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Chiefs-Bills film preview: Wide receivers will have a lot to prove

Kansas City’s aerial attack will look different than it did when these two teams last battled.

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AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

In last year’s AFC Divisional round game, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense outlasted the Buffalo Bills in an unbelievable back-and-forth battle that ended with a Chiefs touchdown in overtime. Both quarterbacks accounted for well over 400 yards and four scores, fueling the 34 points the two teams scored in the fourth quarter and overtime.

The Bills’ passing attack didn’t have any reason to regress this season, but the Chiefs dealt with plenty of turnover in their receiving corps. Half of Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ targets from the last matchup are now on other teams — including wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who accounted for a team-leading 11 catches, 150 yards and a late-game score in the last meeting.

Buffalo has their side of the potential shootout ready to roll. But can Kansas City’s new group of receivers match year’s playoff performance?

Let’s take a closer look.

Summarizing the roles

Tight end Travis Kelce leads the team in all receiving categories. Around his typically elite impact, two first-year Chiefs are falling into defined roles.

Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster has had the team’s second-most targets, getting most of his production from catching quicker passes that hit him on the run in space. These shallow and deep crossers — along with out-breaking routes at multiple levels — have produced 6.1 yards after catch per reception. That leads the team’s starting receivers.

Even with fewer opportunities and a nearly-identical yardage total, it feels like wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling has made a bigger impact. This is because his route tree leads to more chances for significant gains.

This season, Valdes-Scantling’s average depth-of-target is 11.1 yards, which leads the starting receivers. His normal production within the flow of the game is primarily as a designated vertical target — similar to the way wide receiver Mecole Hardman is utilized. In contrast, Smith-Schuster’s depth-per-target averages 7.4 yards; he has yet to see a pass that traveled 20 or more yards from the line of scrimmage.

How it could look against Buffalo

Last season, the Buffalo defense chose to be extremely conservative against Kansas City, primarily staying in a static, two-high safety shell that put a lot of trust in All-Pro safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer to stay on top of everything, squeezing any (and all) throwing windows down the field.

In previous seasons, the Chiefs have only rarely tested the seam between the two safeties. This might have been because — aside from Kelce — they didn’t have a receiver who was a good fit to win those deep, tight-window throws.

But as we see in this year’s Week 4 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes tests Valdes-Scantling in that seam. His speed and length helped make this perfectly executed play gain 36 yards. Later in the game, Mahomes also finds Kelce up the seam with a well-placed back-shoulder throw.

It’s important to note that the Bills’ safety group won’t be at full strength. Hyde was placed on injured reserve earlier this year, while Poyer has been dealing with injuries to his ribs and foot that have forced him to miss two of the last three games. Their absence may give Kansas City receivers more room up the seam.

To help widen the safeties, the Chiefs need to be able to threaten the deep sideline between the near safety and cornerback’s zones.

Against the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday night, we see that each of the team’s three starting wideouts completed a different kind of deep throw toward the sideline. The Bills’ zone defense is traditionally airtight, so it will be necessary to make tough catches.

Potential challenges to overcome

The Chiefs want to see soft zone coverages. Previously, Kelce has had huge games picking on Bills linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds and their coverage rules, toying with the defenders to get open behind them as Mahomes manipulated them with his eyes. Playing zone would also play into the strengths of the rest of Kansas City’s receivers.

That’s why I can envision Buffalo sticking to man coverage under that two-safety shell for most of the game, giving its young, inexperienced secondary the keys to just play loose and hard — and also challenging the Chiefs to beat it without Hill.

That will mean winning on quick man-coverage beaters — whether they are slants, outs or (legal) pick plays that put a player in space. The problem is that in general, receivers need to create their own separation against man coverage — but so far, the Kansas City player with the tools to do that hasn’t had many chances.

In training camp, rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore’s footwork off the line (and suddenness in his route breaks) stood out. While we’ve seen him only in limited action, the Chiefs have slowly been getting him more involved. Twice against Tampa Bay, he was the primary read on a slant route.

As we see here, Moore is also dynamic as an open-field ball carrier, using what head coach Andy Reid described as his “running back legs.” That ability is what earned him punt-returning duties — and also why the Chiefs gave him the ball in space as they were trying to finish out Monday night’s win over Las Vegas.

The bottom line

The Chiefs' new-look receiving group has to be ready to go blow-for-blow with an elite Bills offense. While they’ve shown they’re capable this season, this is a more meaningful test than previous games.

The coaching staffs are very familiar with each other. Each will be ready to answer every move made by the other. In this game, it’s the players who will make the difference — and in this setting, no group has more to prove than Kansas City’s wideouts.

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