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Some post-COVID Chiefs still working toward 100% for Bengals game

While surprising to some coaches, there are Kansas City players who apparently struggled after being in COVID protocol.

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs went into their Week 16 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with eight players unable to play after testing positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, other Chiefs players — like wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Josh Gordon, cornerback Charvarius Ward, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and defensive tackle Chris Jones — were returning from the Reserve/COVID list.

Snap counts for all those just-returned players — except Gay — appeared to be lower than we would usually see. Was that because those players needed time to recover from their COVID exposure, or was it because Kansas City had jumped out to a 23-0 halftime lead — which the team eventually extended to 36-3 in the fourth quarter?

So it made national headlines on Wednesday when quarterback Patrick Mahomes — while listing secondary players who had made contributions to the game — happened to mention that Hill had been exhausted by his efforts against Pittsburgh.

"Tyreek (Hill) even got out there," Mahomes noted, "and he was just off the COVID list, so he was exhausted — just trying to do what he could to contribute."

So when Chiefs assistant coaches took their Thursday turns with reporters, this led to some questions.

Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy acknowledged that in this week's practices, Hill and tight end Travis Kelce — who missed Sunday's game after failing to test out of the COVID protocol that morning but has since cleared it — both looked "much better than they were a week ago."

Then Bieniemy expressed surprise at Mahomes' statement.

"It was kind of odd hearing it; nobody expected to hear that from him," said Bieniemy. "But having this week to really get out there and get their conditioning back? Those guys are professionals. They know exactly what to do — and what is needed — for them to be at their best. I think they'll be just fine."

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Jones had also attracted attention from remarks he had made on Wednesday — saying that being in the COVID protocol was "a challenge" from which he is still recovering.

"You're forced to miss so many days," Jones had said. "You come back, and you try to be in a rhythm. It kind of takes you out of your rhythm, so you've got to find that balance right there. You've also got to be in tune with the game and with what's going on: watching film, staying in tune with the new calls that are being presented week-in and week-out and trying to be relevant while you're quarantining. So it was a challenge [in] itself. And also trying to stay in shape. You don't really have the strength and endurance that you had before; you try to find that balance. I'm still trying to find that balance now — trying to get better each day."

But Steve Spagnuolo said that playing less on Sunday had been more about the Chiefs being so far ahead in Jones' case.

"As I can recall, he was in a normal rotation through the first three quarters of the game," said the defensive coordinator. "And again: we roll people through; you guys know that. I mean, we have eight D-linemen that are going to be in there on a normal rotation. I don't think it was anything due to the COVID; I don't remember him coming to me and saying I'm winded or tired — unless he talked to Brendan (Daly) about that."

It isn't known if Jones asked his defensive line coach to have his playing time reduced during the victory against the Steelers — but Daly said that after Jones returned to practice last Thursday, he had observed the star defensive lineman struggling.

"I don't have a ton of experience with the guys in COVID," Daly began. "[But] just watching and observing, it does seem like each guy's affected a little bit differently — for whatever reason. There's no broad brush to paint there; you've just kind of got to work through it. I did see last week in practice — as we got [Jones] back [and] integrated into it — I could see, 'OK, there may be some stamina — some wind issues — here.' He worked through that; I give him a lot of credit."

And like Bieniemy, Daly said he sees improvement.

"I would say that looks like it's improved this week. You would have to talk to him — he can tell you more specifically about how he feels. I'm going kind of off of the body language — if you will — and watching him. But I would say [that he] looks a little bit better than — particularly — the first day we got him back."

NFL: DEC 12 Raiders at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Does this mean that Kelce, linebacker Nick Bolton, right tackle Lucas Niang, cornerback Rashad Fenton, placekicker Harrison Butker, punter Tommy Townsend and safety Armani Watts — all of whom missed the Week 16 game while in the COVID protocol but are back at practice this week — might have difficulty playing at 100% when the Chiefs play against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday?

As Daly noted, that will likely depend on the individual players and their circumstances. But Spagnuolo made it clear that the team expects players to speak up if they're having difficulty — just like when they have sustained an injury.

"I really trust the guys," he said. "All we ask them is, 'Look, don't go out there and keep yourself on the field for a play when you don't think you can do it 100%. Let's get somebody else in there.' Other than that, we roll a lot of guys through — so I'm hoping that the fact that we run a lot of people out on the field helps guys that are in that situation."

And if not, there's always the backup plan.

"You never want to go into any game without all of your great players," said Bieniemy. "But this is a part of the game — and this is a part of the day and age we're living in. So it's our job as a coaching staff to make sure that our guys are ready. I've talked about this in the past: we coach our backup players to be starters."