KANSAS CITY, Mo. -– The Raiders punt coverage unit had bent in the wrong direction a few times in recent weeks. On Sunday, it broke.
The Raiders allowed De’Anthony Thomas to return a punt 81 yards for a touchdown, the only touchdown of the first half of a 31-13 loss to the Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
It was a staggering blow in itself, but it wasn't the only one. Generally speaking, the Raiders lost the battle for field position. It was an issue interim head coach Tony Sparano was concerned about during the practice week.
[BAIR: Instant Replay: Raiders hammered by Chiefs in 31-13 loss]
“We knew that was a key to the game,” Sparano said. “Their return game is strong, and I said this week that it was an advantage for them on paper. It was certainly an advantage today.”
What Sparano saw on paper played out on Sunday. Kansas City’s Frankie Hammond returned a kickoff 37 yards. Knile Davis returned another 29.
Thomas returned eight punts an average of 19.5 yards, an effort highlighted by his 81-yard touchdown. He sailed through the Raiders coverage untouched, with few Raiders getting a realistic bead on him as he sailed down the right sideline.
That was the biggest moment in a critical phase that went the Chiefs’ way.
The 49ers return game produced against the Raiders last week. So did the Chiefs, during a Week 12 victory at O.co Coliseum, when they averaged 37.7 yards per kickoff return and Hammond had two punt returns totaling 48 yards.
It spelled trouble then and certainly hurt the Raiders on Sunday.
“Field position was critical,” Sparano said. “We started in our end quite a bit, and the flip side of that happened for them. They returned the ball well and didn’t do a good job covering.”