved to be too much of a bursty runner rather than a shifty one, a running style that didn’t lend itself to many long returns. With Pacheco taking over as the Chiefs’ lead running back, it’s probably best if the Chiefs find someone else to return kicks in 2023.
The best blockers on the Chiefs’ kick return subunit were, by far, fullback Michael Burton (80%) and running back Jerick McKinnon (74%). Everyone else with at least 20 graded plays fell between the 40-59% mark. Much like on kickoff coverage, it would have been nice to see more of Kemp, who saw much more success blocking (69%) than some players like cornerback Jaylen Watson (41%) who Kemp filled in for on occasion.
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Opponent returns: 28
Opponent return yards: 239
Opponent return average: 8.54 yards per return
Opponent average field position: 21.83-yard line
Opponent return touchdowns: 0
Opponent punt blocks: 0
P Tommy Townsend: 63 punts, 44.5 net average, 27 downed inside 20-yard line, 15 inside the 10, 6 inside the 5, 4 touchbacks, 76 long
S Ugo Amadi: 1 downed punt
CB Dicaprio Bootle: 1 tackle, 1 downed punt
FB Michael Burton: 3 tackles
S Deon Bush: 1 penalty (illegal formation)
LB Leo Chenal: 3 tackles (2 solo)
LB Cole Christiansen: 1 tackle (solo)
LB Jack Cochrane: 3 tackles (2 solo)
S Bryan Cook: 3 tackles
TE Noah Gray: 3 tackles (2 solo)
LB Darius Harris: 3 tackles (1 solo)
S Nazeeh Johnson: 6 tackles (3 solo), 2 downed punts
WR Marcus Kemp: 2 tackles (1 solo)
CB Chris Lammons: 3 tackles (1 solo), 3 downed punts, 1 penalty (player out of bounds)
LB Elijah Lee: 4 tackles (2 solo)
RB Jerick McKinnon: 2 tackles (1 solo)
CB Jaylen Watson: 1 tackle
WR Justin Watson: 1 downed punt
LS James Winchester: 1 tackle (solo), 1 penalty (holding)
Best gunner and best tackler: S Nazeeh Johnson
Best non-gunner defender: LB Leo Chenal
Best punt protector: RB Jerick McKinnon
The Chiefs’ punt coverage squad was its best special teams subunit and one of the NFL’s best punt coverage squads. Third-year punter Tommy Townsend earned first-team All-Pro honors by earning the league’s best net punting average (45.6) during the regular season.
The Chiefs’ punt coverage defenders helped allow the sixth-least punt return yards at 176 during the regular season. Much of this was due to the team’s strong gunners, with rookie safety Nazeeh Johnson coming in and earning my awards for best gunner and best tackler. Despite only playing 32 of the team’s 63 punt coverage snaps, Johnson led the subunit in tackles (six) and also added two downed punts. Johnson was successful on 78% of his snaps, higher than special teams ace Chris Lammons (72%).
My best-graded punt coverage defender (with at least 30 snaps) who didn’t work the gunner position was linebacker Leo Chenal (92%). Linebacker Elijah Lee — who finished with a 100% grade and four tackles on just 13 snaps — probably would have earned this honor if he would have played more, but he appeared in just five games.
Running back Jerick McKinnon (82%) wasn’t always the team’s most lucrative tackler but he was a tremendous blocker as Townsend’s personal protector.
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WR Skyy Moore: 16 returns, 115 yards, 7.19 yards/return, 27.18-yard line average, 29 long, 4 fair catches, 3 fumbles lost
WR Kadarius Toney: 16 returns, 173 yards, 10.81 y/rt, 26.8-yard line avg., 65 long, 4 fair catches, 1 fumble lost
WR Mecole Hardman: 6 returns, 55 yards, 9.2 y/rt, 23.1-yard line avg., 22 long, 2 fair catches, 1 fumble
WR Justin Watson: 5 returns, 39 yards, 7.8 y/rt, 24.17-yard line avg., 17 long, 3 fair catches
S Deon Bush: 1 penalty (illegal block above waist)
LB Jack Cochrane: 1 penalty (holding)
S Bryan Cook: 2 penalties (holding, unnecessary roughness)
CB Chris Lammons: 2 penalties (holding)
CB L’Jarius Sneed: 1 penalty (holding)
Best returner: WR Kadarius Toney
Best jammer: CB Chris Lammons
Best non-jammer blocker: CB Joshua Williams
Best at pressuring the punter: TE Jody Fortson
The Chiefs’ punt return squad was probably its worst overall in 2022, which is ironic considering there were two game-changing punt returns by the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game (Skyy Moore’s 29-yard return) and the Super Bowl (Kadarius Toney’s 65-yard return) which helped earn the team another championship.
