On Saturday night, the Kansas City Chiefs opened their 2021 preseason with a 19-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Here are five things we learned from the game:
1. The offensive line rebuild was about the running game, too
We all know that the Chiefs' offensive line was the main problem in their Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers... right?
The line had been decimated by a series of injuries that started in the season’s early weeks and continued all the way through the AFC Championship. Ultimately that led to a championship game in which not a single player on the line had been in that position as the season began — and in which Mahomes was under pressure in an astounding 29 of 49 passing plays.
But that’s a top-level interpretation of a situation surrounding the league’s best quarterback. What’s been almost completely overlooked is the other part of that equation: in 2020, the Chiefs scored only seven touchdowns on running plays inside the 10-yard line. That was tied for 30th in the league. While hardly anyone mentioned it while it was underway, the team’s rebuild of the offensive line may have had as much to do with improving the team’s running game — particularly in critical short-yardage situations — as it did with protecting Mahomes.
In the opening play of their first offensive drive, the Chiefs chose to hand the ball off to second-year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He ran for 10 yards without anyone putting a hand on him. On the next series, he converted a thrid-and-2 at the San Francisco 5-yard line — and the Chiefs scored on the next play.
Make no mistake: when the Chiefs rebuilt the line, they were also thinking about making their 2020 first-round pick a more significant part of their offense.
2. Andy Reid might not be moving on from a fullback after all
When Pete Sweeney and I discussed the Chiefs' first unofficial depth chart of the season during Tuesday’s Arrowhead Pride Editors Show podcast, one of the things we covered was the possibility that the Chiefs’ head coach might not keep a fullback on the roster in 2021.
And why not? Upon the retirement of their longtime fullback Anthony Sherman, the Chiefs acquired free agent Michael Burton, who was signing with his fifth team since joining the league as a fifth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2015. But during training camp, we’ve heard little about him — and considering the team might need to keep ten offensive linemen or four tight ends, there might not be a roster spot available for a fullback. In 2020, Sherman was on the field for just 6% of the offensive snaps. With all the other problems the Chiefs need to solve, does keeping a fullback make sense?
But our discussion took place before we saw what Reid did in Saturday night’s first two offensive possessions. That 10-yard run by Edwards-Helaire to open the first drive? Burton was on the field as an extra blocker. Burton also caught a Chad Henne pass for seven yards in the second possession to take Kansas City inside the 49ers’ 10-yard line.
As they decide on their final 2021 roster, the Chiefs will have some tough math problems to solve. But we probably shouldn’t assume that giving up a fullback will be part of their solution.
3. Mike Hughes now has a leg up in the cornerback competition
When he spoke to reporters a week ago Friday, Chiefs special team coordinator Dave Toub said that the team planned to use Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle as kick returners.
“Yeah, we’re going to start off with the way we ended last year. I think both of those guys have improved because we had OTAs, we didn’t have that last year, and now we’re having camp and they’ve really developed on some of their weaknesses. They’re getting better seeing the ball and catching it coming forward, and I think both of them are going to take a good step forward.”
And when the team’s unofficial depth chart came out a few days later, Hardman was listed as both the punt returner and kickoff returner.
But on Saturday, neither of them returned kicks. Instead, Toub used a variety of players. The one who stood out was cornerback Mike Hughes, who had a 13-yard punt return — and then made a gutsy decision to return a kickoff from eight yards deep in the end zone. He made it to the 32-yard line.
This is exactly what Toub loves to see: returners who will take a risk — and make it pay off. Much has been made during training camp about the battle between Hughes and Deandre Baker — both former first-round picks who didn’t work out with their previous teams — to grab a spot as the cornerback across from Charvarius Ward in nickel subpackages.
But if Hughes can bring skills as a returner to the calculation, he stands a better chance to make the team. Since Hardman will probably see a significantly larger role in the offense, Toub will likely want to figure out a way to decrease the wide receiver’s role as a returner. Hughes could be the guy to do just that.
4. The depth in the trenches is looking good
All the attention has been on the Chiefs’ starters on both the offensive and defensive lines during the offseason. After this game, many words will be written about them.
But what struck me was what happened after the starters sat down in the second quarter. On both offense and defense, the backup linemen acquitted themselves well. Everybody will be talking about Chris Jones’ sack (from the interior, not from the edge) in the 49ers’ second offensive series. But the Chiefs had four more sacks in the game — split between Omari Cobb, Tershawn Wharton and Tim Ward. All of them — except Ward’s second sack to clinch the game — came against 49ers backup quarterback Trey Lance. Meanwhile, Chiefs backup Chad Henne was only sacked once.
It’s certainly a small sample size — and it’s always dicey to make judgments based on backups playing backups. But it’s still an encouraging sign — hopefully just the first of many — that if the Chiefs should have a bad string of injuries among their linemen in 2021, they’ll be able to handle it.
5. The Chiefs may have found the right formula for a second tight end
Over the years, the Chiefs have tried many things to find their next Tony Gonzalez — and later, their next Travis Kelce. Except for locating Kelce, nothing has really worked.
One of their more unique attempts was to convert a former basketball player to a tight end. While Demetrius Harris didn’t give the team the results they wanted, he’s still been the most productive player they’ve had behind their most recent superstar tight end.
Again... it’s tricky to draw too many conclusions from a preseason game. But the way Jody Fortson played on Saturday — particularly at the end of the game — suggests that the Chiefs may have found a way to get a second tight end to have behind Kelce: keep a wide receiver stashed on the practice squad for a couple of seasons — and then have him add 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
Fortson’s stat line from the game might not seem all that impressive — three catches on five targets for 32 yards — but his one-handed reception and 15-yard scamper during the Chiefs’ final drive sure looked a lot like vintage Kelce. And one of the most significant ways it looked like the All-Pro tight end was that it happened when the Chiefs were in a two-minute drive, trying to regain the lead and put the game away.
NFL coaches like to see their receivers make plays. But they love to see those receivers make plays when they matter most. That’s always been one of Kelce’s greatest skills — and on Saturday night, Fortson showed he could do it, too.