With all the free agency action and pre-draft hoopla, something happened recently that almost slipped through the cracks for me.
It was during the Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes press conference, in which Reid discussed a ton of different topics. With press conferences, there’s generally so much coachspeak and meaningless stuff said that I quite often tune it out. And in this case, that was to my detriment, because I missed a tidbit (covered in the link above) that might mean quite a bit this upcoming season when you put all the pieces together.
It was when Reid was discussing how he felt comfortable with Mahomes moving into 2018, and the subject of being able to coach Mahomes in Week 17 came up.
Reid talked about creating a game plan around Mahomes’s talents, saying the following:
“For that game, we molded the game plan around him, We were able to get in there and mold it with what we had in the package at that time, mold it around him.”
Mahomes noted afterward that the Chiefs didn’t run anything they hadn’t run throughout the year, but that Reid called the game “to his strengths.” That quote jumps out to when combined with something Reid said during that press conference about forming the 2017 offense around Alex Smith’s strengths (start around the 14-minute mark if you care to click that link and listen yourself).
The gist of it is this: prior to 2017, Reid looked at what Smith was successful doing in college and decided to “pull out things that he hadn’t had at the NFL level.”
In short, Reid decided to use more college-style spread looks in his offense because it was what Smith executed so well at Utah. We saw that last season, as Reid’s offense morphed into a hybrid spread/West Coast scheme that was something the NFL hadn’t seen before (and was imitated throughout the year). This was written about in multiple places as the year went along.
Reid made clear that he “talked to Alex” about what stuff he was comfortable with (from the Utah spread offense) and would like to incorporate.
Here’s where it got interesting for me: Reid indicated he did the same with Mahomes in Week 17, tailoring the offense to what Mahomes does best based around a lot of what he did at Texas Tech.
That got me thinking: if Reid based last year’s offense around what Smith was successful at in college, and then based Week 17 around what Mahomes was successful at in college... doesn’t that mean Week 17 could act as a “preview” of sorts, showing us what the adjustments to the offense (and I promise you there will be some) will be in 2018?
I think it might.
So what did the offense look like against the Broncos in Week 17? Well, a whole lot of this:
The Chiefs have five players lined up as receivers and an empty backfield. In other words, that’s as “spread offense” as it can possibly get. This picture is from the first drive, in which the Chiefs faced the majority of the Broncos’ starting defense and shredded it in short order (five plays, 86 yards, 57 seconds, touchdown).
We’ll get into how often the Chiefs lined up with a spread look, but first I want to talk about that initial drive against Denver’s starters. On that drive, the Chiefs rolled out an offense that could easily be confused with Texas Tech’s Air Raid attack.
Safety is put in an impossible situation with this many receivers out there. Mahomes waits for him to make a choice then drops a dime to Harris. Had the S broken inside Mahomes could've gone deep to top receiver. Now this with Kelce/Hill/Watkins pic.twitter.com/oJ1GYKJRBn— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) March 23, 2018
The Chiefs ran five plays on this drive. Of those five plays, four of them came from the “spread,” with Mahomes in shotgun and four or five receivers lined up (worth noting: you can have a spread offense with three receivers as well, but in this case it was two plays with four and two plays with five). As I mentioned, the Chiefs were able to shred the Broncos on just a few short plays, despite only two of the plays being successful (with two dropped passes and one incomplete pass). That’s what big plays do.
If you look at the play above (the deep shot to Harris) you can see why this look created a major problem for the Broncos. Keep in mind that teams send in defensive personnel based upon what offensive personnel is in the game. So when players like Demetrius Harris (the receiver in this case), Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt are in the game, you’re going to see more linebackers. The more receivers you have, the more defensive backs. The fewer receivers (and more tight ends/backs) the more you’ll see linebackers and defensive linemen on the field.
So here, the Chiefs have five players lined up as receivers. However, not all of them are receivers. Akeem Hunt and Harris are both lined up as though they are receivers. To make a long story short, this resulted in a linebacker covering De’Anthony Thomas in space. While Thomas didn’t get the throw, it went about how you’d expect. DAT easily separated on a quick out and may well have gotten the first down had Mahomes thrown it his way.
Of course, instead, Mahomes went over the top to Harris. Here’s where it gets fun. With that many receivers on one side of the field, a safety needs to make a choice (generally dictated by the play call) whether he’ll shade towards the sideline or the middle of the field. Here, he backs up and moves slightly towards the sideline, which means Mahomes has a window if he can get the ball over the top of the defender covering Harris. He makes a gorgeous throw, and it’s a big gain.
The play immediately prior to this big play, even though it was an incomplete pass, demonstrated the difficulty a team presents when it marches out five receivers. A safety is left in man coverage on Demarcus Robinson, which results in quick separation.
Even this incomplete pass demonstrates the problems a 5 receiver set presents to a defense. This problem is compounded when you can line up RB's and TE's like WR's and force LB's to cover in space (cough cough Kelce Hunt cough cough) pic.twitter.com/QuZNlJIgO8— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) March 23, 2018
While the pass wasn’t a particularly good one, it should’ve been caught. However, even this unsuccessful play gives the opposing defensive coordinator a great deal to think about, as you can see some of the other things happening all over the field:
- The outside receiver to the left one-on-one with no safety help over the top. Great coverage there by the corner, but what happens when you swap out that receiver for Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins?
