I was down in the Laboratory, the gears were cranking and the film was running through the projector so I could write up a film review on Travis Kelce.
As you may know, Kelce is my favorite Kansas City Chiefs player — which is why you first knew me as KelceKrazies as an Arrowhead Pride commenter. Realizing that I had not yet written about him officially for AP came as a shock to me, so writing about Kelce when he was coming off a 100-plus yard game with two touchdowns seemed like a slam dunk.
So I fired up the projector and took a look. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough film to write an in-depth film review on the NFL’s greatest tight end.
This isn’t to say he wasn’t great. With his subtle body control — while maintaining his route line and speed to avoid contact — bending around zone defenders into the perfect window, and showcasing his ability at the catch point, he was amazing in Sunday’s game.
But he was clearly a cog in a wheel. And that wheel looks mighty impressive right now.
You know, of course, that I’m talking about the Chiefs offense — and how easily it is steamrolling opposing defenses. The weapons on this offense have been hammered into people’s heads for so long that some may be glossing over what is arguably the most important part: Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.
For nearly a decade, Reid has been searching for an offense in which he can blend his West Coast principles with a spread offensive attack. He had moments with Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles and Alex Smith during the last couple years here in Kansas City. But now, it’s now finally coming together.
The concern — rightfully so — is that they started this hot last year, and then came back down to Earth. So why should this year be any different?
What’s making this offense so special right now isn’t just that they are winning, but rather how many different ways they are winning — and how difficult that makes it to defend against.
The principles the offense is following cover such a wide range that defenses will have a hard time even identifying them — even as more tape rolls in. This isn’t just gimmicky Andy Reid play calling that teams start to expect later in the year, but rather an offense that from play to play, flawlessly rotates between a vertical spacing offense, a West Coast timing offense and zone-beating route combinations.
At this point, the single best way to describe this offense has to be Electric — but in all seriousness. there isn’t a particular brand that can be placed on it. It’s a true hybrid of the Air Raid, West Coast and spread offenses, and at this point, I’m almost expecting to see some Bayloresque WR splits at some point — just to put a cherry on top.
Knowing your opponent
The Steelers came into the game vs KC planning to use the same general gameplan they had used vs them in the past; stop Kelce. First TD has 4 defenders keying on Kelce sitting down in the MOF & no one gets into position to defend Conley. Great job by Reid to attack tendencies. pic.twitter.com/lnYOEV6ad2— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
This idea is a bit more film study than offensive design, but the design is also very well done and demonstrates the level on which Reid is operating.
The Chiefs know the weakness of this particular coverage package for the Steelers: there is going to be some space in the middle of the field. The Chiefs also know the Steelers will always locate and try to stop Kelce, so rather than attacking the weakness of this defense, the Chiefs attack the defensive adjustment to the weakness.
They do this by flashing Kelce into the open area of the defense to draw attention to him — while Chris Conley slides right in the back door.
Sure... this is a coverage breakdown on multiple levels for the Steelers and can go down as such, but Reid was at the checkers table with his chess pieces.
Utilization of motion
Mahomes was fantastic Sunday but Andy can't go under the radar. Motion to set up the play, Hill and Hunt move to same side as Kelce on the Verticals. ILB has to flatten his zone w/2 possible under routes, DS has to respect Hill vertically. Opens a small window between Tampa-2 D. pic.twitter.com/DYz9TDiImn— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
By now, everyone is used to the jet, satellite and circle motions that Andy Reid has been using. Due to their flashy nature, they’ve received a ton of recognition.
But a simple re-alignment such as this one can still have a big effect. Just motioning Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt to the same side as Kelce puts the zone defenders into a bind. The deep safety has to respect Hill on the wheel route, which opens up the deep middle of the field, and the inside linebacker (in a hook zone) has to respect a second underneath route from Hill, because the cornerback has already taken the flat route, opening up a throwing lane up the seam.
Great execution by the Chiefs all around, but the simple redistribution of weapons off of the motion puts it into the defender’s heads that they have to be ready for more — even if it doesn’t come.
Old but steady RB targets
This doesn't mean that Reid staples, like RBs in the flats, aren't still around. It's a small detail but getting Sammy Watkins to run a slant-out right under the S makes this work. The S has to adjust his angle just enough to go around Watkins, giving Hunt room to square him up. pic.twitter.com/2dItErHmeC— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
Over the last few years, it became a joke among Chiefs fans how involved the RBs were in the passing game. So I hate to tell you this, but it’s not going away. But their frequency is going to be reduced, which will make the timing of these plays far more effective.
With the Steelers on the ropes trying to stop Kelce, Watkins, and Conley, here the Chiefs dial up a simple swing pass — on third and goal, no less — to Hunt from the 5-yard line.
There is no chance he walks into the end zone untouched unless Pittsburgh completely blows the coverage. So what has Reid drawn up on the whiteboard?
A Watkins slant-out right under the safety. This works on two levels for the Chiefs. First, Watkins forces the safety to take a slightly slower path to Hunt, which allows Hunt to square up and attack the defender; and second, if the Steelers switched their man (the cornerback takes Hunt, the safety takes Watkins) then the slant pushes the safety deeper into inside leverage — right before Watkins breaks back out away from the leverage. Basic West Coast principles with two-man route combinations designed to beat man or zone coverage.
