One thing that drives many people crazy about the NFL is that there are very few true innovators. It’s called a copycat league for a reason. It’s rare to see a team do something that no one else is doing, and when they do (if it works) it is quickly picked up by other teams. That’s life in the hyper-competitive NFL: teams often stick with what they know works rather than attempting anything new and different.
This season, I’ve seen Andy Reid break that mold and dare to be different when it comes to the Chiefs’ offense. And interestingly enough, he’s daring to be different by essentially taking concepts from lower levels of football and incorporating them to a degree people have always said wouldn’t work at the NFL level. And holy smokes, has it been fun to watch.
I want to write a bit about what Reid has been doing with the run game in Kansas City this season so far. While doing so, I believe I also end up answering the question that many people have asked: why are some players, particularly Albert Wilson (who is having a decent season for what that’s worth) and De’Anthony Thomas, still on the roster when there are other, more “traditional” wide receiver prospects who have come and gone without managing to stick around?
(side note: I’ve been tiling all evening, and it’s after 2 a.m. Please forgive any half thought out sentences. I’m tired, folks)
So let’s start with the basics. Andy Reid has definitely been using a lot of read option in the run and pass game, with run/pass options built in along with read option run plays. So you see action like this every game.
So Andy has been doing some CRAZY stuff w/ the run and quick throw game. First, you've got your basic read option using RB/QB. pic.twitter.com/IzKqkn3p8N— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
Now, that’s a really standard look for most NFL teams at this point. The read option burst onto the scene years back and has become a staple in most offenses.
However, what Andy has done in Kansas City is begun to layer option upon option upon option. For starters, as is the case on some (but not all) other teams, Reid has built run/pass option concepts into this basic QB/RB read option. So in situations where there’s an obvious advantage for a receiver in coverage, Alex has the option to make that throw rather than give the ball to the RB or keep it himself.
Then you've got your R/O look (including the OL action) with a built-in quick throw to Kelce if he's one-on-one and defense commits to run. pic.twitter.com/M89eURUmnA— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
This play, like all read option plays, is basically a numbers game. The Eagles choose to show man coverage against Travis Kelce in a one-on-one situation with no help outside. Alex knows Kelce is running a quick out and, with his defender in off man coverage, is almost guaranteed to be open.
Had the defense instead had extra help to the outside, Alex has the option here to hand the ball off to Kareem Hunt going the opposite direction. OR, if the coverage had been more of a press, Alex could run the read option and (if the defensive end crashes on Hunt) kept it himself.
These plays are only effective, of course, if you’ve got a quarterback who can scoot. Which Alex can.
Alex brings another dimension to all of this in the fact that he's got wheels, so if teams sleep on him in R/O he'll gain 12 easy yards. pic.twitter.com/JmX3ePipel— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
If defenses ignore Alex and focus on the RB and receivers on these plays, they do so at their own peril, as Alex has not problem picking up chunks of yards with his legs.
So far, we’ve got some pretty basic options here. The read/option with a QB or RB as a legit threat, then an option to pass if coverage shows a clear advantage outside (as opposed to a clear advantage inside, in which case the read is to run. You following?). But Reid isn’t content with that. He’s just getting warmed up.
Andy has built a jet sweep action into a large portion of run plays and even pass plays for the Chiefs, generally utilizing Tyreek Hill.
Eagles defended this well, but that sweep action affects the D every single time. Into play action to hopefully suck Hunt's guy up. pic.twitter.com/R0bIwg3tp3— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
Teams have to respect the sweep action (which can lead to a quick pop pass or an actually jet sweep run, which are essentially the same thing with a different deliver mechanism by the quarterback), because Tyreek Hill is one of the most dangerous players in the game.
However, the Chiefs ALSO run that action with Albert Wilson and De’Anthony Thomas, both of whom are unusually capable runners with the ball in their hands. It’s actually the biggest strength of both players, as both run more like RB’s after the catch with regards to vision than traditional wide receivers and have a great deal of experience playing from the backfield. Both players have done damage out of the backfield, and opposing offenses have tape of that, so while they aren’t as dangerous as Hill, they must be respected because they WILL get the ball at times.
Here’s an example of Hill and DAT’s unique skill set (for WR’s) setting up the Chiefs’ offense to succeed with a pop pass jet sweep.
There's also your touch pass to Hill (basically a jet sweep) w/ threat of DAT going opposite direction. Fake sweeps to Hill set this up. pic.twitter.com/n82uTDWt9A— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
The Eagles had no idea what to do here. DAT has gotten the ball on read option looks in the past on plays like this. Alex has kept the ball and looked down the field on plays like this. And, of course, there’s the fastest player in the NFL getting a running start... IF you think he’s getting the ball, which he often isn’t.
