The Kansas City Chiefs love to tell us that they always have the mentality of “next man up.” We’ve seen many examples of that in the era of head coach Andy Reid.
In Sunday’s 30-27 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, it was the pass-catching unit’s turn to step up in the wake of injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman and Kadarius Toney — who left early in the game with a hamstring injury.
Outside of tight end Travis Kelce, the team’s next three game leaders in receiving yards were wide receivers Skyy Moore, Justin Watson and tight end Jody Fortson. Each set a new season high for receptions and yards.
I took a closer look at how these reserve receivers made such a positive impact:
WR Justin Watson
Watson led the wide receivers in snaps, playing 11 more than Marquez Valdes-Scantling. 70% of his snaps came from an outside alignment, but he still played 12 snaps from the slot.
#Chiefs needed this 3rd & 18. They use Skyy as the clear out vertical & Justin Watson coming underneath him on a dig route at the sticks— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 23, 2022
Kelce keeps the play-side LB shallow, while Skyy executes his role. 15 hits the window with great timing to get Watson 29 yards in total pic.twitter.com/NgCS1KqfAs
The most significant of his three catches gained 25 yards, converting on third and 17 late in the third quarter. Watson is the primary route here, running a deep in-breaking route that comes underneath the vertical pattern of Moore, who is trying to push the safeties deep and open a window in the middle of the field. The play is executed with great timing.
I was intrigued by the Chiefs putting Watson on that route above all other options when it mattered most, including Valdes-Scantling — who would have made a lot of sense as the primary option.
Justin Watson helped spring Kelce on the game-winning play by executing the mesh -- slightly disrupting Derwin James' pursuit angle in man coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 23, 2022
It cuts off James' angle to make a quick ankle tackle, he's too flat because of Watson and 87 runs away from him #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/UY5aKzLDuP
Watson also made an impactful play without being thrown the ball. On Kelce’s game-winning touchdown, the Chiefs run a mesh concept — which asks two receivers on opposite sides of the formation to run shallow across the field past each other.
In man coverage, this puts stress on defenders in pursuit because each receiver can disrupt the path of the other receiver’s defender. In this case, Watson is the rub player — running a deeper crosser than Kelce and forcing the coverage player to run underneath Watson. This prevents safety Derwin James from having a good angle to tackle Kelce after the catch.
Watson executes his responsibility by committing to blocking James’ path until the very last second, then releasing upfield and not touching James at all.
WR Skyy Moore
Moore saw the third-most snaps on the team, playing 53% of the time from a slot alignment. Moore’s most significant impact among his five catches for 63 yards came in the third quarter — when the Chiefs faced third and seven on an eventual touchdown drive.
Skyy Moore showed off the route-running and release talent on Sunday, creating separation on 3rd down 2x here— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 23, 2022
Only one was targeted, beating Derwin James across his face with a hard jab outside then a swim back inside, keeping his hands clear of getting hung up w/ James #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/7kwRL2HpWO
From the slot, Moore gets manned up by Derwin James — who plays off coverage, hoping to corral Moore before the sticks on any quick throw. That gives Moore a free release and the comfort to confidently break James off on the crossing route. Moore’s jab step outside moves James that way, giving Moore plenty of space to operate back across the field. I also like Moore keeping his hands clean and avoiding any contact with James to get hung up.
That quick, decisive footwork shows up when he’s releasing against press coverage as well; in the second play of this clip, Moore creates separation a third down earlier in the game with a great release but was not targeted.
Gotta be a confidence builder for a QB/WR relationship to hook up on a scramble drill— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 23, 2022
After the play breaks down, Skyy initially goes left with 15's eyes over there, but pivots back when 15 escapes right. He gets into the line of vision and secures a tough catch to the ground pic.twitter.com/0dlShWJqmn
Moore’s route running has been impressive since training camp, but we haven’t seen as much of his improv ability in the scramble drill — until he made a big play against the Chargers. On this second and 10, Mahomes is forced to move out of the pocket.
Moore initially gets upfield toward the side Mahomes is scanning but quickly reacts and pivots back the other way when he recognizes Mahomes rolling right. Not only does Moore promptly make himself available to Mahomes, but he also goes down to make a tough grab — gaining 18 yards during a crucial drive in the fourth quarter.
Skyy was able to show good route running, an executed scramble drill, and also tough catches at the sticks.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 23, 2022
He attacks the ball on both, and survives the tackle from behind to move the chains #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/aY80Iurd7g
Speaking of tough catches, a few other of Moore’s receptions weren’t as flashy — but still very significant. On both of these plays, Moore is trusted with a ball at the sticks; each time, he gets in position to box out the defender, then jumps towards the ball — not allowing the defender time to recover and make a play. Both catches gave the Chiefs a new set of downs.
TE Jody Fortson
Playing only in his third game back from injury, Fortson logged 18 snaps on Sunday evening, turning both his targets into receptions and earning 51 yards in total.
What I enjoyed about Fortson’s performance was his opportunity to make plays outside of the red zone. He can be a weapon at any point in the field, proven by both of his plays.
I love getting Jody Fortson going outside of the red zone— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 23, 2022
The running-start wheel gives him a chance to use his long speed and length in a 1v1 situation down the field
The isolated slant is also an easy button, not many CBs that Fortson couldn't wall off quickly pic.twitter.com/xQm0DP26rT
The first play of this clip is the highlight: a 40-yard completion that positioned the Chiefs for their first touchdown. Yes, the throw is fantastic — but Kansas City set up Fortson well on this play.
The pre-snap motion gives him a running start, allowing him to reach full speed by the time he’s vertical. Even if it wasn’t a perfect pass, this route gives Fortson a one-on-one jump-ball chance with a cornerback.
The second play is from the first drive. I think we could stand to see more of what they do there: Fortson is isolated on one side, with every other skill-position player on the other side of the formation. This gives Fortson space over the middle on the slant, but it’s also hard to see many cornerbacks fighting through a box out by Fortson to force an incompletion on slant routes.
The bottom line
The narrative that the Chiefs’ receiving group is deeper than last year has felt correct for most of the season. What we saw against the Chargers provided hard evidence of its truth.
What looked like the team’s fifth and sixth receivers made game-changing plays — while a backup tight end reminded us that he is a big play waiting to happen when utilized.