Why Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill had to pivot this seasonTheSportsWig Admin
“It’s hard, especially for me, because I’m used to going 80 [yards] every play,” Hill said after a Week 10 win over the Las Vegas Raiders in which he caught two touchdown passes, one from 1 yard out and the other from 8.
“Coach [Andy] Reid, he’s just got to keep me calm on the sideline. I’m a head case, man. I’m used to going down the field. Now I’m running 12-yard ins. That’s not something I’m used to.”
Hill has had to adapt this season with so many teams using two deep safeties against the Chiefs. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has thrown him shorter routes underneath the coverage rather than not getting him the ball at all. And it has worked.
Exhibit A: His 64-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter of last week’s divisional-round playoff win over the Buffalo Bills. Hill caught the pass around midfield for what would have been a modest gain, but he turned on the jets for one of several late scores that propelled the Chiefs into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Cincinnati Bengals (3 p.m. ET, CBS).
“He’s excellent after the catch,” said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety. “You talk about catch-and-run ability, his is near the top of the league. That’s why you see Kansas City throw so many quicks, throw so many unders and use him on wide receivers screens. That allows him to play to his ability of attacking open grass.”
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?!?! pic.twitter.com/c7Ju98M1i7
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 24, 2022
Hill (and his speed) is the reason for the Chiefs facing so many defensive looks with two deep safeties designed to take away his ability to get the big play. It’s a defensive concept the Chiefs have seen in the past but one that was proved especially effective by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their 31-9 victory over Kansas City in Super Bowl LV. In the season that has followed that Super Bowl loss, the Chiefs faced two high safeties 54.8% of the time, according to ESPN Metrics and NFL Next Gen Stats. That was not only the highest percentage in the league this season — by nearly 5% — but the highest in at least the past five years.
“You have to respect the speed,” Bowen said. “It creates consistent conflict for opposing defenses. What you’re going to get is more two-high looks because defenses are threatened by his ability to get down the field.”
Those looks caused the Chiefs and Mahomes to sputter at times, especially early. But it wasn’t just Mahomes who had to adjust as opposing defenses worked to take away the many big plays that were the signature of the Chiefs’ offense.
Hill is another player who had to learn another way of doing things. He caught 13 passes this season of 20 yards or more, and 26 receivers around the NFL had more. As a comparison, Hill caught 27 passes of 20 or more yards in 2018 — most in the NFL. He averaged 11.2 yards per catch during the 2021 regular season, or fewer than tight end Travis Kelce, wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle and running back Derrick Gore. In 2018, he averaged 17 yards per catch to lead the Chiefs among their regulars.
Hill might not have loved his new role during the 2021 season, but he took to it nicely. His 111 catches broke Kelce’s year-old team record.
“That one is supposed to be held by a wide receiver. The tight end isn’t always the focal point in the offense,” Kelce said. “Tyreek has done an incredible job of taking his game to the next level. Sure enough, you see him breaking records … and he’s just going to keep taking off. It’s so fun to play with him.”
Speed and quickness are obvious assets for Hill, but he has always fought back on the notion that he’s not a complete receiver. Wide receivers coach Joe Bleymaier said Hill practices more than deep routes.
“He’s always asking to run different routes and more types of routes and more variety,” Bleymaier said. Then, noting Hill’s displeasure with not getting more big passes, he added, “At times, I just remind him, ‘You were asking for these routes back in the day when you were just running downfield.’
“It’s all an adjustment period for Tyreek. He’s made so many plays down the field and he loves doing that. We still ask him to do that, but [also other routes including] the 12-yard ins or the facing-the-quarterback, back-to-the-defense type of routes that are open for him.
“We always want to get Tyreek the ball. The more times it’s in his hands, the better for everybody.”
In the last three games of the regular season, Hill caught nine passes for 61 yards, or an average of less than seven yards per reception. His long catch was just 17 yards.
He busted out in the playoffs, though, catching a 31-yard touchdown pass in the wild-card-round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers before his 64-yarder against the Bills.
“Pretty much every coverage he has two people on him or two people kind of shadowing over the top of him, and he’s still getting himself open, making tough catches over the middle of the field,” Mahomes said after the Steelers game. “He’s really evolved his game, and at the end of the day, whenever he gets into those man coverage situations … you can always hit him over the top for touchdowns.”
MAHOMES BOMB TO CHEETAH!!!!
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 17, 2022
This version of Hill is not what the Chiefs imagined when they drafted him in 2016. Hill played just one season of Division 1 football — at Oklahoma State in 2014 — rushing 102 times for 534 yards to go with 31 catches for 281 yards. Hill was dismissed from Oklahoma State after the 2014 season following charges of domestic assault and battery by strangulation on his then-20-year-old girlfriend. He pleaded guilty, received three years of probation and finished his career at West Alabama.
When the Chiefs drafted him in the fifth round — behind 16 other receivers — they saw the obvious speed and quickness but didn’t necessarily see him developing a wide range of talents like he showed this year.
“When he came here, he was raw,” Reid said. “He had been a running back [in college], so you could imagine. That’s a big change. They flexed him out and did all that stuff, but that’s kind of where he was. Every year he’s gotten better. Now, he’s refining all of those wide receiver skills that he’s learned here, and with his talent, he’s a tough one to stop.
“Normally, people have ways of trying to double him, which is a compliment to him and his ability, but he’s learned to work through it. He’s better in space, he’s more patient against man, setting things up, so my hat goes off to him. He’s worked very hard at that.”