During the regular season, the Chiefs’ punt return squad went through an identity crisis as it played musical chairs at punt returner. As a whole, the team’s 6.7 yards per return average during the regular season was seventh-worst in the league, and its five fumbles tied for fifth worst. Moore contributed three of those five fumbles as he had trouble tracking the ball in the air and gauging how much pressure he was receiving from the opposing punt coverage team.
Toney eventually emerged as the team’s best punt returner, but not exactly by much — his 6.1 yards per return average matched Moore’s 6.1 average during the regular season. However, Toney set himself apart during the playoffs by averaging 18.7 yards per punt and earning the longest punt return in Super Bowl history.
No good returns would have been possible without good jammers, who are responsible for blocking the gunners on the outside. The Chiefs’ best jammer by far was cornerback Chris Lammons who was successful on 71% of his snaps. The Chiefs actually struggled to find a good, consistent jammer opposite Lammons — cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed (45%) and Trent McDuffie (42%) didn’t excel at the position — but safety Nazeeh Johnson ended up stepping into the role during the playoffs and did a great job (70%) with limited snaps.
The squad’s best blocker who didn’t line up as a jammer until the final two games of the postseason was cornerback Joshua Williams (77%), who often bounced around and sometimes played vice jammer (an extra jammer who helps the main jammer on one side double-team the gunner). Williams was actually so good at the vice jammer role that I believe he should have been one of the team’s main jammers — hopefully in 2023 that’s the case.
The Chiefs didn’t block any punts in 2022, though tight end Jody Fortson (66%) came close on multiple occasions, making him the best on the team at pressuring the punter.
Field goals (FG)/extra points (XP)
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K Harrison Butker:
24-for-31 field goals, 77.4 FG percentage
9-for-9 at 20-29 yards
4-for-5 at 30-39 yards
6-for-8 at 40-49 yards
5-for-9 at 50+ yards
Longest: 62 yards (career long)
48-for-51 extra points, 94.1 XP percentage
1 FG blocked
25-for-31 from left hash
38-for-40 from middle
9-for-11 (1 blocked) from right hash
K 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
Longest: 31 yards
3-for-4 extra points, 75 XP percentage
K 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+ yards
Longest: 59 yards
8-for-8 extra points, 100 XP percentage
S/K Justin Reid:
1-for-2 extra points, 50 XP percentage
OG Nick Allegretti: 1 penalty (false start)
OT Geron Christian: 1 penalty (ineligible man downfield)
OT Andrew Wylie: 1 blocked field goal allowed
Best blockers: OT Orlando Brown, OT Lucas Niang, OT Prince Tega-Wanogho, OG Trey Smith
The kicking game was much more eventful than Chiefs fans wanted it to be in 2022. Butker suffered an injury Week 1 which caused him to miss a few games, giving time to three other kickers with mixed results. Once Butker returned he still struggled with accuracy which may or may not have been due to injuries and/or holding issues.
Butker finished with a career-low 75% field goal percentage during the regular season and missed one in the Super Bowl. Luckily, Butker went 6-fot-7 overall in the postseason and made his field goals when they mattered most.
The Chiefs’ FG/XP blocking unit was a brick wall, rarely ever allowing pressure and allowing just one blocked field goal (one of 18 teams to allow at least one block). The block was allowed by tackle Andrew Wylie, who otherwise was good at protection overall.
The four best protectors on FGs/XPs for the Chiefs were OTs Orlando Brown Jr., Lucas Niang, Prince Tega-Wanogho and guard Trey Smith. Those four did not allow a single pressure in field goal protection.
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Field goal blocks: 0
Opponent penalties: 2
Best at pressuring the kicker: CB Chris Lammons, DE George Karlaftis
This is always the least eventful subunit on any team because it is so difficult to block a field goal/extra point. Most teams only block about 1-2 per year, and the Chiefs were one of 10 teams in 2022 to block zero.
However, there were some close calls. Cornerback Chris Lammons (13%) and defensive end George Karlaftis (8%) were the team’s most effective defenders when pressuring the kicker. Lammons made his pressures from the outside, utilizing his speed and bend to almost block kicks, while Karlaftis frequented multiple spots along the interior and used his large reach and hand size to come close to contact.