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Examining the Chiefs’ ultra-talented wide receiver group

How the Chiefs WRs put their stamp on the Ravens game in different ways

NFL: SEP 28 Chiefs at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs offense was clicking on all cylinders against the Baltimore Ravens Monday night in the team’s 34-20 win. The game was not as close as the final score would indicate.

The Chiefs’ offense is a terrible matchup for the Ravens’ defense based upon how both teams like to play, and that showed during the game. The Ravens’ blitz-heavy approach with man coverage behind it was absolutely picked apart by the Chiefs’ quick and downfield passing attack. Patrick Mahomes played a massive role in that, as did Andy Reid with his game plan, but another major contributor was the Chiefs’ skill players.

Tight end Travis Kelce has been steady and dominant to start the season, but the wide receivers really blew this game open. No single player exploded, but as a unit, each made his mark in a different way.

This week down in the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory, we are not going to break down one specific player but just look into how the unit was able to excel.

The Chiefs’ wide receivers

Tyreek Hill

Tyreek Hill is the star of the group, and he has improved significantly since entering the NFL. He has one skill — in particular — that nobody in the league can match.

Hill’s speed — combined with his ability to track the ball vertically — makes him the most dangerous wide receiver in the NFL. His speed is well-documented, but his comfort level tracking the football downfield may be even more impressive.

Both traits were on display on this touchdown against the Ravens. Hill eats up the cornerback’s cushion off the line of scrimmage and is easily able to rip through contact and still stack on top of the cornerback. Wide receivers who are as dynamic as Hill are easily knocked off their route with contact, but Hill shows no trouble ripping through and getting on top of the cornerback.

Once he has stacked the cornerback, he can locate the ball over his outside shoulder and alter speeds to box the opponent out. Hill then does a good job staying behind the football enough that he’s the only person with a chance to catch the football but also elevate to meet the ball in the air rather than let it drop into his body.

When you start to combine the uncanny speed, ball-tracking and ability at the catch point, you get a dominant wide receiver with a unique skill set.

That speed shows up in different ways, as defensive backs have to respect the ability to get over the top. One thing Hill has worked on throughout his time in the league is his route running, and you can see that on this chair route. Hill does a good job selling the out-n-up before sitting back down after creating an ample space from the cornerback. Hill’s ability to lean into the vertical route, then “sit down in a chair” when breaking back toward the quarterback allows him to create free separation on comebacks.

His footwork has significantly improved on hard breaks, and it shows on clips like this.

Hill’s growth as a route runner has significantly helped him become a more complete wide receiver, but it’s the play strength and ball skills that are going to allow him to continue climbing to the rank of the NFL’s best at the position.

Sammy Watkins

Sammy Watkins may not have been playing at 100% in this game based on how quickly he was falling before contact once he had the football, but that did not stop him from having an impact on the game.

It has been entertaining to watch Watkins change from primarily a deep threat to a true possession, X-type wide receiver. The Chiefs love to utilize Watkins on horizontal breaking routes over the middle of the field and ask him to settle down between zones.

Watkins has always been a good route runner, but he has taken it to another level while with Kansas City on his underneath routes — as seen by him freezing the linebacker in the middle of the field. Watkins’ technical ability as a route runner allows him to manipulate underneath to help defenders and still catch the ball in space.

This whip route by Watkins is how the Chiefs had been using Watkins in the red zone this season. He’s had a few targets over the middle of the field or working back to the sideline underneath receivers working into the end zone.

Watkins’ technical route running is on display as he slow-plays his route stem off the line of scrimmage and then explodes to the inside to fake a crossing route. He then uses his elbow to chicken wing the cornerback past him as he turns back outside to open space.

Watkins is the perfect kind of wide receiver to complement the speed on the rest of the roster. His ability to work over the middle of the field and pick key first downs as a possession wide receiver has been key to the Chiefs’ success in the last two years.

Mecole Hardman

Mecole Hardman didn’t see a significant uptick in total snaps but seemed to be a larger part of the game plan this week — and he made his reps count.

One of the noticeable trends about Hardman’s play as a rookie was his usage limited to the slot and being aligned off the line of scrimmage. While Hardman does not seem to be deployed across all wide receiver positions, he was given a few reps aligned on the line of scrimmage and tight to the formation against the Ravens.

Whether by design or by luck, it often came on plays where the Ravens dialed up a cornerback blitz, which allowed him to get into his route without really having to contend against a jam. When Hardman is working vertically and he isn’t physically knocked off of his route, he is almost as dangerous as Hill. He has similar speed and ball-tracking skills to punish teams over the top. The route may not be the cleanest out-n-up around, but the Chiefs dialed up a shot play designed to use his speed over the top, and it paid off.

Hardman often struggled as a rookie at continuing to run after he thought his route and the play was over. With Mahomes’ ability to extend plays and put the ball anywhere on the field, there were multiple situations last year in which he jogged out of his route too soon.

Against the Ravens, Hardman had this important reception after the initial dig route was covered. After the ball was not delivered, he first retraced his path to the open zone while mirroring Mahomes’ eyes when he escaped back to the left. This allowed Hardman to open up late and make the reception deep into the play to convert a big first down.

Early in this season, Hardman hasn’t shown quite as much growth as possibly expected, but he also has not had many opportunities. As it stands, he is still mostly a game-specific weapon that will continue to have all of his success on plays specifically designed for him — or on broken plays.

By the end of the season, perhaps we can have a conversation about him being the 2021 replacement for Watkins, but right now, his best usage seems to be as a third receiver deployed in specific situations.

This is also where Demarcus Robinson, who out-snapped Hardman and only saw a single target, comes into play. Despite his inconsistency, Robinson is still trusted to play more receiver positions and within the offense’s structure. I do think a split — as we saw against the Ravens — is likely to continue when the Chiefs play aggressive, man-to-man-heavy teams.

The bottom line

Not every game will go like this one throughout the season for the Chiefs, as we’ve already seen.

The Ravens are a unique defense that the Chiefs matched up against perfectly, and that showed up all over the field. One area of the Chiefs’ team that was able to showcase nearly their full ability on the field was the receiver group. Hill, Watkins and even Hardman were able to step up and join Kelce in dominating the Ravens’ defense.

The Chiefs have a good stable of receivers this year when the group is playing like this.

Hill is playing like a true top receiver with the dominant trait of the vertical threat, but his route running and ball skills allow him to be used everywhere. Watkins has become one of the better X receivers in the NFL this season, doing most of his work over the middle of the field and near the sticks. As Hardman continues to develop, look for him to potentially become a matchup problem every week — and not just against certain teams.

Overall, the Chiefs’ hope is that the dominance continues.