Chiefs special teams film review, divisional round: The good, the bad, and the future
As has been the case for much of the 2022 season, the Chiefs’ special teams unit was a mixed bag in their 27-20 divisional round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Some things went right while some things went very wrong, but surprisingly it wasn’t the usual suspects who succeeded and struggled this past week. We’ll go into detail about the good and bad from the Chiefs’ special teams performance against the Jags, and then discuss how Kansas City can succeed on special teams in the AFC Championship Game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In addition to this review, check out my special teams stats, snap counts and grades for individual players via Google Sheets for a deeper look into the unit’s performance.
The good: What went right
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
First: the good.
Harrison Butker’s kicks weren’t an issue
Butker went 2-for-2 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points. For those counting, Butker hasn’t missed a kick since Week 15 — he did have a blocked kick in Week 17 but that was due to a missed assignment by offensive lineman Andrew Wylie. So as far as Butker’s kicking goes, it seems all the issues from earlier this season have been “fixed.”
Jerick McKinnon is still a human shield
One could easily compile a full season highlight reel of blocks by running back Jerick McKinnon, both from his work on offense and punt coverage. Check this block by McKinnon on one of the Chiefs’ punts:
Peep this block by @JetMckinnon1 on the #Chiefs' 1st punt vs. Jaguars.
I think @PatrickMahomes and @tommy_townsend owe McKinnon some steak dinners 😂 pic.twitter.com/nHW3v1ZpIz
— Wes Roesch (@WesleyRoesch) January 24, 2023
The punt coverage subunit had a solid day overall as usual, allowing around 7.7 yards per return.
The Chiefs recovered another onside kick
Onside kicks are always nerve-racking, but the Chiefs have been perfect on onside kick returns this season. This time up it was receiver Kadarius Toney who captured the kick. Toney often lines up as the right backer on onside kick returns because of his vertical ability, but it was actually his scooping ability that allowed him to get this return:
It’s worth pointing out that Chiefs linebacker Leo Chenal (No. 54) and tight end Noah Gray (No. 83) both threw tremendous blocks on this return, which would have allowed Toney some breathing room in case he would have needed to go high for the ball.
The bad: What went wrong
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
And now, the bad.
Kickoff coverage had its worst game of the season
The Chiefs’ kickoff subunit has been one of its strongest this season — it was ranked fourth in special teams DVOA by Football Outsiders during the regular season. But the divisional round was its worst game of the year by far.
The Chiefs’ kickoff coverage squad allowed an average field position of the 24.44-yard line during the regular season, which meant it performed better than the automatic 25-yard line touchback. However, in the divisional round, it allowed an average field position of the 43.67-yard line. It also allowed the team’s longest return of the season, with Jaguars returner Jamal Agnew taking a return to the Kansas City 39-yard line:
Both of these long returns featured a combination of tremendous blocking by the Jaguars and poor shedding by the Chiefs. Several Chiefs players were caught in each others’ lanes instead of staying spread out, which led to a few instances of friendly fire.
Luckily, on the return that went to the 45-yard line, Butker saved what could have been a return touchdown by Agnew. That was Butker’s first tackle of the season, and it was a crucial one.
A rookie moment by Nazeeh Johnson
I’ve sung the praises of rookie defensive back Nazeeh Johnson all season, and for good reason. He has been a stud on special teams and has improved as the season has progressed.
However, he had a rookie moment on a punt return vs. the Jaguars. The Chiefs used Johnson as a jammer during this game for the first time this season, and he actually did a pretty good job. However, one play stood out as an error by the seventh-round rookie:
Coming from the left side as a jammer, Johnson’s man got through and downed the punt at the two-yard line. The worst part about this play was that Johnson (No. 13) actually had his man blocked, but Johnson stopped once the ball came down. It seems Johnson assumed the ball would drop into the end zone, but it ended up getting picked up by Jaguars safety Daniel Thomas (No. 20).
Meanwhile, veteran special teamer Chris Lammons (No. 29) stayed on his man as the right-side jammer all the way through the end of the play. If Johnson would have done the same, the ball might’ve made its way into the end zone with an extra bounce or two. Just a small, teachable moment for Johnson who will likely not make this same mistake again.
The Chiefs lost Lammons
Speaking of Lammons, the Chiefs waived the fourth-year cornerback on Monday, likely to make roster room for a returning injured player. In a corresponding move, the Bengals claimed Lammons off waivers. They won’t actually be able to use him this season, so why did they do it? Likely to keep the Chiefs from signing Lammons to the practice squad and calling him up on gameday.
It’s a smart move by the Bengals to give them an extra edge over K.C. in the AFC title game. It’s also a blow to the Chiefs’ special teams unit. Lammons played 70 percent of the team’s special teams snaps this season, most on the team. He mostly excelled on punt coverage and punt returns where he played gunner and jammer, respectively, winning over 70 percent of the time in both positions. Not having that veteran presence on special teams will hurt the Chiefs, but luckily the Chiefs may have another option waiting (more on that in the next section).
The future: How the Chiefs' special teams can succeed in the AFC Championship Game
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
There will be nearly zero margin for error if the Chiefs want to beat the Bengals and reach the Super Bowl. That’s why special teams must be a strength for the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, not a hindrance. Here’s how the unit can accomplish that.
Call up WR Marcus Kemp
The Chiefs absolutely need to call up Kemp from the practice squad to fill the veteran void that Lammons leaves behind. Kemp was called up last week but was inactive on gameday. With Lammons gone, it’s Kemp’s time to shine. Kemp is a special teams ace who made the most of his limited time with the Chiefs this season — he had four tackles in just three games, plus a sick block which led to a big kick return by running back Isiah Pacheco. I’d actually argue that Kemp is a better blocker than Lammons, so Kemp might be an upgrade.
Please don’t fumble
The Chiefs have fumbled the ball seven times on special teams this year. To beat the Bengals, Toney’s fumble in Week 17 needs to remain the team’s last. If that means letting the ball bounce, kneeling or calling a fair catch, so be it. The Chiefs offense is so good that a potential big play may not be worth the risk of losing the ball.
Kickoff coverage: Stay in your lane
As I mentioned earlier, kickoff coverage will need to make sure its players remain in their respective lanes and do not pile up behind each other. The defense has a difficult enough job as it is — no need to make it more challenging by allowing a big return.
Better yet: Just blast the ball out of the back of the end zone
The Chiefs could have benefitted from just kicking the ball through the back of the end zone on all of their kickoffs last week. Giving the Bengals the automatic 25 might be better than potentially giving QB Joe Burrow extra yards. Again, don’t make things more difficult on the defense.
Keep putting tall guys on field goal blocks?
The Chiefs used 6-foot-8 left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. on field goal blocks last week. He didn’t block a kick, but he did eat up blockers:
I didn't notice this during the game but the #Chiefs used Orlando Brown Jr., the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-8, on FG blocks vs. the Jaguars for the first time this season. Also slid in Carlos Dunlap for the first time as well. pic.twitter.com/pQ1XClHrvP
— Wes Roesch (@WesleyRoesch) January 23, 2023
The Chiefs might be onto something by placing Brown next to defensive end Carlos Dunlap, whose massive arms/hands have batted down many passes this season and could surely get in front of a kick someday. It’s a small injury risk putting Brown on these plays, but it’s the championship, so they might as well go all out, right?