The Kansas City Chiefs’ kicking game has been a disaster all season. Problems continued during Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Denver Broncos, in which a botched hold on an extra point and a blocked field goal took points off the board — which helped the Broncos stay in the game.
This season’s problems started when placekicker Harrison Butker missed time with injuries. A backup kicker played a huge role in the team’s Week 3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. This was followed by inconsistent performances from Butker upon his return — and finally, a drama-filled week of speculation about whether punter Tommy Townsend was doing an adequate job of getting the ball down (and placed correctly) on field goals and extra points.
All of this has put a spotlight on this unit’s execution in every game — with more eyes watching (and pressure mounting) every time they step onto the field.
Let’s take a close look at the two big placekicking errors during Sunday’s game.
Botched extra-point hold
While Butker has sometimes been inconsistent while kicking field goals, his point-after attempts have been relatively consistent this season. Going into Sunday, he had converted 31 of 34 extra-point attempts. By making three of four on Sunday, he continued that consistency — but on the first attempt of the game, Townsend did not hold up his end of the bargain. In plain English, he botched the hold.
Placekickers want to kick the side of the ball opposite the laces to prevent any extra spin that could cause a miss.
We see here that the snap from James Winchester is on the money. It appears that Townsend is in the process of facing the laces away from Butker — but as he does so, the ball slips out of his hands, disrupting the timing and blowing up the play.
Butker looks like he thinking of attempting a one-step kick, but Townsend sticks to the usual procedure for a hold mishap: he tries to advance the ball himself. This is to prevent the defense from getting the ball and possibly taking it back the other way for points. But Townsend’s effort was to no avail.
On the sideline after the play, Townsend’s frustration was obvious. While it was a physical mistake, this was very much a mental error. The snap and hold usually takes place in less than a second; it’s as bang-bang as it gets. If even one small thing is off it can disrupt the entire operation.
After taking heavy criticism for his holds a few weeks ago, it’s easy to conclude that Townsend might have been pressing to be perfect — and watching his hands on film, it looks like he was focusing on getting the ball in the correct spot. He just didn’t secure it.
As a punter, Townsend is having a phenomenal year. He’s averaging over 50 yards a punt, which ranks second in the NFL. But because of the Chiefs’ offensive prowess, he is 28th in punts attempted. This makes Townsend’s duties as a holder more important to the team than his punting.
The blocked kick
Following a fumble recovery — and Patrick Mahomes making a deep throw to Justin Watson — head coach Andy Reid elected to send out the field goal team for a 51-yard attempt with five seconds left in the second quarter. The kick went wide left. Many placed the blame for the miss on Townsend or Butker. A closer look reveals it was neither of them.
You protect your inside gap at all costs on PAT/Field Goal. This is unacceptable and shows an unprepared unit. https://t.co/XQ0FBBw2tE— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 1, 2023
We see that Denver defensive tackle Eyioma Uwazurike is able to penetrate the C-gap — the space between the third and fourth players on the line — to get a hand on the ball, altering its trajectory and taking three Kansas City points off the board.
The Broncos knew they might have a chance to block it — because on longer field-goal attempts, the ball tends to have a lower trajectory so that it can gain more distance.
Protecting for field goals and point-after attempts is as easy as it gets. First and foremost, every player is responsible for protecting the gap to their inside. Once that is secure, they can look to help elsewhere — but as quickly as these plays happen, that tends not to happen.
Blocked field goal. KC runs balanced protection. Four on each side of Winchester with the wing on the left. Denver overloads the left with six players. Penetration comes from the C gap. Protecting the inside gaps is of the utmost importance. pic.twitter.com/WdHSXAxASr— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 2, 2023
Here we see that Creed Humphrey is responsible for the C-gap; it is the gap directly to his inside. It’s also where Uwazurike is aligned. But instead, Humphrey takes the D-gap defender. This leaves Uwazurike untouched, giving him the opportunity for the block.
The Broncos made this happen by overloading the left side of the line with six defenders — a nice schematic move, because the Chiefs had only four blockers on each side of long-snapper Winchester.
Humphrey made a fundamental, avoidable mistake in one of the most simplistic schemes in all of football — and it is as much on Toub as it is on Humphrey. Regardless of how many players the defense sends on one side to block the kick, every man on the line must stick to the golden rule: protecting their inside gap. If it’s not being stressed in meetings and practices, then it can easily creep in to hurt the team in big situations.
The bottom line
The blocked kick can be easily corrected with coaching and on-field awareness — but the botched hold, not so much. Having issues this late in the season with the field goal operation is highly concerning. It suggests that the unit is either not being coached well — or simply not taking their coaching.
It has snowballed into a mess — and there is no easy fix. With only one game until the playoffs, it is too late to change the holder — or find a replacement for Townsend. Inserting a new player in that position — and getting down the timing that is required for kicks to be successful — is a tall task in any circumstance. Attempting it while going into the playoffs is borderline insane.
As the regular season winds down and the playoffs begin, an eerie uneasy feeling will follow Butker and Townsend every time they step on the field. At this point, there’s not much that can be done about it.