But during the game, wideout Justin Watson went down with an elbow injury that could keep him out for the next few weeks.
Up to that point, Watson had produced more yards than any other Chiefs wide receiver, averaging 21.9 yards per reception through five games — and moving the chains more often than anyone except tight end Travis Kelce and fellow wideout Rashee Rice.
An injury to the receiver who has played the team’s third-most snaps will further complicate things for a group that the coaching staff is already sorting out, trying to determine who can maximize their opportunities from quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Over the last few games, Rice has shown the most promise in that regard — which was reflected in his increased snap count on Thursday night.
But it’s going to take more than just getting the second-round rookie (and others) more involved. The team can also tweak how receivers are being used.
Here’s how I believe the rotation will eventually shake out:
Rice is the team’s only wideout who plays the majority of his snaps in the slot, aligning there on 62% of his passing snaps. The same percentage of his targets have come on routes that have begun there. It’s where he’s at his best — and where the team wants him the most — so he should continue to be the team’s primary slot receiver.
Of course, other players (like Travis Kelce) may also align in the slot. The point is that Rice should be the first wide receiver in line to be used there.
Love the #Chiefs tagging more than Zone with their RPO stuff. One-back Counter here— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 16, 2023
But Mahomes pulls it, and puts it on Rashee running the slant. KC has tgt'd Juju and Sammy Watkins in this same way in the past
Get the downhill, big-bodied runners the ball with a head of steam pic.twitter.com/xWseDHpAu1
As we can see here, this is because Rice is so impressive with the ball in his hands. No other Kansas City receiver has shown similar acceleration into the open field — or has maximized yardage after the catch — as consistently as Rice has done.
The Chiefs recognize this. That’s why the team gave him opportunities on slants and quick screens against the Broncos — and in previous games. While these plays aren’t designed to hit big every time, the team wants someone who can maximize the yards available to them when slight creases open up between defenders in space. Rice has shown he can do that.
#Chiefs are working Rashee Rice more and more into being the team's primary Slot— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 16, 2023
That's good, cause Mahomes looks very comfortable targeting him over the middle of the field, even in tighter windows.
Some of these same types of routes, he has hesitated to throw to other WRs pic.twitter.com/0M4vHNBcgk
Rice is also getting targets across the middle of the field, which is an area where Mahomes has hesitated to target wideouts. Unless he was throwing to Kelce, Mahomes has appeared uncomfortable passing into tight windows across the middle. In the last two weeks, however, he has shown a willingness to go to Rice in those situations.
The bottom line is that the Chiefs rely heavily on their slot receiver to make plays. Among his slot options, Mahomes has leaned on Rice the most — so Rice needs to be the receiver running from there most often. This decision is made easier by the inconsistency Kadarius Toney has shown in both his route-running and decision-making.
Watson’s injury will primarily impact the team’s downfield passing attack. He has made eight of the team’s 11 receptions on throws made at least 20 yards downfield, accumulating 153 of the 278 yards the team has gained on those plays.
This likely means that Marquez Valdes-Scantling will get more deep targets — even though he and Mahomes have never proven to have an impressive connection on those kinds of passes.
Justyn Ross' catch came in the exact fashion I imagined we'd see 8 get utilized early. #Chiefs motion into a 4x1 set and get him isolated— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 10, 2023
The motion to overload one side holds the safety enough for Mahomes to have a window into the Cover 2 hole -- and Ross finishes it pic.twitter.com/Ed03q92RJw
But second-year wideout Justyn Ross also needs to be worked into the downfield passing game. He may not possess the long speed shown by either Watson or Valdes-Scantling, but he does have the contested-catch ability that can sometimes make up for that — just like we saw in the catch he made against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5.
Opposing defenses are doing a sound job of keeping a lid on Kansas City’s vertical passing attack. Using Ross for deep throws may open that option for Mahomes — but without needing the separation that Watson or Valdes-Scantling typically need.
Moore finds himself in an interesting place within the position group. The second-year wideout has flashed in both positive and negative ways — and it’s now up to the Chiefs to utilize him to the best of his ability.
So far, Moore has not proven to be much of a playmaker after the catch — and this play from the Vikings game is a great example.
Moore gets the ball on a bubble screen in space. There’s just one defender between him and what could be a huge play. But Instead of trying to make a move to shake the defender, Moore continues to the sideline for a four-yard gain.
It’s not that we should expect Moore to turn this into a big play — but players like Rice (and even Toney) are more likely to do so. That’s why they — instead of Moore — should be getting these kinds of targets.
Love this route by Skyy— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 16, 2023
He comes out working inside, giving himself more room to work to the sideline, but also influencing the CB to start leaning in
Then he has a very quick wiggle at the top of his route to separate outside. Helped seal the deal late v. DEN pic.twitter.com/B4OobXc8pR
But Moore hasn’t gotten enough opportunities downfield. His strengths include the ways he releases into his routes — and how quickly he can break off at the top of those routes. He showed off those tools against Denver, creating separation on a deep out route and catching a pass to help seal the win.
This is how Moore should be used — rather than on jet sweeps or routes over the middle. He should be used outside — more like a traditional wide receiver. With Watson’s injury, that opportunity has opened up.
The bottom line
Everything else about this Kansas City team looks ready to go fight for another Super Bowl — including the defense and the running game. But it’s clear that the offense needs to figure out its passing game — and a shake-up in how the team’s wide receivers are used should help.