COVID absences affect Chiefs-Steelers matchup
Kansas City players forced to go through COVID-19 protocols this week gave the list a Pro Bowl feel.
At least that’s the impression made when a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, are among the players the Chiefs (10-4) hope to reinstate in time for a clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1).
The game is still scheduled for Sunday at Kansas City, Mo.
“It’s a crazy thing, in motion, fluid,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of a list that grew to 13. Just one player in the group, Harrison Butker, got ruled out early in the week, leaving Kansas City to find Elliott Fry to replace Butker as kicker.
Of greater concern is the status of Kelce and Hill, go-to receivers who are adept at finding openings on both conventional routes and when Mahomes must improvise while dodging pass rushers.
Practice has not been altogether different with Mahomes throwing to less heralded receivers such as Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle and Josh Gordon. Willie Gay and Gordon each got removed Wednesday from the COVID list.
“It wasn’t too different. Throughout practices, we try to let other guys get some reps in,” Mahomes said. “We let those guys rest their legs because with Travis and Tyreek, they run so many routes on game days.”
Still, Mahomes is realistic about the threats posed by each of his go-to receivers as Kansas City attempts to maintain its positioning for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and pad its seven-game winning streak.
“There’s obviously some routes that Tyreek and Travis can run that nobody else in this world really can,” Mahomes said. Just last week, each had 100-yard performances and combined for three touchdowns, including a 34-yard game-winning grab by Travis Kelce in overtime, as the Chiefs nipped the Chargers, 34-28.
Reid’s game plan against the Steelers will have to contain some contingencies due to not having key players available. Chris Jones, Lucas Niang, Nick Bolton, Rashad Fenton and Charvarius Ward were among other starters on the COVID list when practices began leading into the Pittsburgh matchup.
“We’re OK. We’ve got plenty of bodies and guys who want to play,” Reid said. “So that’s how nothing has really changed. We plug the next person in and here we go. That’s how we’re rolling now.”
The Steelers are coming off a 19-13 win over Tennessee that kept them in a bunched playoff chase, although their tie with Detroit keeps Pittsburgh a game behind five teams with 8-6 marks, including AFC North co-leaders Cincinnati and Baltimore.
“I’m not saying we’re peaking, or close to it, but we’re winning the close games, or we’re coming back or fighting. We know that there’s a little bit of life,” said Ben Roethlisberger, who has passed for 3,214 yards while also relying on the legs of rookie Najee Harris, who has 891 yards rushing.
T.J. Watt, who has recorded a club-record 17.5 sacks, leads a defensive effort that would focus on Mahomes despite the availability of other Chiefs threats.
“His arm talent, he can extend plays. He’s very elusive,” said the Steelers’ Taco Charlton, who played for Kansas City last season. “People try to say he’s not athletic, but he can turn it on when he wants to. The offense goes as he goes.”
Pat Freiermuth (concussion) and Chris Wormley (groin) did not practice for the Steelers when they began in-week preparations for the Chiefs. Starter Devin Bush began the week on the COVID-19 list with Zach Banner and Marcus Allen.
–Field Level Media