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Chiefs leaned on unlikely heroes as COVID left them shorthanded

With key players being placed on the COVID-19 list in recent weeks, the Chiefs have leaned on lesser-known players to get the job done.

NFL: DEC 26 Steelers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the last couple of weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs have had quite a few players placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list — 19, to be exact.

This was not a reality solely tied to Kansas City. Since the beginning of December, the number of players on the Reserve/COVID-19 increased by more than 500% across the league.

Some teams have been hit harder than others — and each team has handled the situation with varying degrees of success. Added to the usual injuries that occur throughout the season, this left many teams looking to lesser-known players on their roster and practice squad to step up and start football games.

These were the first career regular-season snaps in some cases.

The motto for the Chiefs' coaching staff has always been the same, "Next man up." Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy echoed this in his Thursday press conference.

"These guys have done a tremendous job all year long, but just stepping up when presented with the opportunity to do so."

The best example of this mentality might be Chiefs wide receiver Byron Pringle. In Week 16's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, star tight end Travis Kelce was sidelined. In Kelce's absence, Pringle stepped in and repaid coach Andy Reid's confidence in him with six receptions for 75 yards and two touchdowns.

"Pringle did a heck of a job," said Bieniemy. "I'm not shocked or surprised. You know the thing about Pringle is, he's one of the hardest working individuals. The kid comes to work every day with his hardhat. And the thing that you appreciate about Pringle is that he does not take anything for granted."

The defense has been shorthanded as well, with Rashad Fenton, Charvarious Ward, Nick Bolton, Chris Jones and Willie Gay Jr. all missing time in December. Just like Pringle, the Chiefs had a group of unlikely contributors step up in Dicaprio Bootle, who led the team in tackles last Sunday — as well as Josh Jackson and Dorian O'Daniel.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said that he was proud of all three, citing their work ethic.

"It's nice to see it pay off and that they can get out on the field and perform," said Spagnuolo.

The true impact of how important it was to have the bottom of the roster carry the load while the starters were out is probably epitomized best by two players who were not even on the roster two weeks ago, in kicker Elliot Fry and punter Johnny Townsend.

With the wind swirling at Arrowhead Stadium, Fry performed admirably, making three out of four field goals and converting all but one of his point-after attempts. Fry was aided by journeyman punter Johnny Townsend, who acted as the holder on Fry's kicks.

Beyond the solid effort of the Chiefs replacement kickers, special teams coordinator Dave Toub said that it's been huge for the special teams that general manager Brett Veach and his crew have filled the practice squad with quality players.

"It was so important, particularly this year, especially with what happened to us last week," noted Toub. "With the amount of guys that we had down, we really didn't know who we were going to have up."

Toub said that the Chiefs didn't know who was going to be available as the week went on, and they did their best just to practice the players that they had available.

"You had to practice the guys you knew were going to be there, so that's what we did," explained Toub. "Suddenly, we found out that Josh Jackson was going to be up, so he ended playing in the game without any reps during the week, so a lot of credit goes to those guys. Him and Bootle, he's the same thing. He jumped in and got a bunch of good reps, did a real good job for us, so a lot has to do with our personnel department having good players there that we can tap into.

"Credit goes to the player, too, for being up on what we do as far as meetings and keeping up with their position and knowing what to do if they get called upon. Overall, it was good for us to go through it, and we know how to handle it, and a lot of credit goes to all of the players and the personnel department."

We don't know when or how many more players might be sidelined due to COVID-19 this season, but if they are, the Chiefs coaching staff knows it can expect the next man to step up and take care of business.