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Why Travis Kelce is the mismatch that makes the Chiefs’ offense tick

Who is the most important skill-position player on the Chiefs? It’s Killa Trav.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

If you’ve been reading along with the series about Building Patrick Mahomes’ offense or, y’know, have seen the Kansas City Chiefs play in the last few years, you may have noticed a reality about this team that keeps showing up: Travis Kelce’s rare skill set.

It gets thrown around a lot, but I don’t think it is appreciated enough. Much is asked of Kelce, and he continues to rise to the occasion. One of the staples of the offense is to isolate Kelce on the backside of the formation, typically in 3x1 sets.

Part of what makes the run-pass options the Chiefs utilize so successful is the fact that they can put Kelce on his own and expect him to win at any given time. This play above is one of the tendency breakers we discussed a few weeks ago. They can spring Kelce off these looks whenever they choose. Here, Kelce shows savvy route running with a nod to the in-breaking route before he breaks for a 10-yard out. His hips and shoulders get the corner thinking in-breaking route enough to create a little additional leverage for the out route.

The Chiefs are well aware of Kelce’s importance and his gravitational pull on defenses. They do what they can to maximize his skill set and the stress he places on an opposing team.

The value of Kelce is best exemplified in the Wild Card loss to the Tennessee Titans at home (too soon?). What the Chiefs lost when Kelce went down with a concussion late in the first half on a very, very questionable targeting no-call made a significant impact on the game.

The Chiefs were motioning Kelce frequently while he was in the game to help ID coverage and create mismatches, which helped lead to four receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown.

The Chiefs short-motioned Kelce from out wide into the slot a fair amount of the time in this game. The Titans tried to defend him with a variety of positions. Early, it was a linebacker.

The inside stem of Kelce’s route holds linebacker Jayon Brown (who excels at covering tight ends, according to the Titans’ site) forcing him to sit on in-breaking routes. Kelce shows excellent fluidity in his hips for a tight end to cross the linebacker’s face and then accelerates out of his break for an easy completion for Alex Smith.

That matchup wasn’t going to hold up, so the Titans tried safety Jonathan Cyprien on Kelce, and let’s just say targeting wasn’t the only thing he got away with.

Kelce was attempting to run a pump-3 route (out and up) on Cyprien. Kelce leaned on Cyprien before his break out, and Cyprien responds with a not-so-subtle grab of the jersey, impeding his release. Despite Cyprien’s best effort, Kelce still is able to create multiple yards of separation from Cyprien on the double move.

Unfortunately, the timing of the play was disrupted enough by Cyprien’s tug on Kelce’s jersey and the play fell incomplete. Kelce still did a great job.

Kelce has moves like a receiver, but is typically treated as a tight end by defenses. He does enough of what is required to play in-line to warrant that. He’s able to arrive at spots on the field regardless of what’s being asked of him before his release.

Kelce gives a chip to defensive end Derrick Morgan that looks like it was just enough to give Smith time to deliver the throw. The fact that Kelce was able to chip and then complete the route is impressive. He accelerates after the chip and then again out his break well for a man his size.

Because of the diversity in his game, defenses are forced to make Kelce the focal point of what they’re trying to stop. That can sometimes lead to Kelce impacting the play without touching the ball.

After Kelce short-motions into the slot, the defense has a miscommunication and both Cyprien and a linebacker chase Kareem Hunt, who free-releases into the flat. The miscommunication very easily could have come from specific checks the Titans were making to account for Kelce in the slot. It’s entirely possible.

The Chiefs are running mesh concept, and Kelce creates a natural rub for Tyreek Hill, who goes unchecked out the backdoor for a big gain. His impact in the first half was noticeable and his absence was certainly felt in the second half.

The bottom line

It’s third and 2, and the Chiefs are clinging to a five-point lead. Marcus Mariota has thrown a touchdown pass to himself. Reeling is an understatement. The Chiefs need to convert and eat some clock.

Without Kelce, Kansas City turns to Orson Charles to play isolated on the backside of the 3x1 set. It goes predictably poor, as even though the pass is a little behind him, Charles drops a pass put on his frame.

Kelce is one of the more unique tight ends in football, paired with one of the more unique offensive minds in football. Things aren’t the same when he isn’t involved. He creates mismatches for defense, and can allow for other players to have more freedom to operate.

Adding Sammy Watkins into the mix should create opportunities for...someone. Still having to account for Hill and Kelce will be quite the task.

If teams don’t continue to focus on Kelce, he’ll have the best season of his career.

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