The 2015 New England Patriots know a thing or two about injured wide receivers. After all, the team's three most targeted wideouts from last year – Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell – have all missed time this season because of injury. All three are projected to play on Saturday against Kansas City.
In the meantime, the Chiefs have one major wide receiver-issue themselves. Top wideout Jeremy Maclin left last Saturday's wild card game against the Houston Texans with an injury which turned out to be a high ankle sprain. While it is not yet known if Maclin, who leads his team in receptions (90), yards (1,117) and touchdowns (8) and is listed as "questionable" on the team's final injury report, will ultimately be active against New England, one thing seems like a safe bet even if he plays: his impact will be limited.
Therefore, Kansas City needs other players to step up in case Maclin will either not play or serve mostly as a decoy. Outstanding tight end Travis Kelce is an obvious choice, as are running backs Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. But how about the Chiefs' wide receiver depth? We took a look at the film to find out about it; what to expect and how to best defend them.
Albert Wilson (#12)
Behind Maclin and Kelce, 23-year old wide receiver Albert Wilson has been the number three pass catcher on the Chiefs this season in terms of targets (61), receptions (37), yards (460) and touchdowns (4). Should Maclin be absent or limited tomorrow, Wilson would be a prime candidate to be asked to step up.
1) 3-13-KC 42 (8:51) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith pass incomplete deep left to 12-A.Wilson.
While Wilson is Kansas City’s number three receiver in almost every statistical category, he is number one in terms of yards per reception (12.9). His 4.38 40-time might be a reason for that, as Wilson is a dangerous threat to get behind a defense. He proved that last week against the Houston Texans.
On a 3rd and 13 in the first quarter, the Chiefs used 12 personnel countering the Texans’ cover 4 blitz package. After a pre-snap motion by Chris Conley (17), Albert Wilson (12) aligned as the outside receiver on the strong side of the formation:
Respecting the situation as well as Wilson’s straight-line speed, cornerback Kevin Johnson (30) played 10 yards off his man and began backpedaling at the snap. Kansas City’s wideout faked inside towards the post prior to breaking back out towards the boundary again. The second move ultimately forced Johnson out of position when Wilson made another move towards the middle of the field:
Because Wilson was able to perform the double-move without breaking stride, he left Johnson, who had to turn his hips after the final move, trailing the entire way. Had quarterback Alex Smith (11) not put a little too much air under the ball for his 5’9 target, the duo would have connected on a 58-yard touchdown.
Despite the incompletion, this play is a good example of Wilson’s ability to put pressure on a defense with his speed and fluent moving skills. If New England wants to limit the second-year receiver’s impact, both the deep safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon as well as the cornerbacks assigned to cover Wilson have to be aware of this.
The safeties need to stay patient and let a play develop in front of them, to not get caught out of position. The same thing happened to the Texans’ safeties, who seemed concerned about primary targets Jeremy Maclin (19) and Travis Kelce (87), and ended up too far up the field to help defend the deep pass. On the other hand, the Patriots’ cornerbacks need to play physical at the line of scrimmage and use the first five yards to throw Wilson off his route as much as possible. The Green Bay Packers did just that and were able to keep Wilson without a catch.
2) 3-10-MIN 42 (8:55) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith pass short left to 12-A.Wilson for 42 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
While Kansas City likes to use the second-year receiver to take the top off a defense, he also does a lot of damage in the short and intermediate range, where quarterback Alex Smith is at his best. Wilson’s 42-yard touchdown in week 6 against the Minnesota Vikings is a good example for this.
Prior to the snap, Wilson motioned further towards the left-side hash marks to join fellow wide receivers Conley and Jason Avant (81) in a three-man bunch:
The screen pass was a good call by offense coordinator Doug Pederson as Minnesota was in a cover 0 package, showing blitz by aligning and ultimately rushing seven defenders. Calling the play is one thing, executing it is another — and the Chiefs executed it perfectly. Because of the pressure and Smith’s quick release, the offensive line was able to get down the field to provide additional blocking for Wilson:
Because of the numbers advantage, Wilson had no problem carrying the screen pass to the endzone. With Maclin potentially limited tomorrow, the Chiefs could opt to use a lot of quick passes and designed screen plays like this one to get the offense moving. While Wilson is no Julian Edelman or Dion Lewis, he is dangerous with the ball in his hands and has the agility and vision to gain considerable yardage after a reception.
Kansas City likes to use Wilson not only on screens but on quick slants and jet-sweeps as well. Sound tackling and quick play recognition are therefore imperative when it comes to slowing those plays down.
