Patrick Mahomes took over as the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs this year, and that change came with certain expectations.
Among the most common is that the Chiefs will be “more fun to watch” to their fans — or fans of football in general. Mahomes is known as a gunslinger — a QB who isn’t afraid to take chances, and will sling The Duke all over the field.
He has all the natural talent to do so, and starting in Week 17 last year — and throughout training camp this year — Chiefs fans have seen him do just that.
Part of this exciting brand of football is the deep ball. That’s something that Chiefs fans hadn’t seen often until last year — and even then, the complexity of the Chiefs deep passing game was rather mediocre.
This year, with a physical talent like Mahomes, the expectation is that the Chiefs will be able to vertically attack teams in all parts of the field. Mahomes’ ability to throw outside the numbers, deep downfield and into tight windows over the middle are well documented, and fuel expectations of vertical success.
So it might come as a bit of a surprise that out of 44 dropbacks on Thursday night against the Houston Texans, the Chiefs ran only eight route concepts that threatened the Texans vertically.
That’s only 18 percent.
Looking forward to the next preaseason game against the Atlanta Falcons on Friday night, this 18 percent is likely to climb a little higher, as Andy Reid has already said the first game was simply about getting live game action under the team’s belt. There won’t be a full offensive install for the Falcons game, but there should be a larger glimpse into concepts the Chiefs will be utilizing this season.
So what defines a vertical route concept? That last word is key.
Concept, in this sense, is referring to two or more routes stressing the same defender. This means that a single-deep route isolated by itself is not a concept, but instead is just a route being run — most often a clear-out or an alert based on coverage (think of Demarcus Robinson’s touchdown against Houston).
Vertical refers not to the depth of the route when the ball arrives, but rather the depth of the stem being run. (The stem is the route before the receiver breaks to their final aiming point).
Vertical route stems are carried to 12-plus yards, and provide the possibility of a vertical route to the back end defenders — and the defenders have to respect it.
Out of those eight vertical route concepts, the Chiefs ran a vertical route (nine, post, corner) on five of them, while the other three just used the threat of a vertical stem to help stress the deep defenders.
The most common concept used was a double dig/follow concept — used three times with different variations — that relied on the vertical stem of the outside receiver to hold the safety deep, instead of crashing downhill on the inside receiver. Like this:
Despite running only eight vertical-route concepts, the Chiefs did flash multiple personnel groupings (11, 12, 13, and 21) and alignments (2x2, 3x1, and 3x1 bunch) for these — putting out a lot of film for opponents to consider.
Let’s look at two other concepts the Chiefs ran versus Houston — specifically when Mahomes was on the field.
The footwork in the pocket has been nailed down by @kent_swanson but just looking at the route combination here you get something similar to Yankee only with our TE sitting down instead of continuing a dig. Frees up Watkins 1on1 on a deep post with what should be + leverage. pic.twitter.com/P66XzJ86rI— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 16, 2018
The traditional Yankee concept has the tight end — in this case — run a dig route under the post to force the safety to choose a route to defend. Against a Cover-1 defense, this concept should often net positive results, because two players are attacking a single safety.
Houston’s deep safety in the middle of the field appears to get sucked up with the run action, and sits on the comeback route — which left the X receiver one on one on the deep post route.
Chiefs run a 7-9 concept (corner and nine) to the far side with Kelce working back across on a dig. Watkins gets caught up on the catch tech of the CB which ends up putting a lot of bodies in the same area. Forces the check down to Hunt on the backside. pic.twitter.com/YZ3aAOFq7I— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 16, 2018
Another vertical concept that the Chiefs ran - which is well-suited to attack a Cover-3 defense — was this 7-9 concept.
Unfortunately, the execution wasn’t ideal. Sammy Watkins tried for an outsize release, and the cornerback stuffed him — forcing Watkins to re-route inside. This meant the cornerback didn’t have to carry Watkins as far upfield and could also defend the corner route being run by Tyreek Hill underneath.
Like both of these plays, most of the route combinations used by the Chiefs last week were intended to beat single-high safety looks (Cover-1 and Cover-3) which is something that should carry over to the Falcons game this week.
The Falcons are predominately a Cover-3 team — and that’s how the Chiefs should plan to attack them vertically, despite the recent addition of some Cover-1 elements to their game. The Falcons may show both against the Chiefs in this game, but with vertical concepts, the emphasis for the Chiefs will still be on stressing the safety in the middle of the field.
So we’ll save the pure-man coverage beaters for a different day, and instead focus on attacking a Cover-3 defense.
The obvious move to attack a zone defense is to attack the open gaps the zones leave. Against Cover-3, that’s in the flats and down either seam.
The problem is at the NFL level, players and coaches know this and are capable of affecting plays outside of their zones when they are given basic reads.
To counter that, offenses use zone beaters — route concepts designed to attack the area a player is defending, rather than the space he is not defending. All three of the concepts highlighted above — the Z-follow, modified Yankee and 7-9 — are great for attacking Cover-3 coverage.
Here are a few more:
This is actually two separate concepts.
Starting with the left side in red is the basic Mills concept. There is a dig run to flash across the deep safety in the hope to draw them downfield — while the post route slips in behind them. Often, other receivers on the play will run shallow crossing routes or curls to occupy the short defenders, in case the deep safety stays over the top of the post route. Holding the underneath defenders in place allows the dig to be thrown in over the top of them.
The second concept (in green on the right side) is a dagger concept. In this concept, the slot receiver is stretching the field vertically — often working an outside release to draw the corner defending the deep third with them — while the outside receiver breaks off a dig route underneath the vertical. Like the Mills concept, there is usually a running back or slot receiver running into the flat to occupy the nearest short defender so they can’t sit under the dig route.
The most recognizable zone beater is a verticals — or all go — concept, which is essentially just four players running go routes into space. Where these verticals are run vary, and often, teams will put a post route on at least one of them.
Out of a 2x2 formation — like the drawing — the most common stress point will be the middle of the field. In recent years, teams facing the Seattle Seahawks would run the verticals concept out of a 3x1 formation, but try to put two of the three verticals into the outside third of the field using a fade and a nine route.
It’s still just preseason, but building momentum and consistency with these deep concepts should start to show itself sooner rather than later. The execution of these vertical plays depends on many different things, but calling them in preseason games will help build that mmentum and consistency.
These vertical concepts are going to be a larger part of the Chiefs offense than in past years.
While relatively few were called in the first week of preseason, it’s something to keep an eye on going into this week’s game against the Falcons.