Preparing for Titans, Chiefs focus on special teams

The Sports Xchange

January 03, 2018 at 3:52 pm.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs’ win over the Denver Broncos in Sunday’s season finale dealt a costly blow to the team’s special teams units,

Special teams coordinator Dave Toub is searching for replacements and might consider deploying wide receiver Tyreek Hill on the team’s kick return unit.

“We’re going to practice hard with all the guys that we have knowing that we still have Tyreek if we need it,” Toub said.

Wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas left Sunday’s game with a broken tibia that required surgery following the game.

The Chiefs hoped running back Akeem Hunt suffered a merely a sprained ankle, but further test results revealed a fractured ankle. Both players were placed on injured reserve.

Toub said he prefers putting experienced hands back on kick returns for the playoffs, but the Chiefs lack extensive experience outside of Hill. Toub mentioned running back Charcandrick West and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson as potential possibilities.

West returned two kicks earlier this year, the only kick returns in his four-year career. Robinson has never returned a kick in his two-year NFL career or during three seasons at Florida.

“We’ve got a number of guys who can do it,” Toub said. (Robinson) can do it, (West) can do it. We have options.”

Hill, however, remains the most electrifying possibility. He averaged 27.4 yards on 14 kickoff returns as a rookie including an 86-yard return against Denver for a touchdown.

But the Chiefs have shied away from deploying Hill on kickoff returns, considering it malfeasance to endanger one of their most valuable offensive weapons in the high-risk world of kick returns.

“Punt returns you have so much more control when you have the ball in your hands,” Toub explained. “You can run out of bounds, you can fair catch. Kick returns, you catch it, you’re going to get hit eventually. That’s the difference.”

But Toub said all season head coach Andy Reid might find a time that risking Hill on kickoff returns is worth it, and the playoffs offer no more high leverage opportunity to take a gamble.

“There may be a situation, a special situation where Andy says, hey, let’s get our A-team in there and we go with Tyreek,” Toub said. “But it’s going to be a long shot if that happens.”

The injuries to Thomas and Hunt also deprive the Chiefs of their backup punt returner behind Hill as well as two of their top gunners and other special teams performers.

The Chiefs promoted wide receiver Marcus Kemp to fill Thomas’ roster spot, and plan to use him on several special team units. The Chiefs must also accommodate the loss of cornerback Phillip Gaines, who played almost a third of the special teams snaps this season. Gaines landed on injured reserve Wednesday with a dislocated elbow.

SERIES HISTORY: 52nd all-time meeting. Chiefs lead series, 29-22. The Chiefs and Titans franchise have met twice before in the playoffs, with the Chiefs winning both meetings. The two clubs’ first playoff goes all the way back to the 1962 AFL Championship Game, with the then-Dallas Texans toping the Houston Oilers 20-17 in overtime. The clubs met again in the 1993 AFC divisional playoffs, with Kansas City winning on the road 28-20. The teams split their last 10 games against each other, the Titans pulling out a 19-17 win at Kansas City last season.

–Injuries forced the Chiefs to make three roster moves this week following injuries coming out of Sunday’s game against Denver. The club placed on injured reserve wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas, running back Akeem Hunt and cornerback Phillip Gaines.

Among the reinforcements are two familiar faces. Running back C.J. Spiller rejoined the club, the latest chapter in a saga that saw the eight-year veteran signing with the team for the fifth time in less than 11 months. The club also promoted rookie wide receiver Marcus Kemp, who spent much of the season on the team’s practice squad and saw action against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6.

The Chiefs moved quickly to pick up Spiller due to his familiarity with the offense. The team does not expect Spiller to be active for this week’s wild-card game against Tennessee, but he provides an insurance policy against injury to starter Kareem Hunt or backup Charcandrick West as the playoffs progress.

Kemp said his experience against the Steelers better prepares him for the postseason.

“It kind of settled me down and let me realize my expectations and how fast it was going to be and what the eyes were like on you,” Kemp said. “I think I’m a little bit more prepared for this game than I was at the beginning of the season.”

The team also signed 29-year-old defensive tackle Stefan Charles, who spent three seasons with the Buffalo Bills before signing with the Detroit Lions last season. Charles provides depth with linemen Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Jarvis Jenkins both battling injuries.

His familiarity with the 3-4 defensive scheme played by coordinator Bob Sutton played a key factor in the Chiefs picking him up.

“They’ve got a lot of talented guys here,” Charles said. “A lot of talent and a lot explosive players. I’m just happy I can add to that.”

–The NFL’s coaching carousel started turning this week, and two Chiefs assistants expect to be hot commodities on the coaching market.

Offensive coordinator Matt Nagy has interviews scheduled with both Indianapolis and Chicago. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub also figures to be a potential candidate with both teams.

