KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In an offense that hinges on running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Travis Kelce, improvement by the Chiefs wide receivers this season might not be evident in statistics like targets or catches or receiving yards.
Kelce leads the team with 164 receiving yards on 10 catches in 11 opportunities, and Charles has produced 48 yards on nine catches in 13 chances. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin has amassed 109 yards on nine catches in 16 targets, the most of any player, but no one else in his unit has been thrown to more than six times.
The wide receivers cannot control how often they get opportunities to make plays, but 10-year veteran Jason Avant sees plenty of room for growth in how the members of the group can prepare to take advantage of the chances they do get.
“You can’t control targets because you’re a secondary position,” Avant said, “but you can control uncovering all the time. So, as a group we want to be known for those, that when you look at the film we always have separation from our defender, so that’s our goal.”
Rookie Chris Conley deemed Avant a master in that discipline and noted that, as with many other elements of the game, creating separation from a defender is as much a mental endeavor as it is a physical one.
“Sometimes it’s not something that he does,” Conley said. “Sometimes it’s the knowledge that he has … He’s seen all the defenses. He knows all the personnels just from experience of playing them multiple times, and he can get into their head. So that comes with a lot of studying, it comes with time, and then also trial and error.
“He wasn’t that good all the time, and he lets me know that,” Conley added. “But … every time you go out there and you learn something about somebody, it has to be logged in your memory bank, and you have to be able to recall that the next time you’re out there.”
As Conley mentioned, however, everything starts with studying film.
The wide receivers watch the defensive backs against whom they will play in order to identify and memorize tendencies. Then the wide receivers practice while implementing that knowledge against the scout team, which mimics the tactics of the defenders they will be facing.
To become proficient in this area, of course, requires something players cannot get on a practice field.
“It takes game reps,” Conley said. “It really does. You can practice something as much as you want, but until you run it in an actual situation where bullets are flying, temperatures are high, it’s loud, then you start to learn. You learn so much more than you do on the practice field and in a controlled environment. That’s what we try to replicate here. We do our best.”
Conley has played in two NFL games. Second-year wide receivers De’Anthony Thomas, Albert Wilson and Frankie Hammond Jr., also have relatively little experience.
Fortunately for the group, Avant and Maclin bring a wealth of experience to the table.
“It’s good to have these guys on this row” – Conley sat in front of his locker and gestured to his right, where Maclin sits, and to his left, where Avant resides a stall or two farther away – “because they’ve been doing that for a long time.
“We’ve got to just take those cues, and we’ve got to execute. You’ve got to sometimes slow it down. When you get in those situations in the game, you want to just get there so fast and do things, but if you take your time, it’ll happen.”
Creating separation puts the wide receivers in better situations should a pass come their way, but they know it will often be soaring toward Charles or Kelce instead. Far from resenting that dynamic, the wide receivers take pride in helping clear the path for their teammates.
“The guys as a whole are learning what’s our strengths on offense,” Avant said, “and a lot of times it’s not necessarily catching a lot of passes.”
Conley said the organization is crystal clear with its wide receivers that they have to be able to block, and the rookie noticed immediately that players have bought in.
“Not many receiving corps make it a point to be active in the run game and make it a point to get our backs to the end zone, and I think that’s something that’s special about this group, is they’re selfless,” Conley said. “They’re willing to go out there and block for their teammates, willing to go down field and get the extra five yards, spring the back from a 20-yard gain to a touchdown.”
Playing in such a system, where wide receivers are not on a regular basis the heroes they might be elsewhere, requires some adjustment. The willingness to accept a less visible role for the good of the team is something that is developed.
“I don’t think it’s inherent because when you come from different programs you’re coached differently, and you have different roles,” Conley said. “But when you come here and you come under this roof, you learn what we’re about here and the way that we play football.
“Once you get that and you hear that and you continue to see it because people do it, you latch onto it,” Conley continued. “You latch onto it and you take up the mantle. You’ve got to get better at it because it’s not easy to do, but you learn just like everything else.”
Discussion of the Chiefs wide receivers necessitates a mention of their streak of no touchdowns since the wildcard game Jan. 4, 2014, against the Indianapolis Colts.
The drought does not much concern the unit, however, because they understand the team can likely be successful even without them scoring often.
“The way the offense is tailored is one of those things where it’s not essential for us to win, so we don’t really worry about that too much,” Avant said. “We focus on what we have to do. They’ll come, and they’re going to come in bunches, but when we have those opportunities and we can make a play, it’ll be made.”
Green Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was not reading much into the streak, either, as he prepared his team to face the Chiefs on Monday Night Football.
“I think it’s something probably fans look at more,” McCarthy said Thursday during a media conference call. “It’s not a statistic that showed up in our preparation.”
Special contributor Ashley Dunkak currently serves as a correspondent for CBS Local Sports and The Associated Press. She previously worked for CBS Detroit, where she covered the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons and college sports.