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Film Review: Positive and negative signs from Chiefs’ wide receivers in Week 16

Kansas City continues to learn about its deep receiving unit, looking to perfect the utilization before the playoffs.

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs had to outlast the Seattle Seahawks by a score of 24-10 in Week 16, needing a fourth-quarter touchdown to put the game away. The offense did enough, relying on the unit's hot hands to finish the win.

Tight end Travis Kelce led the team with 113 catches on six receptions, followed by running backs Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon — who combined for 63 yards and a score through the air. The first wide receiver in the box score was fourth in receiving for the game: Juju Smith-Schuster, who produced 27 yards out of three catches.

Overall, the wide receiver room saw 13 targets against Seattle — catching five passes for 40 yards in total; that comes out to an average of three yards per look, a very inefficient mark.

The statistics represent some discouraging signs from the group, but they came with encouraging signs too. I looked at the state of the position with a postseason run in mind, using the Seahawks game to highlight some key points:

Positive signs

Since wide receiver Mecole Hardman went on injured reserve following a Week 9 win, the Chiefs’ offense has missed his impact on horizontally-directed plays — such as jet sweeps or quick screens to the sideline. Those have been especially successful in the red zone; five of Hardman’s six touchdowns this season have come inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Wide receiver Kadarius Toney is similarly explosive and has also missed time over the last month. Week 16 was his second game back in the lineup, and he immediately made a difference in the red zone.

From eight yards away, Toney’s speed gets him to the outside of the tackle box quickly — outflanking Seattle’s edge defender before he realizes where the ball is. At that point, great blocks by tight end Noah Gray and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. clear a path in the second level to the end zone.

Toney’s speed is complemented by incredible quickness and vision — which can maximize the minefield of blocks on an outside run like this. Just before the goal line, he cuts back one more time — allowing right guard Trey Smith to bury Seattle’s last chance at stopping the play.

As Toney and Hardman work back into the lineup, these plays will again become a crucial part of Kansas City’s offense — specifically in the red zone.

Rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore was given a chance to fill in on quick-hitting, outside plays as well — but it’s not what he does best. Against Seattle, he had one particular play that shows exactly what he does do best: make plays in open space. After a quick catch on the perimeter, he impressively makes the first defender miss, then makes another move to gain five yards on a play that some receivers would have gotten nothing out of.

Negative signs

Moore’s only catch came on his only target; he played only 11 snaps in the game. That gave way to wide receiver Justin Watson to take 74% of the offensive snaps, and attract four targets.

He caught none of the passes that went his way, including two clean drops that led to stalled drives. On both of these plays, Watson runs the route correctly, getting to an easy throwing window for Mahomes, but both bounce off his hands to the dirt.

The two drops adjusted his drop rate for the season to 23.5%, the second-highest rate for any NFL wide receiver with over 15 targets this season; he has dropped three passes over the last two weeks.

The silver lining here is that Watson may have played his way out of significant playing time in favor of Moore and Toney. However, Mahomes has clearly trusted Watson, which is most likely why he plays so much. Taking a player the quarterback trusts out of the lineup could have overlooked effects.

Watson was never supposed to be more than the fifth or sixth receiver — but wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling signed a contract this offseason to be a legitimate starter. He could not haul in either target he saw on Saturday, including this pass to the sideline on third down.

Mahomes is a beat late, which puts Valdes-Scantling closer to the boundary at the time of the catch than he anticipates — but he still has a chance to complete the pass. Instead, he doesn’t have the sideline awareness to get two feet in bounds, leading to a punt.

On his second target, Mahomes left a back-shoulder throw too inside — a continuation of an up-and-down connection between the two players. The receiver has caught only 54% of the passes thrown his way this season; the only Chiefs player with a lower percentage is Watson.

The two veteran players have carved out significant but specialized responsibilities in this offense — so the inconsistencies in their game could be difference-makers in the postseason. Role players have a much thinner margin for error because of limited opportunities.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ wide receiver group is getting healthier, and Toney’s touchdown in Week 16 was evidence. They have missed him and Hardman in that aspect. In addition, Moore gave the coaching staff further reason to provide him with opportunities to make plays.

On the flip side of the players trending up are the receivers currently in rough stretches — and there are only two weeks until the games are win or go home. The unit’s weak links are being given more exposure than they should; the coaching staff needs to tweak and adjust the rotation if they want to maximize the talent in the depth of the room.

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