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Building the offense for Patrick Mahomes: Empty formations

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Part three in our Mahomes offense series.

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

This is part three in our Building the Offense for Patrick Mahomes series. Here is where you can find part one and part two.


There are things that everyone associates with home. For me, among other things, it’s Wiffle ball, my mom’s chicken and noodles and my parents big green leather couch. We all have things that bring us comfort—that for one reason or another we hold odd fondness towards. I’ll always associate chicken and noodles with my mom, I still love taking a nap on my parents’ green couch and my brother and I still hit dingers in the backyard from time to time.

I have immense amounts of respect for transplant fans. Pete’s story about the LA Chiefs was incredibly cool. Seeing that we had listeners of the AP Chiefs Draft Show from all over the world was great to see personally because maybe we were helping some transplant fans connect with something they were distant from.

The Chiefs are some people’s Wiffle ball and green leather couch. They give people a taste of home. Hopefully, over the long weekend, some of you were able to connect again to wherever you call home.

Part of what makes Andy Reid a great offensive coach and quarterback whisperer is that he tries to tap into the comfort of his players. He works to try and incorporate the things that they’re familiar with and what they’ve had success with. It’s smart for a variety of reasons.

There’s a sample size of these players being able to execute these certain plays at a high level. Trying to recreate what got someone selected in the NFL Draft is just way too logical. Reid’s structure and complexity are notorious. It requires immense focus and effort to build comfort around. Rewarding a player by incorporating what he is already comfortable with can be seen as a helpful compromise in some regard.

Reid always talks about players adding their personality to the offense. There’s a structure to work within. The structure is demanding and requires much time and effort. What better way to add a player’s personality to a system than to give him some ownership by incorporating what he likes? That’s part of what the Chiefs have been doing through OTAs. Reid mentioning being OK with interceptions during this period so Mahomes can see what he can get away with.

This quote from Mahomes from OTAs shows the ownership they all have in this process:

“Definitely we have open conversation between me and Coach Reid, Eric Bieniemy and Mike Kafka. We really talk and try to see, they see what I like and I tell them what I like and if we both like something we try to put that in. If there’s something that one of us is disagreeing on then we don’t think we’ll work then we try to get out here and we see about it and if it works we’ll keep it in and if not we’ll throw it away and hold off on it.”

The Chiefs are going to try to tap into Mahomes’ comfort zones. They already showed signs of it in Week 17 with a variety of looks and concepts that we’ve already started unpacking. One of the elements they should tap into is emptying out the backfield.

The downside of empty-formation plays can be the five-man protections required to run them. There is no help coming from skill players in protection. You need to have quick solutions for pressure packages the defense may throw at you. If pass rush can get home, you’re going to struggle to develop plays.

There are a ton of benefits to incorporating empty looks into the play calling. First, it’s a comfort zone for Mahomes. He’s used to being lonely in the backfield at Texas Tech.

Playing out of empty sets can help a young quarterback identify what a defense is trying to do to him. The defense is spread thin across the field, so it’s harder for it to try and disguise things. It’s more defined as less ability for a defense to disguise where pressure could be coming from and what coverage it is in. Some teams have empty checks on defense they lean on, so you could better anticipate some of the coverage looks you expect to get. The other benefit to this is that the Chiefs can do this from a variety of personnel groupings and create personnel mismatches for defenses. They can easily empty the backfield out of 11, 12, 13, 21 and 22 personnel and still have the appropriate talent on the field to have success.

Travis Kelce has a gravitational pull on defenses. The space behind him and in front of him can allow for plays to be made. Kelce runs a whip route (sells crosser, whips back out), and Demetrius Harris is running a dig route behind it. It’s a great concept that works against a variety of coverages. In the boundary is a basic smash concept (hitch and corner).

The spacing on this concept is excellent. You can draw a box from the boundary to the opposite hash between the four pass catchers. All four of the receivers are positioned so that the distance of all the throws is cut down for Smith. That’s not to say Mahomes necessarily needs throws cut down for him.

