Kansas City's Tyreek Hill Is the Key to AFC Title Game Berth

Rookie Tyreek Hill is a sort of banner figure for the NFL as the sports media world grapples with covering athletes who have committed domestic assault. He is also the reason the Chiefs had a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs.
January 11, 2017, 4:53pm
Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Most fifth-round NFL Draft picks, when they hit, are considered nice little success stories. They get tagged as hard workers, or good chemistry guys, or small-school finds. Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill is a different kind of story entirely. The 165th overall pick in the 2016 draft fell for a very obvious reason: in 2015, he pleaded guilty to the assault of his then girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time of the attack. That the Chiefs selected him anyway was a high-profile story not just because of the brutal details of the assault, but because domestic violence has (hopefully) become a hot-button issue that the sports world now has to reckon with.


Domestic violence is a very complex subject that I don't want to dilute into five sentences, but Hill is sort of a banner figure for the NFL at a moment when all of us are struggling with how to cover athletes who have done objectively horrible things, beyond just rubber-stamping bad behavior as "boys being boys" or ignoring it entirely. With Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson mostly out of the picture, Hill is now The Assault Guy, the player a NFL team was willing to gamble on despite his past.

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Hill is also the reason the Chiefs had a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs. He scored 12 total touchdowns, including three on special teams, and became the kind of speedy gadget player that run-heavy teams lean on. This is not a surprise, as Hill ran a 4.24 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. He may be the fastest player in the league. On pure athletic talent alone, he probably would've gone in the first two days of the draft.

Thanks to Hill's speed, the Chiefs led the NFL in Football Outsiders' special teams rankings for punt returns, netting 20.9 points of field position over an average team. And while Hill returned only 14 kicks during the regular season, with the Chiefs using fellow speedster DeAnthony Thomas at the same time, he also brought one to the house. In an all-or-nothing game, you have to figure that the odds of seeing Hill returning kicks goes up, as well.

Hill runs a punt back for a touchdown against the Chargers. Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

As for his impact as a receiver, you can't deny that he brings the big-play ability that isn't in Kansas City's safe base offense. Hill has six of Kansas City's 15 longest catches and five of their 13 longest runs despite touching the ball just 85 times on the season. Per Sports Info Solutions' charting data, only two receivers have a higher broken tackle rate with more touches: Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Chiefs face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional playoff on Sunday. While the Steelers that Ben Roethlisberger's ankle will allow him to function normally, a large part of their game plan has to be devoted to stopping Hill. On paper, Pittsburgh's defense is peaking. They're seventh in weighted defense DVOA, and have the tools to wreak havoc on Kansas City's passing game.



Total DVOA (Rank)

Weighted DVOA (Rank)

Variance (Rank)


3.8% (13)

8.1% (10)

7.5% (23)


-4.7% (11)

-7.6% (7)

7.9% (31)

Pittsburgh finished 19th in pressure rate as a defense, a ranking that belies the huge improvement they made midway through the season. Pittsburgh had just eight sacks as of their bye in Week 8; in their last ten weeks, they piled on 35, including an early bombardment of Miami quarterback Matt Moore that kept the Dolphins from ever getting close in the Wild Card round. Second-year linebacker Bud Dupree led the NFL in sacks in December (4.5) after coming off injured reserve. This isn't a defense that wins on talent in the secondary, but it is one that can create big plays now that it can push the pocket. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith plays pretty cautiously, but even if he doesn't turn it over, he may be in a position to throw several balls away in this one.

The one thing that can stop edge players like Dupree from getting a free ride to the quarterback? Making sure those guys know that on every snap they must protect the edge from pure speed. Kansas City is not getting that speed from starting running back Spencer Ware; Hill needs to be a focal point of the Chiefs offense in this game.

Hill was effective against the Steelers in Week 4. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The one thing that Kansas City has done better than any other team in the NFL over the past few years is special teams, and Hill's return statistics are what happens when you combine stellar blocking with stupid-fast speed. Pittsburgh was below average covering punts this year; Hill took one back against them when these teams played in Week 4.

If Kansas City is to have a chance at advancing in the postseason, they'll need Hill to contribute in a multitude of ways. Pittsburgh has the weapons and the pass rush to force Kansas City into breaking their comfortable rhythm of run-the-clock offense and big plays on defense. Fighting speed with speed should be the game plan for the Chiefs, and the only real trump card they have is Hill.

Should the rookie come up big on Sunday, however, his story won't become any less complicated to tell, nor will it offer any sort of insta-redemption. Fans and the media will still need to grapple with how—or even whether—they can reconcile Hill's past with his place in the NFL.

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