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AP Lab Film Session: offensive plan of attack

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Has the Chiefs offense become too static in its approach?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

During the four weeks since the bye, the Kansas City Chiefs offense has been averaging 31.5 points per game — and somehow, the offense is being called into question.

In these games, the Chiefs have been averaging three points per drive — which in itself is extremely good. That would be an NFL-best in every season since 2012 (and farther) except for 2016, in which the Atlanta Falcons averaged 3.06 points per drive.

In 2018, three points per drive is second to the New Orleans Saints at 3.33 points per drive. Leading up to the bye week, the Chiefs had been leading the NFL in points per drive, and still sit comfortably in second with 3.26 points per drive.

At first glance, a difference of a quarter to a half of a point per drive this number seems rather minuscule. During the last four weeks, the Chiefs offense has been performing at a historically elite level in terms of efficiency — but what that hides is how much better it had been before.

The Chiefs offense had been clicking and producing at such an absurd rate that it was able to hide even obvious deficiencies on the defense. As the offense has trended back towards simply being elite — rather than unfathomably good — the Chiefs as a whole have appeared more vulnerable to every team they’ve played in recent games.

It’s more than just the numbers, though. The offense looks like it is having a more difficult time sustaining drives and churning out big plays as often as it did before. The team went through plenty of turmoil during their bye week. Both the Kareem Hunt situation and having to deal with a longer-term injury to Sammy Watkins have certainly played a part in the offensive downturn.

Here in the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory, we’ve been talking all year about how important Sammy Watkins is to this offense — despite his modest production — but it’s starting to show more each and every week. But that’s the not issue we are going to discuss today. Instead, we’ll look at how the Chiefs offense is predicated on player execution rather than coaching strategy.

Chiefs offensive scheme

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The focus here is mostly on the passing game — which, by the way, is insanely good. It has been based almost entirely around players executing better than their opposition. It sounds fairly simple — and it is — which is why the Chiefs offense was rolling and seemed pretty unstoppable early in the season.

But fast-forward to the end of the year, and defenses now have double-digit weeks of film on the offense, and can begin to counter it with specific coverages or alerts to their traditional plays defending the Chiefs. Then it’s up to the Chiefs coaching staff to make adjustments to the things that have been giving them problems.

Here is where the problem lies: in the past four weeks, the Chiefs have played four teams that run a lot of similar defensive concepts. All of them play a lot of single-high shells and try to mix man, static zone and pattern match zone from it. The issue the Chiefs are having offensively is a failure to attack these tendencies. The Chiefs are calling their game, running their system, and asking their players to just out-execute a defense — regardless of where the advantage lies schematically.

Failure to attack base coverage

This mesh concept is a play the Chiefs run multiple times every single week. There is a hi-lo pick set from the strong side of the formation, while an underneath drag comes from the weak side. The Chiefs will mix it up some — having the drag between the two picks, under both, stopping, continuing to the sideline, etc. — but the concept is having three players cross the middle of the formation to create a traffic jam.

The issue is that the Seahawks never showed any inkling of being in man coverage. They showed zone coverage the whole time, and ran Cover-3 far more than any other coverage.

For a third-down play to be called that attacks man coverage against that team is an oversight — and the results showed it. Every level of the mesh design is covered as the defenders pass off and track each player perfectly. So the only real threat on the play becomes Patrick Mahomes’ legs as he breaks contain. The play could have been salvaged and a first down completed — but not through the design of the play.

Failure to account for defensive adjustments

The Seahawks also made adjustments to their base coverage to help defend against the Chiefs attacking defenses up the middle. With Mahomes’ arm talent, the Chiefs will run the seams to death against any coverage, and he has the ability to fit the ball into tight windows between deep zone defenders. The Seahawks, in turn, decided to routinely run a linebacker under any inside receiver going vertical so they were essentially running into the deep hole like they were running Tampa-2 — even without running Cover-2 everywhere else.

Again, this play doesn’t really counter a base Cover-3, because all three vertical routes are threatening different defenders and the underneath receivers are spaced out from everyone else. The Chiefs have been able to live with this because if there is a window, Mahomes has the ability to hit any one of the three vertical routes between zones. Seattle countered that by using that linebacker to trail under those inside vertical routes, which created a bracket.

With the spacing favorable to Seattle on the other routes, the bracket on the corner post takes away what appears to be the receiver Mahomes wanted, making him force the throw underneath as pressure comes. Seattle did this for the majority of the game.

The Chiefs have to a better job adapting and attacking the weakness of a defense as it presents itself — rather than doing their own thing.

The Chiefs offense is still good

This isn’t to say the Chiefs offense isn’t dangerous, or that the team is struggling mightily to score points. Quite the opposite: the offense is playing at an elite level. They have just taken a step back from where they were. Part of that is that is because there are fewer “easy” plays generated by the scheme. The Chiefs have moved the ball, scored points and even had big plays, but much of it has been because individual players have made great plays.

The Chiefs run a vertical concept here that would be great vs Cover-3. Unfortunately, the Seahawks are in a two-high safety look. The Chiefs play it well — looking to attack the seam between the two safeties — but again, Seattle is bracketing the innermost receiver running a vertical. Mahomes drops the ball in the perfect spot while Travis Kelce elevates and secures the catch in traffic.

It was a great play for a big gain, but It just wasn’t easy. More and more often, the Chiefs’ big plays are resulting from exceptional plays by Mahomes, Kelce, or Tyreek Hill.

You need that in the playoffs. You need star players to play big, but not everything should be this way. Against Seattle the week before, the San Francisco 49ers were able to get wide-open receivers downfield every other drive, while the Chiefs had to pull off plays like this — or Hill’s slot fade — for their big plays.

There needs to be a change

Those that have followed the Chiefs since Andy Reid got here — or even the Philadelphia Eagles while Reid was there — know this is somewhat of a pattern for him. He has a brilliant offensive mind and can draw up play after play from formation after formation. He then knows how to structure them within a game to get the most out of them.

But later in the year, teams begin to see patterns in what Reid is doing and begin to adjust their defenses to defend his tendencies. It’s on Reid to adjust his offensive game plan to attack the specific defense on the field, rather than to just run his offense every week.

As players get healthier, there should be improvement in the Chiefs offense. Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff sounds like he’s close to coming back, Cam Erving should be a go this week and Sammy Watkins is still expected back in the playoffs. This should improve the pass protection, as well as bring a higher level of execution from the receivers. Once everyone is back, the offense may even come out being unbelievably good again.

But Andy Reid can still help the team by becoming more precise with his offensive game plan each week. If this team is going to contend for the Super Bowl, he will need to.