The hashes are wider in college than the NFL, so this is a throw Mahomes won’t have to make the exact same way, but it shows how much stress his arm can put on a defense. This is a rare throw. It’s well timed—having the right amount of touch and is perfectly placed over the shoulder of the receiver. Mahomes requires you to cover a lot of square yardage. Add good spacing via empty looks and it’s going to be hard for defenses to blitz. But even when they do blitz, Mahomes has shown the ability to handle pressure coming against their five-man protections.

I found this last week and decided to use it this week. This is a basic staple of the Texas Tech offense. The three-receiver set at the bottom of the screen is running snag concept. Mahomes knows he is facing cover zero with six rushers. He knows he has a little more wiggle room for more loft because the chances of a second defender being able to contest the throw aren’t great. He throws the ball up with anticipation to the corner route and places it where only his receiver can make the catch. He still worked within the structure of the play but navigated the pressure. There’s some structure I want to see the Chiefs utilize from Mahomes’ days in Lubbock.

This is a mirrored concept. Both sides of the ball are running the same concept. Both sides have a corner route and whip route. Splitting the middle of the field is a middle/post route. It’s likely a route with options for the receiver, so the receiver can split the middle of the field vertically against split safeties, sit down against middle field closed zone coverage or have the freedom to win against man coverage.

I wouldn’t hate to see Kelce working that responsibility in the middle of the field. I’d want one of Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins running a corner route to the field, and the other one running a whip as an outlet should the defense get stretched too vertically. The truth of the matter is, empty is a means to utilize space for your stars.

Kelce likely has the freedom to break in or out here, which is why Smith pumped. Kelce is messing with this defender. It’s up to him and Smith to connect and deliver on the play. Smith held up on throwing enough to let Kelce win for a nice gain. I would expect the Chiefs use Watkins similarly at times as well. Part of the reason this play works is because of HIll running a go to create space. That doesn’t mean they can’t exploit that matchup from time to time.

This is a simple concept out of empty. The outside receivers on both sides of the field are running outside release vertical routes. They’re effectively clear outs for the other three inside receivers to have space to work the shorter concepts: matching outs to the field side and likely some kind of option route for Kelce at the bottom of the screen. The outside receivers are alerts throws for certain coverages.

They aren’t effective against everything a defense can throw at an offense, but on this play, Casey Hayward is locked on with Hill and isn’t getting much help behind him. The safety can’t get there in time to help, and Hill wins his matchup. Smith exploits it for six. The boundary go route is a much more likely place to hit an alert route. I wouldn’t be stunned if Mahomes took a chance on a field throw like this at some point. He has the arm talent to do it.

There are some concepts I haven’t seen the Chiefs run that would be fun to see mixed in at times as well.

The Chiefs toyed around with diamond formations last year, but mostly ran screens out of them. I’d like to see the Chiefs run a similar concept to this. I’d isolate Kelce on the backside of this play. If he gets a favorable one-on-one, take it. If the defense brings pressure, Kelce can be your hot receiver. I’d make Hill the motion man into the diamond. He has the unique ability with his speed to be able to get at landmarks from unfavorable locations easily. Being the bottom of a diamond formation wouldn’t keep him from getting in position downfield. You can create a void for Hill to work in with the other three receivers. Have one receiver run a vertical in-breaking route, one receiver run a vertical out-breaking route, and another occupying shallow space. Hill could be sent downfield to curl into the void or get behind underneath coverage. It’d be hard to account for Hill amidst all the movement. If the key on him, alert to the routes around him.

If the Chiefs can get the elements they have within the building to function at a high level, they can mitigate the risk of five-man protections, empty pass plays by stressing defenses out of being exotic. The Chiefs have the firepower to put pressure on defenses. They can spread them thin and all but guarantee a special talent can be put in a favorable matchup. If Mahomes can navigate these looks successfully, it’s going to lead to big rewards. I’d try to incorporate empty pass plays six times a game assuming a neutral game script.

Breakdown

  • 33/65 plays - RPOs (23) and called run plays (10)
  • 6/65 plays - Tendency breakers out of the 3x1 looks the Chiefs run RPOs
  • 6/65 plays - Empty formation, five-man protection passes