The last time the Kansas City Chiefs lost a football game, it was the middle of October on the road in Minnesota.
Trailing 13-0 in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs faced a third and one on the Vikings' 14-yard-line, with a chance to make the final 13 minutes meaningful. Alex Smith targeted Jeremy Maclin, running a quick out route one-and-a-half yards down-field. Maclin almost made the contested catch, but, as his arms tucked into his belly, attempting to reel in the ball, his helmet smashed roughly into the grass. He was ruled out immediately with a concussion.
A chop block on the play cost the Chiefs 15 yards, leaving Maclin out and Kansas City with a third and 16. Andy Reid's offense would settle for a field goal on the drive and go on to lose the game 16-10.
This was the Chiefs' fifth straight loss and they were now 1-5. In those six games, Maclin had already put up 531 yards. He was on pace for 1,400. But none of that mattered now. He was ruled out for the following game against Pittsburgh.
To avoid going 1-6, the Chiefs would have to put some points on the board without their No. 1 running back, Jamaal Charles, and without their No. 1 receiver, Jeremy Maclin.
Enter Chris Conley.
Two times Conley has had to step in for an injured Maclin this season. Once as an opening snap starter against the Steelers, and once late last Saturday in Houston.
Two times he has scored touchdowns.
Quoting from an insightful article from the Kansas City Star, part of Conley's allure is his physical qualities. The first-year receiver out of Georgia...
[is] 6 feet 2 with 33 3/4 inch-length arms, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds, and was among the top receivers in bench press (18 reps of 225), vertical jump (45 inches), and broad jump (139 inches).
But some other moments from the article above stick out more for me. Conley is one smart dude. Chiefs wide receiver Jason Avant is quoted as saying, if Conley weren't playing football, "[he'd be a] scientist." And Conley has a mature understanding of the stakes involved in high-pressure football. Understanding, however, has to flourish within experience.
(Though, Conley understands that, too.)
After all, some things you cannot learn from books. You have to get out there, play, and refine and trust your instincts. That comes with time. Quoting again from the Kansas City Star:
More to the immediate point, Avant sees his sports science beginning to flourish as Conley is "learning how this game is really played."
For instance, he has seen Conley come to discern the pivotal wiggle room within the scripted precision.
"In practice, if a route is 15 yards, in a game it's going to be around 12 yards. Like that type of stuff," Avant said. "So early in the year, he might run 15 and the quarterback is like, ‘He's not ready for it.' "
Conley moved past such observations very quickly though. On the touchdown reception this past Saturday, we can see why. The rookie receiver slowed his route down within the Houston zone defense, ensuring he hovered in an area between two Texans defensive backs. Smith fired the ball into the back of the end zone. Conley remarks:
"I didn't see Alex. The ball just came through."
Kansas City's 2015 third round draft pick had to trust his instincts to do the rest.
"The rest" was a tough, clutch catch in traffic, with a Houston defender hanging all over him and tearing at his arms. Conley's first playoff touchdown put the Chiefs up 20-zip on the road in the franchise's first playoff win in nearly 22 years.
Conley is 23 years old. He is ready for the big time. That was a veteran catch. Heck, even the celebration was reserved and machine-like. His teammates looked more thrilled -- while Conley, if I may, looked confident. If a playoff debut when you're asked suddenly to step in for an injured #1 is not too much, then I know Chris Conley is ready for Foxboro.
Combining intelligence, physical traits, experience, and opportunity into greatness is what defines the athletes who forge themselves in the postseason and are remembered long after the game is over. We know Conley has the intelligence and necessary physical traits. We know he's learned a lot from his experience already. What awaits next is, quite simply, opportunity.
In one start this season, Conley caught 6-of-7 targets for 63 yards and a touchdown. A superb game that helped the Chiefs begin their current win streak. Below, I took a look at the targets from that start to see how the Chiefs might be able to use Conley this Saturday in New England to keep this win-streak going.
Conley vs. Pittsburgh
Conley's first catch of the game was a "deep" intermediate route good for 25 yards.
Albert Wilson (top left) and De'Anthony Thomas (bottom left) will both run posts 20 and 15 yards up-field, respectively. Conley (red) is running a crosser.
The deep routes are successfully double covered, but they manage to drive the Pittsburgh defensive backs away from the intermediate third. Perhaps a big show of respect for the speed of DAT and Wilson that the Steelers paid plenty of attention to them and left Conley uncovered coming across the middle.
Smith smoothly navigates the pocket to avoid pressure, shifting to his right and lobbing the ball over the Pittsburgh defender (yellow circle), where Conley makes the catch.
The Chiefs run the most horizontal offense in the league. Screens, jet sweeps, more screens. This horizontal disposition is partly what allows them to be so productive running up the middle. They can get the opposing defense out of the box and out to the edges, and then take advantage of superior numbers inside.
The most obvious play where this happens is the jet sweep, where Wilson or Maclin run across the line of scrimmage at the snap, and Smith either hands it to them or gives it to the running back instead. The Chiefs ran this play about nine times against Houston and scored their lone rushing touchdown on it.
But the Chiefs are able to achieve the same effect in different formations based on reputation.
MNChiefsFan (Seth) and myself have both reviewed the Chiefs' successes with this over the last few weeks. Seth remarked upon Reid's chess-like tactics using the sweep against Oakland; and I detailed how things opened up inside for Spencer Ware's big day against Buffalo.
Kansas City will also be able to take advantage of their reputation as an elite running team to suck defenders in. This happened to the ILB on Conley's touchdown against Houston last Saturday, and it happens above. The key defender (yellow circle) is leaning in, waiting for a Smith scramble. He doesn't catch Conley drifting over him.
