Late in the first half of Sunday’s 42-21 Wild Card playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs forced a punt. As Steelers punter Pressley Harvin kicked from his own 19-yard line with only 1:06 remaining until halftime, the Chiefs put an unexpected punt returner in the game: Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
Early in his career, Hill was one of the league’s most-feared return men — but after developing into an elite wide receiver in recent years, he has rarely played special teams. Though he actually lost eight yards on the return, his presence in the return game spoke to how the Chiefs valued the opportunity to score again before the half.
“Yeah, we were trying to score a touchdown,” said Chiefs assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Dave Toub during his media remarks on Thursday. “It was a situation with long yardage, and we went double [with] the gunners. Any time we can double the gunners, we feel like we can protect the returner from a free runner; so that’s the situation, we tried to put Tyreek in there — and it was a good situation, we thought.
“He kicked the ball directionally, got it way out there to the left — and Tyreek did get his hand on it. I think he had one man to beat and if he would’ve beat that guy, I think he was gone. It’s always a threat to have Tyreek in there — and we’re lucky to have him in there.”
This season, Toub’s regular punt returner — wide receiver Mecole Hardman — sometimes appeared to have been benched in favor of cornerback Mike Hughes. But against the Steelers on Sunday, Hardman returned three punts — indicating that he has returned to being in Toub’s good graces. One return went for 48 yards to start a drive at the Steelers’ 22-yard line — a golden opportunity ruined by a Patrick Mahomes interception.
“Mecole had his best punt return day that he’s had since he’s been here,” claimed Toub. “I mean, I know he scored a touchdown in Miami last year, but that day that he had Sunday? He ran tough, he didn’t run out of bounds, he actually cut back into the field, [made] some people miss. He had a desire not to go down — and that’s what you have to have as a punt returner.”
Toub said he was proud of the way Hardman played.
“Obviously, in the second one, he got the 48-yard return,” he noted. “I mean, that was really close to [being] a score. We got to keep building on that and continue on. We got a few more games left here.”
Toub said that some of Hardman’s improvements came from the opportunity to observe another player in the role — but that wasn’t the only reason.
“You’ve seen it in practice,” Toub recalled. “You see his desire to get out there, taking a few more catches than everybody else. Talking to me on the sideline, ‘We got a chance here.’ He’s into it — and that makes a difference. You have to have a burning desire; it’s a tough job.
“That punt returner is the toughest job, in my opinion, on the field — besides quarterback. You got these guys firing down the field at you — and you got to catch the ball in a crowd with guys around you. If you want to make the big play, you have to be a little bit of a risk-taker — and you have to be confident. And his confidence is at a good level right now — right where we need it to be with these important games in front of us.”
Toub also knows that for this weekend’s Divisional Round game against the Buffalo Bills, he must prepare to face an elite returner: Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie.
“He’s dangerous,” Toub admitted. “We just watched him today. We worked on kickoffs today — and he’s just a guy that can take it to the house any minute. He doesn’t have any returns — then, all of sudden, he can shoot out of there. He’s very dangerous; we have a lot of respect for him as a punt and kick returner.”