Cairo Santos’ kickoff somehow didn’t land in the grassy area just before the stands. This one reached the middle of the San Diego Chargers’ blue-painted end zone, where Javontee Herndon hauled it in and embarked on the rare return.
D.J. Alexander’s eyes widened. The Chiefs’ coverage team would get to make a play, and Alexander was determined it would involve him.
He sprinted downfield, took the proper angle to the target and powered through Herndon, dropping him at the Chargers’ 15.
The Chiefs walloped the Chargers 33-3 on a Sunday when nearly every element favored the visitors, including the less obvious ones, such as average starting field position.
On average, the Chargers opened their 11 possessions on their 15-yard line. The Chiefs’ average starting field position was their 32.
Kickoff and punt coverage was exceptional for the Chiefs, again.
Punter Dustin Colquitt, a master at dropping kicks in the shadow of the goal line, landed four of his five punts inside the 20. Five of Santos’ kickoffs went through the end zone for touchbacks. One was squibbed at the end of the first half and, finally, one was brought out.
“Having a great kicker like Cairo, you don’t get that many chances, but you’re always ready for the ball to come out. You never know,” Alexander said. “When they decide to come out, we always talk about making them regret it.”
Where Santos booms his kicks, Colquitt’s specialty is touch and precision. He punted three times through three quarters Sunday, and those kicks pinned the Chargers on their 7-, 6- and 11-yard lines. The third produced the lousy field position that led to Justin Houston’s tip-to-himself interception that he returned for a touchdown.
Colquitt’s fourth and fifth punts shined a spotlight on Jamell Fleming’s coverage. Colquitt punted away the Chiefs’ first possession of the fourth quarter, and Herndon muffed the catch. Fleming pounced on the fumble.
“He took his eyes off it just for a moment,” Fleming said.
It was enough to keep the Chargers’ day miserable.
The Chiefs couldn’t move and Colquitt again was called upon. This time, Fleming downed the 43-yard punt at the 1.
“He’s not kicking it into the end zone,” Fleming said of Colquitt. “I need to get down there, get my head turned and find the ball.”
Kick coverage isn’t glamorous duty. Finding the statistics takes more work than accessing touchdown passes or sacks. Chiefs coverage men are rewarded on a points system for being first down the field and first to make a hit, but they’re not part of the team’s official stats.
Still, kick coverage has been critical to the Chiefs’ four-game winning streak. In the Chiefs’ victory at Denver last week, the Broncos’ average starting field position was the 18. Four of Colquitt’s five punts were downed inside the 20. All seven kickoffs sailed through the end zone. The Chiefs’ average starting field position was the 48, mostly because of turnovers.
In their Nov. 1 victory over the Detroit Lions in London, the Chiefs averaged started at their 43, the Lions at their 17.
Setting up shop an average of 15-30 yards closer to scoring range than an opponent is an incredible advantage. For the Chiefs, it’s happening because of their kickers and coverage men.
“We take great pride in that,” Alexander said.