Hill kills with thrills: Chiefs’ speedster puts Bucs in the danger zone

  • Associated Press Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill already busted the Buccaneers once this season, finishing with 13 catches for 269 yards and three TDs in Kansas City’s 27-24 road victory.

The best performance in the Super Bowl tournament’s semifinals belonged to a player who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 185 pounds.

Tyreek Hill, actually measured at 5-8 and an eighth of an inch by NFL scouts at his Pro Day in 2016, dominated the AFC title game as a receiver and a decoy.

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Hill, in laying waste to a sound but insufficiently fast Buffalo Bills defense, reaffirmed his status as the NFL’s most dangerous non-quarterback on offense (with the possible exception of Chiefs teammate Travis Kelce).

You’d have to see him in person to fully appreciate how Hill distorts an NFL game. He makes NFL defenders appear, if not slow, inadequate to the task. When not gaining yards, he opens up avenues for teammates.

My standard for NFL play speed on offense was Marshall Faulk, the San Diego State All-American running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer who led the Rams to their only Super Bowl victory.

Hill plays even faster than Faulk. NFL defenders have said he plays faster than Lamar Jackson, the explosive Ravens quarterback.

Hill has said he’s not the fastest sprinter on his team, much less in the NFL. “But if you line me up at receiver and tell me to run a go route,” he said last January, “I would burn anybody.”

Grading him with help from Antonio Gates, who four years ago discerned potential greatness in Hill as an AFC West rival, the fifth-year player gets an A-plus for play speed, an A for toughness, durability and in-game stamina and a B for hands. Dangerous as a running back, too, he’s more versatile than the more polished receivers.

The Chiefs stopped having him return punts, but he’s close to an all-time great in that respect. His career average of 11.7 yards per return standard lands fourth in the Super Bowl era behind Rick Upchurch (12.1), Super Bowl 31 MVP Desmond Howard (11.9) and Billy ” White Shoes” Johnson (11.8).

Hill, in the San Diego finale for the Chargers four years ago this month, took a punt 95 yards for a touchdown. Punt returners typically don’t try to return punts from so close to the goal line. Hill wasn’t touched as he promptly ran away.

In their offensive line, the Chiefs have challenges that border on extreme. Their Super Bowl opponent, the Tampa Bay Bucs, boast an explosive defensive front that fueled a win in the NFC title game.

Yet the Chiefs are favored by 3 points on betting lines. It helps, a lot, that Hill speeds up Kansas City’s offense. And don’t the Bucs know it.

When the teams met in November, the Bucs may have underestimated Hill. He ran away from Carlton Davis, a good cornerback who wasn’t provided safety help, leading to his team’s 27-24 victory on the road. Though the Bucs modified their coverage after a 203-yard first quarter for Hill, he finished with 13 catches for 269 yards and three TDs.

A year ago in Miami, the Chiefs encountered a 49ers defense that attacked with one of the most explosive fronts of recent decades.

The Niners D had overwhelmed, even intimidated, its two NFC playoff opponents — Vikings and Packers offenses directed by Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers, respectively.

Hill had Chiefs blockers in mind when he previewed that Super Bowl contest.

“We’ve got to get open fast,” he said days before the game, “because they’ve got a tremendous D-line. Let’s say for instance I’ve got a 7-yard curl. I’ve got to run a 7-yard curl. I can’t be 8, I can’t be 9 because if I run it a little bit deeper … it’s going to be a sack. We’ve got to run our routes fast, precise and they’ve got to be sharp.”

After the Chiefs weathered Niners pass rushes that would’ve broken most teams, Hill and quarterback Patrick Mahomes — who took an extra deep drop, at 14 yards behind the line — created a huge downfield pass completion in the fourth quarter that led to Kansas City’s victory. The deep in-and-out route Hill ran on third-and-15 popularized the play call: 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp.

Hill can get open on the short stuff, too. As open as can be. In a blink.

Clinching Kansas City’s first-round playoff victory two games ago, he lined up against a Browns corner who stood just one yard away on fourth-and-1.

Hill lost him so fast, no one was within five yards of him when he caught the speed option-pass from Chad Henne, who had replaced the injured Mahomes.

Chiefs blockers will need immediate assistance Feb. 7 in Tampa Bay. By Super Bowl standards, K.C.’s offensive line is below average.

Since the last Super Bowl, the unit has lost its best blocker (RT Mitchell Schwartz, back injury), its best interior blocker (RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, opted out) and its best blocker as of this tournament (LT Eric Fisher, ousted by an Achilles injury late in Sunday’s game).

Of course, Hill isn’t the only benefactor to Chiefs blockers.

Coach Andy Reid is a former blocker who understands how to use scheme to help out his big men up front.

Mahomes’ accurate fastballs and deep range accentuate Hill’s speed. And Kelce, an All-Pro tight end and versatile blocker, makes it harder for teams to double up on Hill.

Hill will put intense pressure on Tampa’s D that the Bills couldn’t counter in allowing him 172 receiving yards and a touchdown in Kansas City’s 38-24 victory. And as a decoy motioning into an I-back role, Hill freed up offset running back Darrel Williams, leading to an easy fourth-and-1 conversion on a short pass.

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So Hill will be a player to watch in Super Bowl 55. But his presence in the NFL is still a controversial one. The Chiefs were allowed to draft him in the fifth round, though the NFL had banned him from the predraft combine relating to a domestic violence charge to which Hill pleaded guilty while at Oklahoma State. He finished his college career at West Alabama.

Krasovic writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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