KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have been giving defenses the most unenviable of options for years: Do they attempt to take away speedy, big-play wide receiver Tyreek Hill or crafty, equally dangerous tight end Travis Kelce?
It’s kind of like choosing between hitting yourself in the head with a mallet and banging your toe with a hammer.
Either way, you’re going to get hurt.
Yet the Packers and Broncos are among several teams that have figured out the riddle this season, taking away the top two targets of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and succeeding in slowing down the entire Kansas City offense.
The Packers allowed Hill to catch four of his 11 targets for 37 yards, while Kelce had five of his eight for 68, as the Chiefs squeaked out a 13-7 victory last month. The Broncos last Sunday held Hill to two catches on five targets for 22 yards, and Kelce to three catches on eight targets for 27 yards, as the Chiefs again leaned on their defense in a 22-9 win.
“I’ve learned as my career has gone on that you can’t get caught up in the hype and the show of playing,” Mahomes said earlier this week. “I have been in a lot of games where we’ve scored a lot of points and lost. But I promise you, when you win football games like we have, it feels a lot better.”
Kelce and Hill would be the first to say the same thing. The Chiefs (8-4) have won five straight to take a one-game lead on the Chargers and a two-game edge on the Broncos and Raiders — their opponent Sunday — in the crowded AFC West.
But there’s no doubting that Kelce and Hill also want to have more impact on the game. That’s just their competitive natures.
When it comes to Kelce, defenses are using multiple defensive backs to simply wear him out. They jam him hard at the line of scrimmage to throw off some of the timing routes that the Chiefs like to run, and they continue to play him physically all the way through each play. Eventually, it becomes as mentally frustrating as it is physically demanding.
Three times this season, Kelce has been held to 27 yards or fewer — three of the 13 lowest totals in 122 straight games that he’s had a catch. And the three catches he had against Denver last week were more than just eight other career games.
Then with Hill, defenses have adopted a two-high safety look that the Buccaneers embraced to such success in shutting down Kansas City in the Super Bowl. They are willing to give up short gains underneath the coverage, and make the Chiefs work 10- and 12-play drives, rather than allowing Hill to beat them deep for easy touchdowns.
Only six times has Hill caught fewer than the two passes he grabbed against Denver. And when he caught three passes for 14 yards against Baltimore, it was his lowest yardage total since getting shut out by the Chargers on Nov. 18, 2019.
“It’s been an adjustment period,” Chiefs wide receivers coach Joe Bleymeier said. “For Tyreek, he’s made so many plays going down the field and he loves doing that. We still have to ask him to do that, but at times, the 12-yard ins or coming back and facing the quarterback — back-to-the-defense sort of routes that are open for him — that’s what we need.
“It hasn’t been him specifically,” Bleymeier added. “I think it’s just an illustration of the whole defenses.”
It hasn’t helped anybody’s cause that Kelce and Hill have been dropping passes at an alarming rate. Kelce has already had a career-high and league-leading 10 passes slip through his fingers, including one against Dallas that was picked off. Hill has dropped a career-high seven balls, three of which bounced into the hands of a defender.
As a team, the Chiefs have dropped the third-most passes in the league this season.
“I mean, every route is different that things have happened on,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Going back to basics I think is important. Some of these things come in cycles like that, where sometimes the ball looks big and sometimes it looks small, kind of like batters in baseball. So you just got to focus it back on the fundamentals and go right back to square one. See the tip of the ball, squeeze it, and the tuck, and then do that at mach speed and with whatever elements are out there.”
Mahomes is the first to accept some of the blame for the drops. He’s thrown some balls high and low and behind his targets, and sometimes he’s thrown a pass unnecessarily hard and made for a tougher catch for his receivers.
“If you look back at the one with Travis, the Cowboys game, (if) I put the ball in front of him, he probably catches it and breaks a tackle and gets extra yards,” Mahomes said. “I kind of threw it on his back hip and it got tipped up and intercepted.
“Just because it hits them it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the spot for them to make the catch.”
Everybody appears confident that Kelce and Hill can get going down the stretch. They have a long track record of success that suggests it’s only a matter of time. And besides, Mahomes said, the defense is playing well enough lately for the Chiefs to win games even without his top two targets putting up big numbers.
Just imagine how dangerous they’ll be when the offense gets in sync.
“There’s nothing extra they have to do. They have the talent, they have the playmaking abilities. It’s just continuing to go out there and be themselves,” Mahomes said. “I think we’ll continue to get better and better.”