Tyreek Hill presents special concerns for Raiders’ rookie punter

Tyreek Hill returns a punt for a touchdown against the Chargers in the Chiefs' season opener.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

ALAMEDA, Calif. — Oakland Raiders punter Johnny Townsend is plenty thankful he doesn’t have to cover Kansas City‘s Tyreek Hill as a defender.

Dealing with Hill on special teams is challenging enough as is, even if for only two or three plays a game.

Hill has given opponents fits since entering the league as an unheralded fifth-round draft pick in 2016. He’s been voted to the Pro Bowl as a returner in each of his first two seasons in the league and is likely to make it three for three this year.

As much as the Raiders have focused on slowing down the Chiefs‘ high-octane offense this week, trying to prevent Hill from breaking loose on special teams has been an equally big emphasis.

“He’s an unbelievable athlete and he’s somebody we circle on the calendar every single year — not only him, but that team in general,” Townsend said. “We’re going to do everything we can to limit his returns and try to flip the field.”

Saying it and doing it are often two different things, especially when it comes to the Raiders this season.

Hill is sixth in the NFL with an 11.6-yard average. He had a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown in the opener against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sept. 9 that remains the longest return in the league this year.

That’s a significant dip from his rookie season, when Hill had a 15.2-yard average, but that’s largely a result of teams no longer kicking the ball in his direction or preferring to pin him to a side, something Townsend said the Raiders definitely will attempt to do this week.

“Just trying to shrink the field as much as we can and not give him the field to run to is going to be really important,” Townsend said. “As long as we can execute in that aspect, I think we’ll be OK. It really is kind of a test for yourself as a punter, especially knowing how successful he’s been in the NFL as a return man.

“I’ve been watching him for years in college. Every time I turn on an NFL game and see him play it’s just like, ‘Man that guy’s a tough guy to kick to.’ This is my first opportunity to do it, so I’m excited to see how it goes.”

Townsend has had mixed results in his rookie season. A fifth-round draft pick, Townsend is averaging 43.5 yards but has had three games in which he failed to average more than 38 yards.

Not all of the problems have been on Townsend. During last week’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Raiders surrendered a 70-yard return for a touchdown to Baltimore’s Cyrus Jones, who was never touched while weaving around Oakland’s coverage unit.

“We have to do a better job than we did last week,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “We gave them a low-hanging punt that gave (Jones) a two-way go, and that’s hard to defend. If we do that against this guy, we’ll have very little chance to win this game. This guy is really unique. Tyreek Hill, he’s a unique skill set. You have to limit his opportunities every way you can, on offense and in the kicking game.”