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Anatomy of a Play: Alex Smith to Travis Kelce

Happy new year!

Well, technically, for me it's not the new year yet. It's 10:55 in the evening, the wife and kids are in bed after a nice evening... and here I am, getting ready to break down another Kansas City Chiefs play.

Why do I do it? Because I love you that much. Also, I work in a pretty stressful job and enjoy doing this as a creative outlet in order to relax. But mostly it's the love part.

It's fitting that the new year is a time where people resolve to make changes, because changes are what we've seen from certain members of the Chiefs over the last several months. Specifically, we've seen the emergence of Alex Smith 2.0 (definitely going to have to write about that in detail at some point), the evolution of Marcus Peters from talented-but-inconsistent sparkplug to genuine star at CB, the Chiefs rushing attack somehow become the most efficient in the league, and the entire team become a legitimate threat to make noise in the playoffs.

In short, 2015 has been a ridiculously fun year (and that's not even including the world champion Royals, but I digress), and I consider myself privileged to have been able to write about it.

That said, let's talk football. Specifically, let's talk about touchdown passes from Alex Smith to Travis Kelce.


There are 36 seconds left in the 2nd Quarter. The Chiefs are looking at a 1st and 10 on the Browns' 13-yard-line after (yet another) nice scramble by Alex Smith gets the Chiefs into the red zone. The Chiefs already have the lead and are looking to seize control of the game.

The Chiefs line up with (from left to right) Albert Wilson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant lined up to Smith's left, with Travis Kelce lined up right and Charcandrick West in the backfield.

For starters, I really like this formation because it forces Cleveland to make a choice. Do you leave a defender alone on an island against Kelce (almost assuredly a mismatch regardless of who it is), or do you roll the lone "deep" safety (the quotation marks because, you know, they're on the 13-yard-line and it's not THAT deep) to Kelce's side and then leave multiple one-on-one matchups on the other side of the field?

Neither of those options is appealing. Remember Varsity Blues, when Mox wanted to run the oop-de-oop offense because it would "overload the defense on the left side, then burn 'em one-on-one on the right?" It's not exactly that simple in real life, but crap if this doesn't bring the exact same concept to the table.


As you can see, there are no complicated routes here. West is just coming out of the backfield, Kelce runs a slant after a quick (and just ridiculously smooth) fake outside). Maclin runs a simple curl up the seam (we'll come back to him and Kelce in a moment). Wilson runs an out, and Avant runs what amounts to a go route.

These routes are spaced out well and give the receivers room to attempt to beat man coverage. However, the main "action" here is centered around Maclin, Kelce, and the Browns' safety (you had to know there was a reason a circled the guy).

Once again, the theme here is "choice." What Andy Reid is good at with regards to scheme design is forcing defenders to make unappealing choices. The routes run by Maclin and Kelce are spaced in a way that makes it physically impossible for the safety to cover both. He has to choose one or the other. And regardless of what he chooses, he's going to be leaving a very, very good player alone against an overmatched defender.

The route by West plays an underrated role here in removing options for the defense. In theory, the defense COULD reduce the stress on the safety by dropping one of their LB's into a deeper zone. The problem with doing that is with West running out of the backfield you need your OTHER ILB to go out into coverage. And now you have no linebackers covering the shallow area and are asking Smith to chew up easy yardage (remember, he'd burned them with his legs multiple times at this point). I didn't even realize how much West's route limited the defense's options until re-watching the play for the tenth time or so. Just another example of Reid playing chess, thinking nine moves ahead.

So anyway, back to the Browns' safety. While he's lined up on Kelce's side of the field, his hip alignment and eyes presnap seem to indicate he's going to choose to help with Maclin when it comes down to it. That safety is who Smith needs to read (and manipulate) to make this play work.

We've seen this exact scenario play out multiple times in the last few weeks. Smith snaps the ball...


Smith keeps his eyes straight ahead toward the safety as he begins his backpeddle. Of course, he's attempting to read where the safety goes post-snap, as that will dictate where the ball goes. But he's also "holding" the safety in place from where the first read (at least, I think it's the first read based on the formation and Smith's actions) is going to be.

Eye discipline is a really underrated aspect of QB play, but it's wildly important how QB's manipulate defenses with their head movement while making reads. The safety, without the benefit of Smith looking straight at Kelce as he backpeddles, drops back and to his right (toward where Maclin is going).

Smith sees this and does exactly what he has to do (and exactly what he wasn't consistently doing earlier this season)

See what happens there? One of the consistent (and accurate) knocks on Alex Smith is that he doesn't always pull the trigger as quickly as he should. Whether that's a product of overthinking or lack of confidence in arm strength, we've all seen moments where Smith clutches when he should fire.

That's been the case less and less often as this season has gone by. I don't know if it's because Smith trusts Maclin, Kelce, and company more than groups he's had in the past, or if he's just finally gotten confident in Reid's system, or if someone just stuck a "stop thinking so much" needle into an Alex Smith voodoo doll. Could be a combination of all three. The point is that Smith reads the safety, knows there will be an opening for Kelce, and immediately fires the ball.

Also, take a look at the ball placement on that throw. Fired in there, no chance for the trailing corner, no chance for the safety to recover and interfere with the pass even if he made a fantastic play.

The safety was forced to make a choice, and got burned for choosing... well, not poorly, because if he had chosen to shade Kelce's route I absolutely guarantee Smith would have been looking at Maclin on the curl. Basically, the safety got burned for choosing at all. And that's what Andy Reid's offense does when it's executed well by the receivers and the quarterback.

The Chiefs offense takes a lot of heat, and there are issues that need to be ironed out. But more and more in the red zone I'm seeing the Chiefs put stress on defenses (and safeties in particular) with tough choices. A similar situation occurred with Smith's touchdown pass to Maclin earlier in the game (an utterly spectacular throw by Smith that, if more than a couple of you request it in the comments, I'll break down), as well as a week prior against the Ravens.

This play is a good example of the no-win situation the Chiefs can put defenses in with their specific personnel strengths (basically, having an exceptional WR1 and TE, along with a decent WR2 and dangerous receiving RB). And as always, it's fun to watch when it all comes together.

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