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Here’s why two-RB sets could become a thing for Chiefs

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2017 season, it appeared Andy Reid opened Alex Smith’s old college playbook and sprinkled in significantly more plays that Smith used during his time at Utah.

I believe Reid is going to do the same thing for Patrick Mahomes, and one such type of play I believe the Chiefs will use more in the 2018 season is the two-halfback set.

The evidence is pretty overwhelming.

What we know

If we’re looking for evidence for the Chiefs moving to more two-halfback sets, there is a mountain of it. Let’s start with this Andy Reid quote regarding Mahomes:

“I have a whole notebook full of his old plays that he ran (in college). (Quarterbacks coach) Mike Kafka looked at all of it. And one of the guys you don’t hear much about—(pass game analyst/Asst. quarterbacks coach) Joe Bleymaier, does a phenomenal job with all that. He gets in there and puts together packages, and he’s kind of the unsung hero behind all of it.”

“We’ve done quite a little bit of research on what [Mahomes] did well in college, and a lot of it fits into what we do here.”

(Thanks to BJ Kissel for obtaining this quote; you can see the full article here.)

So we have evidence Andy Reid wants to use plays Mahomes was comfortable running in college.

So did Mahomes use two-halfback sets in college? The answer is yes. It took a little digging but I found a great article about Mahomes’ use of two-halfback sets at Texas Tech.

The article observed Mahomes’ game against Arizona State. During this game, the Red Raiders ran nearly a quarter of their plays with two halfbacks. While this is a very small sample size of one game, running one-fourth of the plays with two halfbacks is a very, very large share of the plays. It is such a large share that I have little doubt it was a regular theme in Texas Tech’s offense with Mahomes under center.

Andy Reid is probably somewhere standing in front of a whiteboard, drooling, and writing up new two-halfback plays for Mahomes.

So we have quotes regarding Andy Reid’s willingness to incorporate college plays Mahomes is comfortable with, and we also have evidence of Mahomes using two-halfback sets at Texas Tech... but there’s even more evidence.

If you were to look at the Chiefs’ offseason transactions, you see a team that has signed four running backs. Signing four running backs might not sound crazy for an average team, but it’s the quality of running backs signed and the Chiefs’ current stable of suitable running backs that make it seem like the Chiefs are up to something.

There are just too damn many quality running backs on the Chiefs roster for something not to be in the works.

How Reid can use two-running back sets: game theory

I’ll be honest with you, I never played a down of organized football in my life. I was a varsity basketball and track athlete. I was 6 feet and 150 pounds in high school. If I played football. I probably wouldn’t be here to write this article!

However, that doesn’t stop me from educating myself on football offenses and defenses. It also hasn’t stopped me from pursuing other avenues that have given me a very interesting viewpoint on how to build a successful offensive play. One such avenue I’ve pursued is an understanding of game theory.

In game theory, there is often a term called a heuristic. A heuristic is simply a numerical value that shows how good a potential move is.

Think of checkers. In checkers, there are a limited set of moves to make each turn. Some moves will cause you to be jumped, some moves do nothing and some moves will have you jumping the opposition. A simple heuristic for checkers would be to calculate the difference in checkers on the board after a move. A good move would be to take a lot of checkers from other players, and a bad move would give up checkers to your opponent.

This is a very simple concept regarding game theory. Truth be told, the best game theory logic thinks several moves ahead. This is why it took until the 1980s before an AI could beat a strong human chess player. Computers didn’t have the power to process more steps ahead than a human.

... but I digress.

When you think of the game theory regarding an NFL offense vs. an NFL defense, one such heuristic could be the number of defenders on an offensive player. The strategic goal of an NFL offense should be to accumulate the most receivers with the fewest number of defenders on them.

Let’s look at a common defense the Chiefs may see in 2018: Cover 2.

Cover 2 is one of the most basic zone defenses in the NFL. It was run on roughly 12 percent of defensive snaps in 2016 as mentioned in this great article regarding NFL defensive alignments. (Couldn’t find data on 2017: tough luck.)

While it is important to note the most common defensive front ran in 2016 was Cover 1, man free (about 40 percent of the plays in 2016), there is no way in hell NFL defenses will be able to play man consistently vs. this Chiefs offense; they just don’t have the personnel.

So back to Cover 2... below is an image of a standard Cover 2 defensive alignment with the offense lining up in a two-halfback set. Note the red areas are the holes in Cover 2 defenses, and the squares represent typical responsibilities for the defenders.

Just looking at this graph and our simple understanding of game theory, I am sure all of our minds are just running like crazy finding plays to exploit Cover 2 zone with two-halfback sets.

Could you imagine how much fun Reid is having experimenting with new two-halfback plays for Mahomes? I’m about to jump out of my pants and I’m just a writer...

Let’s try and draw up a quick play that has a good heuristic, or sets up the Chiefs offense with one on one matchups or wide open receivers.

This is a play I will call “flats.” There is a myriad of things that can go wrong for a defense here, but let’s first start with what Mahomes will be doing on this play.

I’ve recently been reading a great book, called The Art of Smart Football by Chris B. Brown. I highly recommend it if you want to learn some of the nuances surrounding NFL plays.

The book goes into great detail of what a QB does on every snap. In this particular snap, Mahomes would need to read a few things during his three-step drop:

  1. Does the LCB follow the receiver outside of his zone?
  2. Does the RCB follow the receiver outside of his zone?
  3. How many LBs are rushing?

Given what Mahomes reads, he will have a number of options.

If the LCB follows the receiver, Mahomes can dump the ball off to a virtually wide open running back. At that point in time, the outside linebacker, and perhaps defensive lineman setting the edge, will need to crash down and make a play on a halfback in open space.

If the LCB does not follow the WR, well then Mahomes has Sammy Watkins or Tyreek Hill one on one vs. a safety, and I like the Chiefs’ chances there.

If the RCB follows the receiver and leaves his zone, Mahomes has options.

  • He could hit Kelce with an OLB likely trailing him, a huge mismatch.
  • He could hit the RB in the flat which could lead to a large gain if Kelce is able to block his LB.

If the RCB stays in his zone, once again Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins are left one on one against a safety.

Lastly, if the defense shows blitz, Mahomes has the ability to ask the left HB to stay in and protect, and he can focus mostly on the right side of the field to quickly get the ball out.

Regarding game theory, and heuristics, this is a good play because it creates a lot of one-on-one matchups, in some cases one or two RBs may be wide open in space, and the play would not take much time to develop, so sacks are not a major threat here.

Tons of fun

To be honest with you, when I first started learning about NFL defenses and ways to exploit them, I never really tied it into game theory. But one day it just clicked. The more I think about it, the more useful I think applying game theory to NFL plays can be.

Somewhere I like to imagine a future where I can sit in a dark room and run computer simulations over and over again, creating the perfect set of plays to destroy every NFL defensive alignment.

The biggest issue would be understanding what defensive alignment was about to be used, and how to best predict that. I’d assume the best offensive minds in the NFL are the best at knowing what defenses will do next.

I could draw up these plays all day, and it is incredibly fun, but I think I’ll leave other plays up to your imagination. It was a blast writing this.

If you have any devastating play that you believe would create a good heuristic then please share in the comments!