Shortly before the Chiefs lined up to receive the second-half kickoff in their 34-7 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, special-teams coach Dave Toub gathered the 11 men on the unit around him to deliver a simple but necessary message.
“Right before we took it out, coach was like ‘Man, we’re overdue for one,’” kick returner Knile Davis said.
No kidding. After last season, in which the Chiefs posted a league-record 29.9 average for kick returns and returned two punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns, the fact Toub’s unit had gone six games without a return of any kind for a score was surprising, to say the least.
The streak, however, was no more just moments later. Davis fielded Greg Zuerlein’s kick — which Zuerlein later described as “too hard” and “too high” — and exploded up the right sideline, weaving his way through defenders before he burst into the open field and turned on the jets for a 99-yard kick return that broke open the game.
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The score, which gave the Chiefs a 17-7 lead, was the second kick return touchdown of Davis’ career. It was a crucial — but far from the only — special-teams blow to the Rams, who used a 75-yard kickoff return, a 90-yard punt-return touchdown and a game-winning fake punt in upsetting the defending champion Seattle Seahawks last week.
“It was right on time for us,” Chiefs special-teams ace Cyrus Gray said.
Gray said the return was a reflection of Davis’ elusiveness and good, hard-nosed blocking by the entire unit.
“It was set up well,” Gray said. “(The Rams) are very fast and they were squeezing. So we just had to get a man on a man and let Knile do the rest.”
The Chiefs had the blocking part down. Among those who made key blocks on the play were linebacker James-Michael Johnson, fullback Anthony Sherman and outside linebacker Dee Ford.
“We saw every week, it was just one block here or one block there to springing Knile,” Sherman said. “He’s one of those dangerous guys (where) you get the ball in his hands and make all your blocks, he can take it the distance any time he touches it.”
The Chiefs’ special-teams mastery didn’t end there. On quite possibly the windiest day of his short NFL career, rookie kicker Cairo Santos had another strong outing. He drilled two field goals, including a career-best 53-yarder, and had four touchbacks.
Santos, who said he is growing more comfortable by the day, said the guidance of punter Dustin Colquitt and long snapper Thomas Gafford was crucial on the 53-yarder, which was against the wind.
“We didn’t have a timeout, the clock was running down, it was sort of a fast situation, so they told me to slow down,” Santos said. “They let me know how many seconds we had. … I couldn’t really tell how far it was going to go, (but) as soon as it came off my foot they started cheering, so I thought ’Okay, must be enough.’ ”
Santos, who has made eight straight field goals and 10 of 12 this season, said that after a rough start to his career, he is happy to finally be kicking like he did in training camp, when he was competing against incumbent Ryan Succop.
Santos’ newfound confidence was perfectly clear on his kickoffs, including one that landed in the stands.
“That little Brazilian leg, man,” Colquitt said with a laugh. “It’s fun to watch, a little package that delivers a huge blow.”
Colquitt also played a role on this day. In addition to dropping three punts inside the 20, including one at the 6, he also helped cover up one of the few mistakes of the day for the special teams — aside from Albert Wilson’s two penalties.
Late in the fourth quarter, Rams speedster Tavon Austin broke off a 38-yard punt return that could have been worse had Colquitt not found a way to push him out of bounds.
“You don’t want to be labeled as someone that can tackle as a punter because that means you’re spending a lot of time chasing down return guys,” Colquitt said with a laugh.
Still, it was a stark contrast to the Rams’ fortunes on this day. Their kicker, Greg Zuerlein, whiffed while trying to take down Davis on his kickoff return for a touchdown.
“Knile is big, strong and fast,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He hits (the hole). You have to have someone back there like that. You can’t have someone who is going to dance around.”
Reid said the key challenge for Davis, who did not return kicks at Arkansas, was feeling comfortable in a new role and consistently securing the football.
Gray said Davis, who sprang loose for a 108-yard kickoff return touchdown against Denver last season, has come a long way in this role over the last two years.
“I knew he would,” Gray said. “Knile’s a talented guy. He works hard, he studies hard and he runs hard, so he’s in a perfect situation.”
Gray was then asked how good the Chiefs, 4-3, can be if the special teams can continue to perform this way going forward.
“If we can keep it up, the sky is the limit for this team,” Gray said. “We’re one of the best (units) in the league. … We’ve just got to keep playing that way.”