Coming off the PA, the Chiefs move the pocket getting Mahomes on the move where he's arguably more dangerous than inside the pocket. Using Kelce and Harris has clearout type routes as high probability targets, no one is home to help with Demarcus Robinson across the endline. pic.twitter.com/iZeRDD19Nb— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
Play action has been in the Chiefs game, but given their heavy outside zone running attack it’s not as prevalent as it could bet.
With their current distribution of run plays, in order to really sell the run they have to get the QB out of the pocket and on the move. This reduces the receiving options — and reduces the defenders being read as well — but with the way Mahomes and this offense has been playing it may not be the most ideal concept.
With that said, sprinkling it in from time to time keeps defenses honest by making them second-guess how quickly to attack the run. Add the extra layer of the possibility that the ball could go to the back side WR as he crosses the field, and defender’s heads are being flooded with information in a fast, reactionary sport.
Collinsworth would be so proud.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
Backside S flows with bubble, ball goes to Hunt the other way. pic.twitter.com/vHomfufbzx
NBC’s favorite phrase during football telecasts also happens to be a favorite of the Chiefs.
Against the Steelers, we had a few called runs out of the same base RPO look, but even the choice RPOs were mostly going to Hunt because the Steelers were flowing with the bubble more often than not. Kent Swanson has already talked about the usefulness of the RPOs to the offense, so there isn’t a whole lot more to dive into — other than behind outside zones, it makes up the second-largest portion of our running plays.
These are not a big part of the offensive playbook yet, but we should keep an eye on how and when the Chiefs switch up their blocking principles. With the spread attack, the power blocking between the tackles can be lethal if you can hold apex players from consistently crashing into defensive gaps. As long as the offensive line can physically handle the opposing front seven — and when given the chance to the Chiefs OL looks like it can — there are free chunk plays to be had all game long.
After using motion once to create an open window for Kelce, Chiefs come back to it. Pre-motion Pitt is in position to match everyone in man as the Chiefs motion 3 players the Pitt defense gets confused. End up with 3 guys in man w/ a box zone open in MOF & no one takes the RB out pic.twitter.com/fus3M0PGQQ— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
Every analyst is talking about how often and how effectively the Chiefs are using empty formations. On Sunday, the Chiefs ran 14 plays with an empty formation, completing 11 passes for 175 yards. One of the other plays was a scramble by Mahomes, and two deep passes went incomplete.
There were quick strikes, long passes, and targets for nearly every receiving option on the team. Mixed in with the empty set, the Chiefs also went back to pre-snap motions that caused all kinds of confusion for the Steelers.
The empty formation already places a ton of pressure on the defense to defend the entire field at every level. Matching up in man coverage leaves minimal help for every matchup, and going into a zone leaves a lot of ground and assignments to be exchanged.
The extra wrinkle of the motion changes the strength of the passing formation, and Pittsburgh seemed unsure how to handle it. Here they bring a DB across the field with the slot WR but flip their LB and safety, leaving Kelce in a matchup with an LB as the nearest defender. Instead of trying to force that matchup from poor leverage, the Steelers run a combination of zone and man coverage, but leave the middle of the field wide open.
Going forward, the ability the Chiefs have to stress defenses by going empty will to be a huge part of their offense..
What the defenses do
There have been suggestions that defenses start treating Mahomes similar to Aaron Rodgers, rushing three or four players and dropping everyone else into coverage. The problem — as seen above — isn’t just that Mahomes isn’t able to tear through these open areas in the zone, but also that Reid is a mastermind at dialing up plays to attack the same weaknesses. Unlike in Green Bay with Mike McCarthy, Reid isn’t going to just ask his receivers to win, but will dial up designs to generate open players.
The other option is to pressure Mahomes from all angles, forcing him into quick decisions and hoping to catch him in a mistake. This doesn’t come without its own problems:
I've heard the "rush 3/4 drop the rest" to defend KC thrown around, and it may work, but with the way Reid is dialing plays up and these weapons I'd lean the other way: pressure Mahomes and force his hand. The caveat is you have to make 1on1 tackles behind it against these WR/TEs pic.twitter.com/hCgWfOIAWt— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
With the spread formations being used by the Chiefs, if the blitz is identified and the ball comes out quickly enough, the pressure is on the defense to make the tackle in space or it’s a huge gain. With the weapons the Chiefs have at their disposal, it makes it nearly impossible to succeed at this routinely — but when the options are to sit back and wait to be picked apart or be forced into one-on-one tackle opportunities ...what can a defense do?
What makes the offense so unstoppable? What about this team makes this version of the offense sustainable?
With its fluidity and base principles, the offense can execute at a high level, creating a versatile offense that can’t be stopped with a static defense. This game against Pittsburgh shouldn’t even be considered the full five-course meal of the Chiefs offense, but rather the sampler platter of appetizers. There were enough of the Air Raid, West Coast and spread concepts to give a small view into what is to come — without having to tie the team down to one definition.
This truly is the offense Andy Reid has been after for a decade. It’s all starting to come together now with the Chiefs.