Chris Conley (#17)
While Wilson has better numbers, the Chiefs might turn to rookie wide receiver Chris Conley to step in with Maclin either out or hobbled. The team did just that in week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers: Maclin missed the game and the 23-year old Conley stepped up in his place, recording a career-high six catches for 63 yards and his first career touchdown.
Despite his 4.35 speed, Conley made most of his 18 receptions (for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns) in the short and intermediate range — again, the area of the field where quarterback Alex Smith is at his best and most comfortable. Still, the former Georgia Bulldog is a dangerous player in two aspects: running routes that do not slow him down too much (like slants or posts) and finding soft spots in zone coverage. Because of his 6’2 frame, he also has the ability to go for jump balls and catch the ball away from a defender.
3) 3-7-BUF 31 (8:18) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith pass incomplete deep middle to 17-C.Conley.
Conley’s physical skills were on display on one play in week 12 against the Buffalo Bills. Originally with trips on the right side of the formation, Smith changed the play prior to the snap, moving running back Spencer Ware (32) to the backfield:
The 2015 3rd round pick was matched-up against 2015 2nd rounder Ronald Darby. The cornerback gave Conley a 10-yard cushion but was able to stick with the wide receiver after he broke off to the post 12 yards in his route. Despite Darby’s tight coverage, Conley was able to get inside position and had a chance to catch the ball:
Unfortunately for Conley and the Chiefs, the wide receiver had to slightly adjust at the top of his route as Smith led his receiver a little too far to the outside shoulder (it was a tight window and a tough throw to make). Therefore, despite laying out for the football and even slightly touching it, Conley was unable to record the catch. Still, his physical skills were visible on this play.
As is the case with Albert Wilson, New England’s secondary has to respect Conley’s straight-line speed and ability to stretch the field. Being physical at the line of scrimmage and playing good technique in the open field are two possible ways to keep Conley, who doesn’t possess the fluidity of Wilson, in check. The Patriots’ depth corners Justin Coleman and Leonard Johnson need to be at the top of their game to do that — despite the rookie Conley, who was held catch-less eight times this year, being a little inconsistent.
Jason Avant (#81)
Not only youngsters Wilson and Conley will potentially have to step up tomorrow, veteran Jason Avant might have to as well. The 32-year old, who is in his first full season in Kansas City, has caught 15 passes this season for 119 yards. He has been inconsistent this season but is still a valuable depth option for Alex Smith.
4) 3-10-CIN 24 (10:13) 11-A.Smith pass short left to 81-J.Avant pushed ob at CIN 11 for 13 yards (20-R.Nelson).
Avant plays mostly out of the slot and is often used as a security, quick pass option. The former Eagle and Panther had his best game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals in week 4 – a game which Wilson missed due to injury. Avant's best play of the day came in the fourth quarter. Kansas City used a trips formation on the right side with Avant the lone receiver on the other side:
Cornerback Reggie Nelson showed blitz initially but backed off to cover Avant, who started down the seam but, 10 yards down the field, broke to the boundary on an out route. The 32-year old ran a perfect route and Smith delivered the ball to where only the receiver was able to catch it:
While Avant is not on the level of other Chiefs receiving threats, he is a smart and reliable option. However, even with Maclin potentially limited, Avant does not seem to pose too big of a challenge for New England's defense because of his physical limitations. That being said, the veteran should not be underestimated because he is still able to exploit coverage mishaps.
Frankie Hammond (#85)
The 25-year old Frankie Hammond is in his third season after going undrafted in 2013. He is basically the Chiefs' version of the Patriots' Matthew Slater, only not as good: a special teamer, who sees limited time on offense. Last week against the Texans, Hammond caught his only pass of the year (and fifth of his career): a three-yard screen. Unless the Chiefs purposefully kept him under wraps until the playoffs (doubtful), he does not project to see valuable snaps against the Patriots.
Jeremy Maclin is the Kansas City Chiefs' best wide receiver. However, due to him dealing with a high ankle sprain, the rest of his team's wide receiver depth chart will potentially get thrown into the spotlight tomorrow. The group, especially at the top, has a lot of talent but needs to prove that it can play a consistent game – particularly on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Maclin's injury, even if he ultimately plays, will make New England's job easier, as the team can allocate more resources to stopping Travis Kelce and the running game. Still, Albert Wilson and company cannot be underestimated and could be the defensive key for the Patriots to advance to the fifth straight AFC Championship Game.