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Wide receiver Byron Pringle broke out vs. Colts and their man coverage

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Pringle shined brightly on a dark Sunday night in Kansas City.

NFL: OCT 06 Colts at Chiefs Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs are now coming off back-to-back weeks in which their offense has looked sloppy and out of sync. Last week, we talked about how the offense still performed at a high level but highlighted some issues that could become major problems if they were not addressed.

The warning signs against the Detroit Lions a week ago centered on Patrick Mahomes being slightly off-target downfield, the offensive line struggling in protection and the wide receivers’ inability to beat man coverage.

Against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night, all of those things became real problems.

Most significantly, the offensive line’s protection of Mahomes was nearing felony level, which led to some of Mahomes’ passes being thrown from his back foot after his ankle had been rolled and stepped on.

The Colts had watched the Lions film — and did something they hadn’t done during defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ tenure: run a lot of man-to-man coverage. So like the week before, Chiefs wide receivers struggled to even gain separation — much less to do so on time or help out the struggling pass protection.

Sammy Watkins was an early game scratch with a lower-body injury, forcing second-year wideout Byron Pringle to join Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman in the starting lineup.

You’d think that such a young, inexperienced group would struggle against man coverage — and by and large, Hardman and Robinson continued to be controlled at the release point and struggled to hand-fight downfield.

But there was some good news. Pringle was shining brightly against Kansas City’s dark, gloomy sky on Sunday night, coming out of the game with six catches, 103 yards and a touchdown.

So this week down in the film room, we will be taking a look at how Pringle was able to churn out this production in his first significant game time — and if it’s something he can build upon.

Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Pringle ended up playing the second-most wide receiver snaps for the Chiefs — including being the second receiver in 12 personnel with Robinson. Essentially the Chiefs used him in the Sammy Watkins role, with reps from the slot, the X and on underneath routes. He was also used for occasional deep shots. They asked a lot out of him — and early on, he delivered.

Route running

Pringle’s route running is probably his best trait. He’s decisive off the line of scrimmage, always attacking the cornerback across from him.

This second-down wheel stop is extremely crisp and well done — even down to the depth being two yards beyond the sticks, which allows Pringle enough space to come back to the ball. As he runs the cornerback off the outside wide receiver’s hip, he stresses the defender vertically — making him think he has to turn his hips to get vertical. Then Pringle sinks his hips and flips them around on a dime as he works back to the ball and the first down.

Against man coverage

At the moment, the Chiefs’ biggest concern at the wide receiver position has to be their inability to beat man coverage consistently. The injuries to Watkins and Tyreek Hill certainly play a role in that concern; Robinson and Hardman haven’t shown much to be relied upon against tight, physical man-to-man coverage.

But against the Colts, Pringle had some reps where he really put the Colts’ corners through a blender.

On this play, Pringle uses a stutter release before exploding into a hard outside jab step. This forces the cornerback to open up outside; the stutter stops him from bailing early and the flash vertically on the outside forces him to think “turn and run.”

From the jab step, Pringle crosses over into a slant, using his hands to slap away any attempt to slow him down as he earns his free inside release.

Comparing Pringle to Hardman and Robinson on vertical routes against man coverage is telling.

Hardman has rare, elite speed that allows him to just run past defenders with less-crisp footwork and routes. He’s proven it works at the NFL level — but in the past few weeks, there have been times that his more passive approach to route running has allowed slower corners to erase him vertically.

On the other side, Pringle is fast — but not game-breaking fast. He does have to break down a cornerback more to create the same vertical separation — but there is no reason a wideout shouldn’t be aggressive in this manner.

Here, Pringle is attacking the corner — making them work a full stem — which allows him to win outside leverage with significantly more space to the sideline. The only move left for the corner is to grab Pringle as he comes out of the route stem.

Against zone coverage

This play is a reminder that even though he’s been a little slower to adapt this year, head coach Andy Reid is great at what he does. This version of four verticals is an absolute killer against any zone variant — because no matter what, three of the routes are going to attack two defenders.

Pringle does a good job preparing for a potential jam, then bends up to the numbers while keeping good spacing. He settles into the open space, opening up to the quarterback for the catch.

Pringle’s ability to run with the ball in his hands has been also been evident a few times this year; we should remember he was an All American returner in college.

Vertical threat

If route running is Pringle’s strength, his ability to leverage plays vertically is his specialty. He really stands in his hand usage during his routes.

Here, his release is crisp, using a skip to get into the corner’s box and then a foot fire to force the corner into a flat-footed stance while anticipating a break. The chop across the cornerback’s arm lets him get upfield free and clear — and if the corner ever closes on him, Pringle will use that back arm to armbar and maintain his leverage like an NFL veteran. The hand-up to call for the ball is smart — but even better is the thought to work with Mahomes as he scrambles.

One small change would be to work across the field at an angle — like a post — because... well, Mahomes.

The play

This is probably Pringle’s most talked-about play — which is somewhat disheartening. Not only is this play still quite good — actually beating the man coverage by forcing a missed tackle at the catch point — it isn’t nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be.

Upon turning upfield, Pringle has to cover 10 yards to the first down marker while the safety is already at the marker — but six yards inside of him; there is no chance to run straight ahead and beat the safety to the first down marker.

The correct choice — which Pringle has said was his intention — was to race to the sideline around Travis Kelce, using his block as an obstacle. But what he saw was an aggressive angle from the safety; Pringle thought he could shoot the gap between Kelce and the closing safety. If he could do that, he would be gone for a touchdown.

The safety makes a great play by closing fast. Pringle momentarily considers going straight upfield; this costs him the angle to the sticks.

After the catch, Pringle didn’t make the best play possible — and he knows it — but neither did he miss some blatant first down.

The bottom line

In a less-than-ideal game — especially on offense — there is still some good to come out the loss to the Colts. I would even go as far as to say that if focusing purely on the outlook of the Chiefs offense, there is more promise after this game than there was after the Lions game.

First, Mahomes looked to be back on point, dropping dimes and making spectacular plays out of nothing before being hampered by an injury. Then there’s the play of Pringle — which jumps off the screen in comparison to what else we’ve seen the last two weeks.

If Watkins continues to miss time, Pringle should start to see more reps in his place — even after Hill’s return — because he excels in similar areas. Pringle offers another short-to-intermediate option that can beat not just man coverage but press coverage, too — while not being limited to any one area of the field.

It’s just one game — and he’s essentially a rookie — so there will be growing pains, but for a team that desperately needs help beating a specific type of coverage, Pringle’s ability as a route runner makes him a weapon teams will play one-on-one.