Catch No. 2
Four of Conley's six catches against Pittsburgh were enough for first downs, including the first. This next one came on an early third and four in the second quarter.
Charcandrick West (white line) is running into the flat. Tight end Travis Kelce (other white line) is running a quick corner route. Our boy Conley (red) is going to sit on his route right at the first-down marker. If West can attract attention outside, and Kelce deep, then Conley should be able to find an opening underneath.
Sure enough, Conley is sitting at the perfect spot, right at the first-down line. The blitz (yellow arrow) is on and doesn't get picked up, so Smith releases quickly to Conley, who catches the ball and dives forward for a few extra yards.
This is another play where Conley went essentially uncovered. On Sunday, Kelce will attract a lot of attention; and Wilson, too. Of course, the running game and Smith's scrambling ability will draw eyes also. This will leave Conley with opportunities to make plays.
Conley's third catch operated under a similar logic. A third and 10 saw the Chiefs' other receivers go deep, while Conley ran a quick in route, though this time well short of the marker. The pressure again was in Smith's face fast and he dumped it off to Conley, who made a tough catch. The Chiefs had to settle for a field goal.
Catch No. 4
Here we have a very similar play in concept to catch No. 2. This time, rather than the RB in the flat, it is Jason Avant (white) who will run out of the bunch formation towards the sideline. Kelce (yellow) will again drive coverage deep while Conley takes what's underneath.
What's cool about this is that while Kelce spent part of his day against Pittsburgh either run-blocking or attracting coverage deep for Conley, there is nothing to suggest the opposite couldn't be done this Saturday: Conley drives coverage deep while Kelce sits on his routes five yards up-field and looks for YAC. If Kelce attracts the same coverage, instead of opening things up for Conley underneath, as happens again above, it will open things up for Conley deep.
And let us also keep in mind that Zeus had himself a very solid outing against Pittsburgh in the absence of Maclin, catching 5-of-6 targets for 73 yards. In fact, Albert Wilson also managed 71 yards on three catches. A productive day for all three, and demonstrative of Alex Smith's ability to find the open guy.
Another point on the above play is that it offers a perfect example of Kansas City's horizontal play design. The bunch formation leaves Andy Reid an advantage inside. Notice the Chiefs have all five members of their o-line lined up against only four Pittsburgh defenders. A read-option here, in which you allow the Steelers LB at the bottom of the line to come through untouched, gives you five Chiefs linemen rolling downhill against three Pittsburgh defenders and a defensive back near the ref (the Steelers, I believe, are in dime coverage here). That gives you both the numbers and weight advantage inside.
Looks like this have allowed the Chiefs to take all those silly, silly screen plays and turn them into one of the best rushing teams in football between the tackles. Add in Smith's scrambles and you have the best rushing team in the NFL.
The lone missed target
Here we have a play that missed outside by about an inch. As soon as Smith sees the single-high coverage leaning to his right, he knows he has Conley (red) one-on-one outside. The coverage is tight and the throw is there, but it just misses Conley's left hand outside. The Chiefs have won 11 straight rarely taking advantage of the deep game. Taking shots at least puts the stuff on film, but at some point the Chiefs have to execute better.
No team in the league completes most of its deep passes. A majority of them go incomplete, and it is better to miss deep than under-throw it. Having said that, a deep completion or two on Saturday will put New England on its heels, at which time Spencer Ware can prepare the truck stick.
Catch No. 5
Conley's fifth catch of the day allowed him to display some elusiveness on the edge. He dodged a few tackles and picked up 10 yards, about 12 of which were YAC since the catch was behind the line of scrimmage.
This is the opposite of what we saw with Catch No. 4. This time the Steelers have stacked the box. In fact, nine Pittsburgh defenders are on the wrong side of the left hash mark; meaning Smith knows he has Conley (red) open to his right in a 3-on-2 situation, depending on when the furthest LB can get over. This is Kansas City's horizontal disposition being slightly ignored.
Catch No. 6
On this play, we once again have a tight end (this time Demetrius Harris) driving coverage deep, allowing Conley to make an easy catch underneath.
Harris attracts three Steelers defenders...
Touchdown Chris Conley.
If Maclin is indeed a no-go this Saturday, his loss hurts the team. His presence alone has helped the Kansas City offense become the second best in the league -- yes, No. 2! -- in Football Outsider's weighted DVOA.
But Andy Reid has schemed his way for three years now around all sorts of road bumps. The leadership and depth on this team has stepped up at every opportunity on both sides of the ball, carrying Kansas City from 1-5 to 11 straight wins and the utter demolition of the playoff curse.
How is this possible? To quote our very own John Dixon: "Because Chiefs."
Reid's even playing a master jedi mind trick this week on the Sith Lord himself, Bill Belichick, by leaving Maclin's return completely on the table, even without a single day of practice. Who is Belichick supposed to prepare for?
I don't know. But I do know that if you prepare for Maclin, and prepare for Kelce, and prepare for Ware, and prepare for Smith, and prepare for Wilson, but then forget to put in that little bit of extra effort to prepare for Conley, the kid will find his opportunities, and he will score a touchdown.
Now, the Patriots' secondary is supremely talented. Perhaps the best secondary in the league.
(Though the Kansas City defense is the only one in the league wielding five men with at least eight passes defensed. Just like the Chiefs are the only defense in the league wielding seven men with at least four sacks, and the only defense in the league wielding seven men with at least two interceptions. Who should Tom Brady prepare for?)
But I'll say the same thing this week that I said last week, as Kansas City marched into Houston in the middle of a 10-game win streak:
HoustonNew England defense has not faced an offense as good as Kansas City's all season.
Chris Conley is the next man up. New England is the next opponent on the schedule.