Snap counts: Chiefs must strike a balance between health and playing their stars

Nine games into the season, the calendar shows November and the Chiefs (8-1) continue to look like one of the best teams in the NFL. They’ve kept it rolling despite injuries that have kept some key players off the field for extended periods of time, but they’ve also had key players playing through injuries in order to help continue the momentum they established in September.

Unprompted, Chiefs coach Andy Reid made mention of wide receiver Tyreek Hill and inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens playing through injury issues in his post-game remarks. During the game, wide receiver Sammy Watkins came out with a foot injury, though he did return to the field after being evaluated by the training staff on the sideline.

Health, of course, will be a concern for the rest of the regular season for a team that appears poised to make a run at the top seed in the AFC for the playoffs.

Hill played 62 of the 64 offensive snaps despite having left the game the previous week against the Broncos in fourth quarter with a groin injury that forced him to have limited participation in Thursday’s practice. He still grabbed four catches for 69 yards, including a 40-yard catch. Hill also rushed twice for 16 yards.

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Watkins, who played 49 offensive snaps, finished the day with five catches for 62 yards and one two-year rush.

Hitchens, who played with bruised ribs, stayed on the field for 52 of 74 defensive snaps. He came out early in the game due to pain in his ribs, but he returned and finished the game with eight tackles. When he came out, undrafted rookie Ben Niemann stepped in for 11 defensive snaps.

Hitchens, who signed this offseason to be one of the anchors in the middle of the defense, said one of the reasons he thinks the Chiefs signed him was to lead by example.

“He’s in a unique position in that middle linebacker where all eyes are on you,” Reid said of Hitchens during his Monday press conference. “You are the transmitter between the back end and the front end. Guys rely on you. He’s in there now full-time and I think he feels that. He feels that responsibility there.

“It’s also important that we look at it where we are not putting him in a bind, because he wants to play, and he always wants to play. We’ve had to spot him at times during the year because he was out there for a lot of snaps, so we do that. Our training staff does a good job and our doctors do a good job of making sure that he’s not in a position where he can hurt himself. For his desire to be there I think is important for people to see and that’s the way he’s wired. I think they feed off that.”

Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford referred to Hitchens as a warrior in the locker room following Sunday’s game. He went on to describe the mindset players like Hitchens and himself or any of others playing through ailments take.

“We’re very prideful players, and we really want to be on the field if we can,” Ford said. “If there’s any way -- I’m still playing on a bad groin right now. It doesn’t matter. If we can be on the field, we’re going to be on the field.”

Ford played all but four defensive snaps against the Browns.

Murray’s mark: Safety Eric Murray was the lone player to stay on the field for every defensive snap for the Chiefs on Sunday. With the team needing to make a decision this week on Daniel Sorensen, who has been on injured reserve all season, it looks like they’ve decided they definitely want Murray on the field.

Murray sustained an ankle injury in a win over the Jaguars at Arrowhead Stadium, and he was not active the following week against the Patriots. He returned for games against the Bengals and Broncos, but Jordan Lucas continued to start at safety. Sunday against the Browns, Lucas played 12 defensive snaps. Lucas played 24 snaps against the Broncos, and he’d played 85 percent of the defensive snaps (50 plays) against the Bengals.

Four castoffs: All five of the offensive linemen played every offensive snap against the Browns, but four of them — all except left tackle Eric Fisher — also held the distinction of being former Browns. On a day when the offense racked up 499 yards of total offense, the catalysts for that performance along the line of scrimmage were all players the Browns found fit to let go of in one way or another. That fact certainly didn’t escape the memory of former Browns first-round draft pick Cam Erving, who shared his thoughts postgame.

According to Pro Football Focus, center Austin Reiter had the fourth-best rating of any offensive player on the Chiefs and right behind right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. The Browns cut Reiter at the end of training camp, and the Chiefs picked him up off waivers.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce delivered for the Chiefs offense once again. <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Pro Football Focus (@PFF) <a href="">November 5, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

DOD: Rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel continued to see significant playing time after being on the field sparingly for defensive snaps through the first seven games of the season (10). This week, he garnered his most playing time of the season at linebacker (33 snaps). He’d played 52 defensive snaps in the previous two weeks combined following a season-ending injury to linebacker Terrance Smith. A hybrid defensive back/linebacker, O’Daniel defended slot receivers and played on the perimeter in college. He’s making a transition to playing in the middle of the field as an inside linebacker.

Catching Kelce: Tight end Travis Kelce enjoyed a big game in front of his friends and family in Cleveland. The native of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, played 61 of the 64 offensive plays and caught seven passes for 99 yards, including a pair of touchdowns — his fifth and sixth this season. Sunday marked the fourth multi-touchdown game for his career (second this season), and he now has at least one reception in 72 consecutive games, the third-longest streak in franchise history.

Lynn Worthy

Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Chiefs and NFL for The Star.

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