The NFL’s No. 2 offense churned out yards through five undefeated weeks with a young wide receivers group, and now the Kansas City Chiefs host the Pittsburgh Steelers with Chris Conley out for the season and Albert Wilson and Tyreek Hill battling injuries.
“I feel like we’ve done a great job of doing our job and focusing on our job,” Wilson said Friday as his team prepared for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. “Of course we’re getting a little more on our load but nothing we can’t handle.”
The undefeated Chiefs take on Pittsburgh with their youngest receivers lineup yet. Two of the six wide receivers on the active roster — fourth-round pick Jehu Chesson and undrafted rookie Marcus Kemp — have never caught a pass in a regular season game. Demarcus Robinson, expected to pick up much of the slack in Conley’s absence, has three receptions for 25 yards in his career.
Even Kansas City’s most experienced receivers — Wilson, Tyreek Hill and De’Anthony Thomas — have combined for 234 career receptions for 2,450 yards in parts of 10 NFL seasons of work. Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown alone had 242 catches and 3,118 yards in just his last two seasons alone.
The club reported Hill as limited in practice Thursday and Friday with a hamstring injury. The Chiefs on Saturday downgraded Wilson to questionable versus the Steelers with a sprained knee.
Despite the rash of injuries, Wilson said his position group aims to simply keep doing its job as best it can. His squad has just one goal — to win the Super Bowl, he says.
“That’s what we’re fighting for every day,” Wilson said. “We come out and compete against each other and that’s what carries on to being successful on game day is just holding each other accountable for each other’s job. Make sure that we do our job and go on from there an let everything else take care of itself.”
Wilson and Thomas are in their fourth seasons and represent the veteran presence in the Chiefs wide receiver room. But Conley did a bit of everything, playing almost every snap, providing leadership and serving as a role model.
“It’s just when you’ve got somebody you can count on to do everything right, it’s kind of hard to replace that,” Wilson said.
The Chiefs will miss Conley the most in plays designed to take advantage of his size, speed and physical talents, Wilson said.
“We counted on him a lot from single receiver sets,” he explained, “but coach (Andy) Reid does a great job of game planning and doing a great job with what he has, and I have no doubt what we’re going to do on Sunday is come out with a victory.”
Conley’s absence also means larger roles for Wilson and especially Robinson. Wilson plays 54 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and averages another 10 special teams snaps per game. His offensive burden may increase a bit. Conley was team’s busiest receiver, averaging 59 snaps per game. Now Robinson, who played just 32 offensive snaps all season, steps into the No. 3 role.
Quarterback Alex Smith says he feels comfortable with Robinson stepping into a larger role in the offense.
“I think he is ready,” Smith said. “He has been sitting and watching and growing a lot. He has a ton of ability. So I am excited for him to get in and get an opportunity.”
Robinson shined during offseason workouts and continued showing strong pass-catching and deep ball ability in training camp. He says he’s confident in the offseason and with his connection to Smith.
“Even though I haven’t been on the field a lot this season we still have a lot of confidence in each other,” Robinson said. “He knows what I can do and he’s seen me make plays before. Now it’s just time to go out on Sunday and make those plays same plays.”
The next-man-up process of football means that Conley’s injury ripples throughout the team’s depth chart. Robinson’s greater role on offense means fewer special teams plays for him. That means Chesson steps into Robinson’s former role, pitching in on special teams and playing the occasional offensive snap.
“That’s what I tell Jehu cause he hasn’t been playing these past games,” Robinson said. “Chesson’s just next man up and he knows that, now he’s getting prepared, mentally and physically prepared to play those positions.”
The injuries to Hill and Wilson may also prompt the Chiefs to press Kemp into service. The team signed the rookie free agent from Hawaii after the draft. He impressed during offseason workouts and received occasional first-team reps in training camp.
The team promoted Kemp from the practice squad Saturday after placing Conley on injured reserve. He feels ready to contribute if needed.
“I feel comfortable now after I’ve got used to some of the things and gotten into the playbook,” Kemp said. “I feel comfortable.”
The Chiefs under Andy Reid have also employed a rotation at receiver. Players can move to different positions and get reps throughout the offense. Wilson is counting on that experience to keep the offense percolating with Conley gone.
“We’ve been doing a great of rotating in and out guys,” Wilson said. “I feel like we’re not going to lose a step. I feel like everything’s going to say the same.”