AFC South Reporter
LAS VEGAS — The go-ahead score was within grasp for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In front of their home crowd in Week 12, they trailed the Philadelphia Eagles, 21-17, with 1:50 left on a Monday night. Patrick Mahomes dropped back and threw a deep ball on the money to wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who had a step on the defensive back for the walk-in touchdown. He dropped it, however. Kansas City went on to lose.
That moment encapsulated a major reason why this Chiefs offense has been defined by inconsistency. Why it lacks the explosiveness we’d grown accustomed to in the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes era.
Kansas City’s wide receiver room has been subpar in 2023. Sure, rookie Rashee Rice has been a standout. Justin Watson and Valdes-Scantling have had the occasional big play. But it’s a group collectively that hasn’t played at the level it did last year, the first without Tyreek Hill.
Chiefs’ wide receivers led the NFL with 22 drops in the regular season, according to Next Gen Stats. Former high draft picks Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore have failed to meet expectations, combining for just 48 receptions for 413 yards and two touchdowns. They represent a cast of skill players who are the most underwhelming of Mahomes’ time in Kansas City.
It begs the question: how on earth did the Chiefs reach Super Bowl LVII, where they’ll face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, in spite of it?
The most simple answer is defense.
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It’s been repeated incessantly: the 2023 Chiefs have the best defense of the Mahomes-Reid era. In the regular season, they ranked No. 2 in the NFL in both total defense (highest team rating since 1995) and points allowed (best rating since 2014). They were seventh in defensive DVOA, which calculates the success of each play compared to the league average.
Kansas City’s point differential this season was 77, the team’s lowest since 2017. The defense is a big reason why they’ve been able to win closer games.
“I think we’re a little faster,” defensive tackle Chris Jones said Monday of how this year’s Chiefs defense is different than the one that faced San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV. “We were more so a finesse defense back then. We’re a little more aggressive now. We’re grittier.”
But the play of Rice and superstar tight end Travis Kelce has also covered up deficiencies in the pass-catching group.
A second-round pick out of SMU, Rice started to take off in the second half of the regular season. From Weeks 12-17 (the Chiefs rested starters in Week 18), he tied for third in the NFL among all players in receptions (43) and fourth in receiving yards (518). He had eight receptions for 130 receiving yards in Kansas City’s wild-card win over Miami, his playoff debut, setting franchise rookie postseason records in both categories.
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And after a slow start to 2023 left many team observers wondering if he was on the decline, Kelce has reminded the world why he’s a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in the playoffs. He’s caught more than 85 percent of his targets (23 of 27) for 262 yards and three touchdowns this postseason, including an 11-catch, 116-yard performance in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens.
And despite leading the league in drops, Chiefs’ wide receivers have found ways to be effective.
They rank first in the NFL with an average 3.7 yards of separation from the nearest defender at the arrival of a pass, according to Next Gen Stats. Another point: 53.2 percent of the Chiefs receiving yards from wide receivers have come after the catch, which leads the league, per NGS. They’re fourth with 1,276 yards after the catch overall.
While scheme and play calling into that — 25.8 percent of Mahomes’ throws this season were thrown behind the line of scrimmage, the highest rate of his career — it also speaks to what can happen when Chiefs’ wide receivers have the ball in their hands.
Of NFL wide receiver groups, they ranked 19th in receptions (204) and 21st in receiving yards (2,400) in the regular season.
“Confident, man. That’s just the word I’d use to describe us,” Valdes-Scantling said Tuesday. “I think that we’re so unique in what we can do and how we bring value to this offense. So being able to go in and be those same guys no matter what people say about us, what people think about us, and helping this team win games.”
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Second-year running back Isiah Pacheco, the Chiefs’ starter since Week 7 last season, has also continued to improve in 2023. His physical running style is not only different than what Kansas City had prior to his arrival, but also fits into the grimy identity of the defense-led Chiefs.
He had 205 carries for 935 yards and seven touchdowns in 2023. Among running backs with at least 200 carries, Pacheco tied for second in yards after contact per carry, sixth in yards per carry, seventh in success rate, ninth in EPA per carry and 10th in rushing touchdowns, per NGS.
The former seventh-round pick might not be considered a star, but he’s been very good and stabilized Kansas City’s run game amid an inconsistent passing attack.
“He does everything with so much passion and assertiveness,” Valdes-Scantling said of Pacheco. “He’s one of those guys that you love to have on the field. When he’s not around, you know he’s not around. When he is around, you know he’s around. So having a guy like that, on and off the field, he’s a staple to this team.”
And it’s been a team effort for the Chiefs to reach their fourth Super Bowl in five years, in spite of issues at wide receiver, a strength of previous iterations of the Chiefs.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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