Notice the confusion on the defense both presnap and post-snap. They don’t know whether to look to DAT or Hill, and since they’re heading in opposite directions that’s a real problem. Because DAT, Hill, Alex, and the receivers (depending on the coverage) are all quick options here, the defense has too much to react to.
But wait, there’s more!
Then your "potential pitch R to RB or L to an already-moving Tyreek Hill, except it's actually a run up the middle to the H-back WR" pic.twitter.com/MyGqxDw3xH— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
Another “too many decisions to make” snap incorporating the unique players Kansas City has in its employ. Where to even start here...
This is clearly going to be a run, but to whom? Kareem Hunt moves left and is available for a pitch (which they’ve run so is a legitimate threat). Tyreek Hill has momentum and is moving right, where he’s available for a shovel-pass style pitch (which they’ve run so is a legitimate threat). And of course, there’s a chance Alex might fake it to either of them and keep it himself (which they’ve run so is a legitimate threat... see a pattern here?).
Instead, though, we get yet ANOTHER wrinkle thrown in... Albert Wilson playing H-back and following a pulling Eric Fisher up the middle for a first down.
So what you’ve basically got are options built upon options in the running game, all of which are legitimate threats because of the personnel types Andy has built up. Alex is a threat to run. Hill is a threat to run. Wilson is a threat to run. Thomas is a threat to run.
Oh, and Kelce is a threat to run too, as the wrinkle that’s come out this year (and yet another option added into the layers of options already existing that the defense has to look for) is the shovel pass screen.
The Kelce touchdown against the Eagles was essentially the culmination of a Chiefs offense that has too many, well, options on its read options.
I can't stop watching the Kelce TD. Chiefs used every single "option" here during the game. How do you decide what to defend as a defense? pic.twitter.com/np8gV4x3fd— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
Look at all the layers here:
- Potential sweep to Hill
- Potential run by Hunt
- Potential run by Alex
- Shovel pass to Kelce.
As a defense, it’s incredibly difficult to adequately defend every one of those options, which include players running at different angles in different directions. Because of the fact that the Chiefs have used ALL of these options previously, you can’t “cheat” to any particular one and must try to respect them all. And by trying to defend against everything, ironically, you end up not being able to adequately defend anything.
As I watched the Chiefs employ option after option in the run game, I realized now why Andy Reid has stockpiled players like Albert Wilson and De’Anthony Thomas. Both guys have the experience and skillset to play out the of the backfield and on sweep actions better than many receivers in the league, and they can do so interchangeably (though obviously without as much of a threat) with Tyreek Hill, around whom a lot of this action revolves.
Reid has created a system featuring those three guys, Alex, Kareem and Kelce that unfolds layer upon layer of options on any given run play. This creates a great deal of stress on defensive coordinators and individual defenders, as on any given play the Chiefs could line up in identical formation to the previous snap, run a similar-looking concept, yet have the ball go somewhere completely different than it did the play before. That’s TOUGH to prepare for and defend.
We’ve seen hints of this in the past few years from Andy, but it seems like this year it’s all starting to fall together, as all the pieces have been together for years now (Alex, Hill, Wilson, Thomas, Kelce and 4/5 of the OL have been around for at least a year and some much longer) except Kareem Hunt, and his exceptional talent has allowed him to blend in seamlessly.
Now let’s be clear... it’s not like Andy Reid invented these option concepts. They are quite common at the college level and even the high school level. However, they aren’t supposed to work at the pro level, as defenses are too fast and react too quickly.
The thing is, when you’ve got a variety of fast, smart players who can all take on every role in the run game from one snap to the next, and a quarterback who is both a threat with his legs and a good reader of defenses (as well as a good ball handler)... you create a situation where you CAN run these concepts with sustained success.
Could other teams imitate it? To an extent, sure, and some are already trying. If you watched the Patriots last week or the Rams on Thursday Night Football, you’ll see some of the same concepts being built into offenses. Because again, NFL offenses generally imitate rather than innovate.
However, to have sustained success, teams are going to need the same pieces the Chiefs have. And there’s only one Tyreek Hill and one Travis Kelce. And in reality, the skillsets of the less-heralded Wilson and DAT aren’t all that common among receivers. Alex is better-suited for these types of plays than all but a handful of QB’s in the league. Hunt is a freak. How many offenses will be able to piece together the right moving parts to have THAT many options in their read option game? It seems doubtful that the number is high.
So the next time you see DAT or Wilson on the field and wish for some standard 6’4, 220 pound wideout, keep in mind that their role is a specified cog in a system that looks ready to do some real damage in the NFL. Andy Reid is back to innovating, and I can’t wait to see what the next wrinkle is.