- Two other receivers (top of the screen and the slot left) having pretty easy “separation” due to the coverage forced by the alignment.
In other words, Mahomes had a lot of options here, in part due to the fact that when you’ve got receivers all over the field, the defense becomes too spread out to cover everyone.
A bonus feature the Chiefs bring to the table (which we’ll talk about more in a second) is that they have personnel who are capable of lining up as receivers and then motioning into the backfield (or anywhere else), forcing the defense to reveal itself prior to the snap.
Additionally, when you have a running back who is also a good receiver, you can line him up wide and see how the defense responds. If they’re spread out too far, you can motion him into the backfield and...
"But Seth, what about the run game?"— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) March 23, 2018
Glad you asked. Spread them out, force them to take run stuffers off the field, profit. Of course, can't always count on the CB sandbagging like this... but they often do, and this would've been a big gain regardless. pic.twitter.com/pa4FhuMygm
Hunt’s only carry of the game showed why a spread offense doesn’t necessarily equal abandoning the run game.
Let’s take a look at the natural advantages the Chiefs were able to create for Hunt in this place from the Madden cam view:
It makes me happy watching this. pic.twitter.com/je8CTmV94H— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) March 25, 2018
There are a few huge advantages for Hunt here at the snap:
- The Broncos only have six defenders in the box. A seventh is lurking nearby (Brandon Marshall, a linebacker), but he’s stuck in coverage of the slot receiver just out of view, which makes it tough for his first step to go inside. This is especially true when a team runs a ton of run-pass options (RPOs), which the Chiefs do.
- Of those six defenders in the box, one is a safety and only two are defensive linemen. Those two defensive linemen are Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris, both of whom are listed at under 290 pounds. In short, the Broncos are stuck trying to stop the run with almost no “run-stopping” personnel. Does that sound familiar?
So the run ends predictably. The Chiefs offensive line is able to create a crack for Hunt to run through and wall off most defenders, the safety stuck playing linebacker does a predictably bad job at it, and Hunt sprints free. Now, to be clear, this play likely isn’t a touchdown without Aqib Talib’s laughably poor effort, but it’s still a big play that ends with Hunt in space against a safety with a head of steam. That’s a huge win for the Chiefs.
I charted 58 snaps by the Chiefs on offense (the Mahomes snaps, not including a few penalty plays and kneel-downs). Of those snaps, 44 of them came from a spread look, or 75.9 percent of the total snaps.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that on the final drive of the game, when the Chiefs needed to move the ball the most, every single snap except the final two (both runs by Anthony Sherman after the Chiefs moved into field-goal position) came from a spread with four receivers. Another fun fact is that the Chiefs lined up in a spread formation on the goal line a few times as well.
When I look at what the Chiefs did in Week 17, coupled with Reid’s comments regarding making Smith and Mahomes more comfortable by incorporating concepts they were successful with in college, it certainly appears like there’s a possibility the Chiefs are going to go even further down the “spread offense” road in 2018.
The personnel decisions we have seen this offseason make it appear all the more likely. Adding Sammy Watkins (a very fast wide receiver who excels at creating separation down the field) certainly creates the appearance of trying to have as much speed as humanly possible on offense.
One legitimate question people might ask is, “If it’s so hard to defend a spread offense, why don’t more NFL teams go that route?”
The answer is complicated, but part of it involves speed. NFL secondaries are so fast and talented that it is difficult to field enough receivers with a speed advantage to make a spread offense palatable. There’s also the issue of leaving your quarterback less protected, given that spread offenses usually involve no help for the linemen. Still another issue is the simplicity of the plays and the fear that NFL coordinators will catch on to them too quickly.
The Chiefs, because of their unique personnel, may well be able to quell some of those concerns. With Kelce, Hill, Watkins, Chris Conley, Robinson and DAT (depending on who sticks on the roster when it’s all said and done), the Chiefs have an extremely fast group of receivers. This is especially the case at the top, where Kelce/Hill/Watkins is the fastest trio you’ll find in the NFL. Adding to the dynamic are Hunt, Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, and Damien Williams, all of whom are highly capable receivers who can line up all over the field (again, we’ll see which one sticks).
Further, the Chiefs have been rumored to be pursuing Kendall Wright, another competent pass catcher, despite the fact that they seem set at the receiver position. This only adds to the idea that the Chiefs are looking to run track meets on Sundays, seeming to be able to trot out a ton of competent receivers every snap.
With regards to the fear of pressure, it could be that Reid views Mahomes as a quarterback able to make reads quickly enough post-snap or avoid pressure to negate the risk. The Chiefs already helped their tackles less than any other team in the NFL last season, so it’s no stretch to say they have no problems running out there with just five offensive linemen in pass protection.
Finally, in regard to simplicity of play calling, Reid, better than any other coach in the league, can disguise plays presnap with “window dressing.”
If you go back and watch a bunch of Kareem Hunt run plays, you’ll find very similar concepts that look totally different before the snap with various formations and motions. It’s one of his greatest strengths as a coach, as it makes him difficult to predict.
So all this has been a pretty long road to a short thought:
I’m really, really curious to see what kind of offense Reid marches out next year. Given Mahomes’ particular strengths and the receiver/runner group Reid has to work with, I think they could take another step towards a full-fledged spread offense (with West Coast principles still tied in and other options available, of course).
And I gotta tell you... I am so here to watch something like that.