Andy Reid is an exceptional offensive football mind.
That statement really should be filed somewhere in the "duh" file, but it's something we lose sight of quite often. Reid has some maddening tendencies (his over-reliance on the pass, the predictable screens, clock management), but his overall ability to draw up plays that take advantage of opposing teams' weaknesses is one of the absolute best in the NFL.
Every now and then we see entire games in which Reid is about a dozen steps ahead of the opposing coach, having found some specific weakness to exploit. What's REALLY fun are games where Reid has also anticipated the adjustments that would be made to his exploitation of a team's weakness, and so he then exploits THAT. Those games are fairly rare (think the MNF destruction of the Patriots as the best example), but it sure is fun when Big Red has things clicking.
Reid didn't have a game like that Sunday, but he DID serve us all up a reminder that he's more than capable of flummoxing opposing teams' defenses with creative play design.
With 11:19 left in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were facing second and goal on the one yard line. The Raiders had held strong on first down, stuffing Spencer Ware for no gain (I didn't realize that was possible, but they did it). The Chiefs were down six at the time and were looking to capitalize on a huge interception return by Josh Mauga. It was the kind of situation where being held to a field goal would be a huge stand for the opposition. The Chiefs needed a touchdown.
Reid had the Chiefs line up in a pretty standard goal line package.
Besides having Jeremy Maclin on the line, this is pretty basic stuff. Two tight ends (Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris), a fullback (the incomparable Anthony Sherman), and the power back (Ware).
From all appearances the Chiefs were perfectly content to use second down as another shot at having Ware hammer the ball into the end zone (I was already tasting the fantasy points). A perfectly sound strategy, but highly conservative and a little boring.
Then Reid was all, "nah, let's get weird."
Love what Reid did with this play shift/design. Caught the Raiders totally unprepared. pic.twitter.com/VZhUTDtJ7Y— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 9, 2015
Holy players running all over the place, Batman.
In the span of about a second and a half, the Chiefs completely changed the layout of the field. Look at this.
Now you've got Ware lined up wide, Kelce in the slot, and Sherman / Harris / Maclin in a bunch formation on the right side. To use a way-too-often-used phrase, that escalated quickly.
It was interesting to watch how the Raiders responded. To their credit, they didn't seem to panic. Clearly, each individual defender was given a man assignment in the event of a player motioning off the line of scrimmage. So they all dutifully trotted into place, lining up in man coverage.
Of course, going to a simple man coverage against this particular formation in this part of the field presents some real problems. First, it spreads your defense out in an area of the field where a quarterback sneak is a real danger. The Raiders were obviously concerned about this issue, as they kept six guys on the line of scrimmage despite all the motioning. Trent Green speculated (and I agree) that the Raiders felt all the shifting and moving was merely a window dressing to try and draw defenders from the real threat (a QB sneak).
However, by doing so the expose themselves to a numbers issue. At this part of the field, all the Chiefs need to do is gain a yard and it's over. And so Oakland defenders really can't afford to give ANY room in coverage, lest Alex Smith make a quick throw before they can close the distance.
The problem is that a bunch formation (like the one above) doesn't leave a lot of room for defenders at the line of scrimmage. The one used here is particularly tough in that regard, with each Chief staggered vertically so as to remain about as close to one another horizontally (along the line of scrimmage) as possible.
Look at poor Charles Woodson (circled). He's put in an impossible situation. There are two other defenders at the line of scrimmage, and there's simply no room for him to be there as well without risking getting in their way once the ball is snapped, especially if the routes are drawn up well (which is generally a given with Andy Reid).
Woodson could go to the far left of the other defenders to get to the line of scrimmage, but then he risks giving up an easy touchdown on a quick slant. He could go to the inside (his right) to get to the line, but then you risk Maclin simply sprinting toward the sideline or the corner of the end zone with no hope of catching him. Since the NFL allows some contact by offensive players within a yard of the line of scrimmage, shading one way or the other is BEGGING Harris and Sherman to shield him out of the play.
So Woodson hangs back a couple of yards. The thing is, this essentially dooms the play as well.
This play is a TD the moment the ball is snapped barring a stud play by the DE or awful throw. Just a numbers game. pic.twitter.com/xVo6rC7ShQ— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 9, 2015
And really, what was Woodson supposed to do about it? He drove aggressively toward the line of scrimmage, moving inside in apparent anticipation of some sort of quick slant. It's a perfectly sound strategy on his part. Remember the Seahawks / Patriots Super Bowl pass breakup? Woodson was likely hoping on beating Maclin to the catch point and disrupting him.
Of course, Reid had kept things simple. With the alignment chosen, he knew there was likely no way the man covering Maclin could make it to the line of scrimmage in time to even out the numbers, and would be unlikely to break through the wall of Sherman and Harris (Both big, strong blockers. Way too much for Woodson to move) even if he did.
Here's what things looked like as Maclin caught the ball.
The play is over 99 percent of the time at this point. Harris and Sherman do a good job forming a wall, and Maclin simply has to fall into the end zone (though the blocking was good enough and Woodson went far enough inside that he was able to walk in).
There were only two things that could have stopped this from being a touchdown with the way the teams lined up, and both are long shots.
First, there's the possibility the defensive end makes an unbelievable play on the ball and knocks it down or picks it off. This would require an absolutely incredible reaction by a defensive end who is watching for a QB sneak. Additionally, Reid (who is seriously really, really good at this stuff) anticipated this potential danger and had Jah Reid perform a cut block on the DE. This was done to freeze the defender in place for a split second (keeping him out of the throwing lane) and to keep his hands down (you tend to keep your hands down when a 320-pound man dives at your feet).
Cut blocks can be risky because if the defender isn't taken off his feet, you're now on the ground and he's got a clear path to the quarterback. However, in this case that doesn't matter. The play call is for an instant throw. Alex needs less than half a second. He just needs that throwing lane clear. Reid executes his job and this risk becomes minimal.
The second way this play could have been stopped is still pretty remote. If Woodson anticipates the exact type of throw that's going to be made here and just HURLS himself into the blockers at the snap, there's a chance he can split them and get to Maclin or muck things up enough that another defender gets the tackle.
This is really, really unlikely though. Woodson, to get there on time, would need to commit to the idea that this is a WR screen right at the snap. Basically, it would be a guess. If Maclin is, in fact, running a slant or a fade, that move puts Woodson dead in the water. And then, of course, there's the simple fact that Harris and Sherman are really big human beings. Even if he takes the giant risk and guesses correctly, there's still no guarantee any safety not named Eric Berry is busting through those two enough to make an impact.
In short, Andy Reid dialed up a play that, unless properly adjusted to IMMEDIATELY by the Raiders (note how quickly they shifted and Smith snapped the ball. They definitely wanted to prevent Oakland from a timeout or from thinking about how badly they were out-maneuvered), was almost guaranteed a touchdown.
That kind of "here, hold my clipboard while I pants you" out-coaching is rare in the NFL, and it's worth noting when it occurs. Andy Reid has done a lot of things right this year, and this play was one of them.