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:
There was only 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter when this return came, game tied at 17. Linebacker Jack Cochrane shedding the personal protector’s block and coming inches away from blocking the punt was wildly impressive. A punt block there would’ve likely won the game for the Chiefs.
Kansas City decided to use vice (double) jammers on each side to cover Tennessee’s gunners, which was a good decision in a late-game situation. Sometimes it’s better to focus less on the punt block and more on acquiring a good field position, which is why doubling up on coverage was best.
I think this punt showed the difference between an experienced returner like Hardman and a rookie returner like Moore. Hardman tracked and fielded the punt with ease (at the :07-second mark) and immediately noticed an overload of defenders to his right. It took quick instincts to realize that he needed to cut to his left, as well as pure speed to move up the sideline without getting caught. The fact that Hardman got up to the 40-yard line on this return was impressive.
But, despite Hardman taking back over punt returns, is Hardman still the Chiefs’ only option at returner? Maybe not. The Chiefs actually used a different receiver to return the first punt of the game: Justin Watson.
Special teams coordinator Dave Toub used a fun and unique strategy on Watson’s return. Moore was actually the designated returner on the play, while Watson lined up behind the trenches. Right as the ball was snapped, Watson sprinted back to field the punt while Moore acted as a decoy:
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.