Nagy said he spoke with head coach Andy Reid about how to navigate the interview process as the team winds its way through the playoffs.

“One thing I made very clear to Coach is that nothing is going to take away from anything I do in this game,” Nagy said.

One name often missing from the head coaching rumors, however, is Chiefs running back coach Eric Bieniemy. The veteran coach showed his expertise again this season, turning third-round draft pick Kareem Hunt into the NFL’s leading rusher following a season-ending injury to incumbent Spencer Ware.

“I’m a big fan of his,” Reid said of his longtime assistant. “I’ve got good coaches and I’ve said before I think he’s a phenomenal football coach.”

Fullback Anthony Sherman agrees with Reid’s assessment of Bieniemy.

“He’s a phenomenal coach,” Sherman said. “He’s the best coach I’ve ever had in my career.”

Nagy said Bieniemy’s teaching skills stand second to none.

“Mentally with Eric, he prepares those guys better than anybody,” Nagy said. “There’s never a stone unturned. The timing that we have in the classroom, he uses every minute up to the second with these guys.”

–Patrick Mahomes received all the headlines coming out of Kansas City’s 27-24 win over the Broncos in the season finale Sunday, but fullback Anthony Sherman delivered the unsung performance of the day, grounding out 40 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, far surpassing his rushing output in his previous 107 career NFL games.

“It was good, it felt good,” Sherman said. “It was a lot of fun to go out there and get the win. We got to show everyone our depth on the team, so it was pretty good.”

Sherman’s presence in the run game on Sunday dwarfed his previous experience in college and the professional ranks. He carried the ball 17 times in four seasons at Connecticut, and rushed six times for 14 yards in seven NFL seasons with the Chiefs and Arizona before Sunday.

The Chiefs entered the game with a thin bench at running back. The club pulled starter Kareem Hunt after one carry, and Charcandrick West stayed home in Kansas City with an illness. After backup Akeem Hunt and emergency running back De’Anthony Thomas went down with serious leg injuries, that left Sherman carrying the load.

Offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said coaches and players alike cheered for Sherman on the sideline.

“You talk about a player behind the scenes that just puts in so much hard work in the classroom, on the field, does it all, never gets any recognition but does all the dirty work,” Nagy said. “For him to have the spotlight on him that game, it was awesome.”

Sherman not only ranks as one of the league’s premier fullbacks, but he also serves an all-purpose player for the team. The Sherminator, as teammates call him, is the team’s last line of depth at positions including running back, tight end and long snapper, among others.

“I’m just kind of the utility guy,” Sherman said. “The more you can do, that’s the joke I have. A lot of guys know that, especially the whole NFL’s is like that. The more you can do, the longer you stay in the league.”

Nagy said Sherman claims he can play quarterback in an emergency.

“Oh, I can sling it a little bit, yeah,” Sherman said with a laugh.

NOTES: WR Albert Wilson returned to practice Wednesday after missing a day of practice with a tight hamstring. The club listed Wilson as limited in practice, but expects him to play Sunday’s against Tennessee. … DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches missed practice for the second straight day Wednesday with an ankle injury. The Chiefs remain vague on his availability for Saturday’s playoff game, but the addition of free-agent DT Stefan Charles indicates some concern about the depth of the team’s defensive line heading to the postseason. … DL Jarvis Jenkins missed practice for the second straight day with what head coach Andy Reid termed swelling in his knee following Sunday’s game at Denver. The cautious treatment of Jenkins’ knee is worrisome, but it doesn’t rule out his availability for Saturday. … LB Tamba Hali sat out practice on Wednesday as part of his regular schedule. The Chiefs expect him to be available for the game Saturday. … LT Eric Fisher practiced in full this week despite appearing on the injury report with a back injury. It’s unclear when the injury affected Fisher, who played only special teams snaps during the season finale. He appears ready to play this weekend, however. … RB Charcandrick West returned to practice in full this week after missing the season finale with the flu. The Chiefs listed several players on the injury report the last few weeks with an illness, but only West appears on the report this week. West could see duty as a kickoff returner in addition to his role as backup to RB Kareem Hunt. … OL Cameron Erving suffered a shoulder injury during Sunday’s season finale, but appears likely ready for reserve duty this weekend against Tennessee. … RB Akeem Hunt, who went on injured reserve Tuesday, suffered a broken ankle during the team’s season finale against Denver. The team hoped Hunt only suffered a sprain, but further tests revealed the fracture. … CB Phillip Gaines went on injured reserve Wednesday with a dislocated elbow suffered Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Gaines, who was a healthy scratch in Weeks 15 and 16, will miss the remainder of the season.