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45 Seconds: Back to basics for the Kansas City Chiefs

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Slim pickings this week. Yeesh.

Normally it’s a pretty tough choice for what I choose to write about in 45 seconds. I can typically find three to five plays that get me excited to write. I don’t think it’s just a win/loss thing (although this is the first loss I’ve experienced as an AP writer, so we’ll see on that I guess). That just wasn’t fun football to watch on Sunday.

The downside of this gig (probably the only downside) is that I have to watch that game multiple times. Round two was just as painful. Although I did take one thing away from the second viewing: The Steelers’ defensive game plan was excellent. Specifically the blitz package they unleashed.

They were creative. They had a good feel for the protections they were going to see and ran blitzes that were designed to compromise them. And they picked spots to challenge Alex Smith. Overloads front and backside, corners, safeties, zone blitzes. The downside was they opened themselves up to a few coverage busts, which Smith wasn’t able to exploit. That’s not a familiar story at all. Sorry, I’ll stop with that.

The Chiefs control games by getting teams to process and worry about what is happening pre- and post-snap. They aren’t playing with blistering tempo. They’re moving their chess pieces around to get teams to adjust, to think. That style creates a rhythm. Once Andy Reid gets into that rhythm, it’s as fun to watch as any offense in the NFL. That usual rhythm was significantly disrupted early, and it snowballed from there. The Steelers got more opportunities to pin their ears back, pursue Smith and control the game. They were able to be the aggressor.

Because of that, the Steelers forced the Chiefs to rely on basics. One of their best plays of the day came from a basic concept.

This is a simple four verticals concept out of a 3x1 formation. Tony Romo talked about it on the broadcast. It’s a vertical stretch concept that works behind the underneath coverage and stresses deep defenders, specifically the safeties. The landmarks for the four receivers are all vertical and with ample, relatively even space between all of them.

Four verticals provides a solution to just about every coverage you can get. The rules are simple. The outside receivers on both sides of the field have mandatory outside releases to create spacing. In 3x1 formations, the No. 3 receiver (Travis Kelce in our example) runs a vertical cross, ending up on on or past the opposite hash. The number two receiver runs a vertical inside the numbers.

If it’s Cover 3 the middle field safety can’t be right. He can’t guard both inside receivers and the outside receivers are occupying the other deep defenders (if the outside third defenders pinch, one of the outside receivers is probably open). If it’s Cover 2, you pick an outside receiver and throw and up and down ball with some drive between the corner and the safety outside the numbers (if you’ve ever heard someone say “the cover 2 hole” that’s what they’re talking about). In 2x2 there is an established “bender” who splits the two deep safeties rather than his usual landmark. Against Cover 4 (field split into quarters), some teams will teach their outside receivers to run comeback routes if they read it. The check down is a good option against Cover 4 as well. Cover 1 (man to man with a single deep safety) and 0 (man to man with no help) you have some flexibility as long as you know if or where there is safety help.

With the only the outside vertical route on that side, Kelce had plenty of space to arrive in a window where Smith can get him the ball. He must get behind the underneath coverage, and keep good relationship between himself and the deep defenders.

So you don’t have to scroll up (Chiefs fans have had it hard enough this week), here it is again:

This play is a quarterback’s best friend. It’s often a middle of the field throw with clear and simple rules for each coverage. Smith has to be good with eyes to hold or move safeties, but once the coverage is diagnosed he’s in good shape to deliver a throw.

The Steelers were in Cover 3. The curl-flat defender carried with Tyreek Hill, the outside verticals are being honored by the outside third defenders and the middle field safety was held long enough that he can’t drive on Kelce. This was a good ball by Smith. Well driven, with the correct amount of loft to get over the underneath defenders. Steelers safety Sean Davis did a good job to close that window down, coming from underneath to play the vertical. If Smith was a little late, we might have seen Smith’s first interception of the season.

The Chiefs can obviously execute staple plays like this. They just become more predictable when they can’t get into some of the unique things they are able to do with their skill players. That’s not a good thing for a Smith led offense, as you saw Sunday. Moving forward, they need to get back into that rhythm that made them so fun to watch the first five weeks of the season. Good news is a short week means we only have to wait until Thursday to find out..